The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will feature 32 teams rather than 48, FIFA announced Wednesday, scrapping an expansion plan that would have forced the international soccer tournament to play matches in a neighboring Persian Gulf country.
The FIFA Council in March authorized the organization’s president, Gianni Infantino, to attempt to find a partner or partners for Qatar capable of hosting 16 extra matches. But the small Arab nation is locked in a diplomatic crisis in which seven other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have severed ties.
Infantino visited Kuwait in April to lobby officials there to join the tournament, the Associated Press reported, but the nation’s two suitable stadiums require significant upgrades, concerning human rights activists about working conditions in the rush to prepare the facilities.
Kuwait also outlaws alcohol, which would have presented a major conflict for FIFA, which counts Budweiser as a major advertiser. FIFA was going to consider the expansion proposal at a meeting in early June, but on Wednesday, it announced that the plans had been scuttled.
“Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now,” FIFA said in a statement.
The statement also said that while FIFA had explored the possibility of Qatar hosting a 48-team event by itself, “due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June. It was therefore decided not to further pursue this option.”
The World Cup still is slated to expand to 48 teams in 2026 when Canada, Mexico and the United States will host matches. Critics have said more teams will dilute the competition, painting expansion as a money grab by FIFA’s leaders.
The Qatari tournament already is fraught with widespread allegations of bribery and fraud, according to published reports and court testimony, that helped it land soccer’s crown jewel event.
The matches have been moved from the summer to late fall to avoid the searing heat, but those changes threaten to interfere with club team schedules.
Qatar, which has a land area smaller than Connecticut with a population close to that of Kansas, is building eight stadiums to host matches, but activists have documented human rights abuses as migrant workers constructed the edifices.
FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura wrote to human rights activists in April and promised “an assessment of human rights risks and potential opportunities associated with a possible expansion,” according to the Associated Press.