By Simon Evans
MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) – Soccer’s world governing body FIFA and Qatar’s World Cup organisers concede there are challenges and obstacles to expanding the 2022 tournament from 32 to 48 teams but neither is willing to take the idea off the agenda just yet.
Friday’s meeting of FIFA’s ruling council decided to “explore this possibility further and analyse if a joint expansion proposal that meets all the necessary requirements can be submitted to the FIFA Council and the FIFA Congress in June.”
Or as FIFA president Gianni Infantino put it: “If it happens — fantastic. If it doesn’t happen — fantastic also”.
The obstacles are numerous – adding another 16 teams would require additional matches and venues and according to FIFA’s feasibility study would not be possible in Qatar alone.
The problem is that some of the natural partners for joint-such hosting in the Gulf are ruled out due to a deep political and economic rift in the region.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and non-Gulf state Egypt cut political, trade, and transport ties with Qatar in June, 2017. The countries accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, which it denies.
FIFA’s study said the blockade would need to be lifted before there was any chance of those countries hosting games.
That leaves Oman and Kuwait as potential partners although neither have stadiums ready to host a FIFA tournament.
“Definitely (the blockade) is a big, big challenge, there is no doubt it is a big obstacle, but we will have to wait and see what comes out,” Hassan Al Thawadi, the secretary-general of the Qatar 2022 organising committee told a small group of reporters.
Al Thawadi was unable to name a benefit to Qatar of hosting an expanded tournament and said his country had to consent to any changes.
“It is a joint decision between FIFA and Qatar and obviously we are looking at it in terms of what makes sense, what is workable,” he said.
The World Cup will, in any case, grow to 48 teams for the 2026 edition which will be held jointly in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Should any proposal be agreed upon by FIFA and the Qatari organisers the vote on the final decision will be taken by the FIFA Congress in Paris on June 5.
But as FIFA noted in their own statement: “In the meantime, preparation for a 32-team tournament continues normally in Qatar.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)