FIFA’s council is due to meet this week in Miami. It could be a seismic one as under discussion will be proposals to increase the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams from the current 32.
Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport Enterprise at the University of Salford Business School, says money would be the main driving force behind such a move, and at stake are diplomatic relation across the whole Gulf region.
Prof Chadwick said: “Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy ever since Sepp Blatter revealed its name as hosts in 2010. Since then, there have been corruption allegations and concerns about the treatment of migrant labourers. However, as the great and the good of football sit down in Miami, the most dramatic episode of all may be just about to unfold.
“Almost two years of high stakes manoeuvring should culminate in a decision that will not only determine what format the 2022 World Cup will take, but may influence the nature of country relations across the Gulf for years to come.
“The plan to increase to 48 teams has its origins in FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s electoral manifesto, which combined social democracy with hard-nosed business. On the one hand, the Swiss official campaigned on a platform of promoting equality across world football, a promise which has somehow had to be paid for.
“In Infantino’s eyes, more games means more broadcasting, sponsorship and ticket revenues. This solution seemingly cracked the president’s conundrum: a perfect way to reconcile money and equality.
“The problem is Qatar doesn’t have the capacity to stage an enlarged tournament. As things already stand, some fans in 2022 will have to sleep either in tents or else on hired cruise ships. Infantino’s solution might seem obvious: share the tournament between countries. The issue is that Qatar has only one land border - with Saudi Arabia, a country with which it has been engaged in a bitter feud since mid-2017.
“This hasn’t simply been a war of words, government in Riyadh has cut all ties to Doha, and has been joined by its loyal allies including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Both of these countries are Qatar’s next closest neighbours and would, historically, have been ideal candidates to share hosting of a mega-sporting event such as the World Cup. That one now can’t even fly from Doha to Dubai (a mere one-hour flight) seemingly doomed Infantino’s cunning plans to failure.
“Nevertheless, for some time there have been rumours that the FIFA president has been intent on cutting a deal so that he gets his bigger tournament, and the Gulf region is somehow reconciled in the process.
“Reports last week suggest that such speculation has been wide of the mark, as it appears that Oman and Kuwait may be about to become 2022 co-hosts. Both countries have remained neutral during the Gulf feud, though aligning with Qatar would be likely to antagonise Saudi Arabia. This, then, is perhaps where the geopolitics of Gianni become crucial.”