Qatar said on Monday it would not take a decision on whether to expand its 2022 World Cup to 48 teams from 32 until it has seen the details of a feasibility study from FIFA, accodring to an official from the country’s World Cup organizing committee.
Qatar’s new stance is seen as a fresh shift on its previous firm position that refuses any amendment that could include it World Cup’s structure.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino said last week that a majority of national football federations were in favour of expanding the tournament and a decision is expected by March ahead of the draw for qualifying matches.
“FIFA is undergoing a feasibility study and is now in the consultation process and we don’t have any details to know what the feasibility study has,” said Nasser Al Khater, Assistant Secretary General for Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.
The head of world football’s governing body has been pressing in recent weeks for the 2022 finals to expand from the 32 teams in Russia this year to 48, even though it was previously planned that the expansion of the World Cup would happen when Canada, Mexico and the United States jointly host the 2026 finals.
Qatar have not yet responded to the idea but previously have sounded cautious about the country’s capacity to go beyond a 32-team tournament.
Organizers are building only eight stadiums for the one-month tournament, which has been controversially pushed back to late in the year because of the fierce summer heat. It kicks off on Nov. 21, 2022 with the final on Dec. 18.
Any expansion would mean Qatar possibly sharing some matches with their neighbors but the country is the subject of an economic boycott imposed by four of them.
In mid-2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut transport and trade links with Doha because of Qatari ties with terrorism and Iran.
It has meant Qatar has had to dig into its deep pockets to find alternative trading partners and, in vain, keep its World Cup preparations on track.
“Personally, as president of FIFA, I would be very happy if some matches could be shared with some countries in the region,” said Infantino, adding that “Football unites, builds bridges; that could be a concrete result.”
Qatar is the smallest country to host the finals, with the distance between the two furthest venues a mere 72 kilometers.
Also, a year’s worth of rain that showered the desert state lately have again raised questions over the ability of Qatar’s infrastructure to host the tournament.
Unstable weather during the past few weeks have made roads impassable, drained homes, flooded tunnels, universities, schools, clinics, embassies, as well as shops being forced to close for days, affecting thousands of residents.
Qatar has already come under scrutiny over allegations of corruption and human rights abuses but that may be nothing compared with pressures it faces in the run-up to 2022.
“I think FIFA’s proposal represents the biggest threat to the tournament simply because it would wrong-foot Qatar into sharing the tournament with other countries,” said Simon Chadwick, a sports and geopolitics expert at Britain’s Salford University.
Should FIFA move to expand the number of teams in the 2022 cup, Qatar would have to tackle a heavily expanded workload on a tight timeline.
A 50 per cent increase in teams would strain Qatar’s ability to host the tournament.
While Doha initially bid for 12 stadiums, it is only building eight. Questions have also been raised over how the country will accommodate the up to 1.5 million fans expected to attend the event – and that’s before 16 teams are added.