plan to expand to 48 countries exposes football’s regional fault lines

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plan to expand to 48 countries exposes football's regional fault lines



Football’s top brass are heading to Miami as FIFA’s Council gets together for one of its regular meetings. Generally, these gatherings are tepid affairs as football’s world governing body works through the minutiae of governing a game that has an official membership of more than 200 countries.

But this meeting will be different, as 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 region for years to come. Item 8 on the meeting’s agenda reads: “Feasibility study on the increase of the number of teams from 32 to 48 in the 2022 World Cup.”

Item 8 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 that somehow has had to be paid for. It hasn’t helped that FIFA’s books have at times been threadbare, the fallout from years of dealing with corruption.

During his term in office, the FIFA president has therefore set about drumming up business through all manner of money-making schemes. This has included signing a series of big money sponsorship deals, most notably with a group of big Chinese companies. He also hit upon the idea that bigger tournaments make more money. As a result, FIFA has already agreed with the United States, Canada and Mexico that the 2026 World Cup, which they will co-host, will be staged with 48 rather than 32 participating teams.

In Infantino’s eyes, more games means more chances to generate more broadcasting, sponsorship and ticket revenues. This solution seemingly cracks the president’s conundrum: a perfect way to reconcile money and equality – allowing more countries to compete with more games in more venues.

It’s worth remembering at this point that Infantino is in the middle of a presidential re-election campaign, albeit one in which he is the only candidate.

Offside trap

The problem is, the next World Cup is being held in a country that is less than 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, with a population of little more than 2.5m people. In simple terms, 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.

Model of the Al-Lusail stadium, 20km north of Doha, Qatar, December 2018.
EPA-EFE/STR

Infantino’s solution might seem obvious: share the tournament between countries in the Gulf. After all, the Qataris have always claimed that it is not their World Cup but the region’s. But it’s at this point that matters start to become more complicated. Qatar only has 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. The government in Riyadh has cut all ties to Doha, action in which it has been joined by 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 the hosting of a mega-sporting event such as the World Cup – though there would still have been issues (not least the reception facing visiting female fans). That one now can’t even fly from Doha to Dubai (a mere one hour flight) has seemingly doomed Infantino’s cunning plan 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. Ample evidence that this has been his intention can be seen in his movements across the world over the last year or so.

Shuttle diplomacy

Infantino has cropped up in places as diverse as the White House and the Kremlin; he’s been photographed shaking the hands of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and he’s addressed audiences at both the World Economic Forum and the G20. Some suspect that he’s been trying to broker a peace deal using football as a lever which, in so doing, would give him his 48-team tournament.

Reports have nevertheless recently emerged that speculation about his “diplomacy” may have been wide of the mark, as it appears that Oman and Kuwait are about to become 2022 co-hosts. Both countries remained neutral during the Gulf feud, though aligning with Qatar would be likely to antagonise Saudi Arabia. This, then, is perhaps where the geopolitics become crucial.

Stories have been around for the best part of a year that government in Riyadh is behind proposals for a new FIFA Club World Cup, a deal rumoured to be worth US$25 billion. Many observers have been left mystified by Saudi’s involvement in this competition, though in the light of potential Omani and Kuwaiti involvement in the World Cup it does suggest that it could be part of a much bigger deal between FIFA and government in Riyadh.

Read more:
Football may be caught in the crossfire between Qatar and the Saudis

Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy ever since Sepp Blatter, who was FIFA president at the time, revealed its name as host at a bidding ceremony in 2010. There have been concerns about the treatment of migrant labourers, and allegations of corrupt activity – the latest, a story in the Sunday Times alleging “secret payments” of more than US$800m from Qatar to FIFA in the run up to the decision to award Qatar the tournament. 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.

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