The Associated Press
FIFA continues the push to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams, considering Kuwait and Oman becoming co-hosts with Qatar, which remains in the middle of a complicated diplomatic standoff with several Arab neighbors.
Qatar’s infrastructure is already stretched for the Middle East’s first World Cup, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino wants to add 16 more countries to the planned 32-team tournament. That’s too many games for the eight stadiums spread over just a 30-mile radius in Qatar, a tiny nation with just 2.7 million people, most of them foreign workers.
Infantino has been lobbying for an expanded 2022 tournament for months, even suggesting some games in Saudi Arabia, which is leading the bitter isolation campaign with several Arab neighbors against Qatar. Kuwait has been trying to mediate the crisis.
FIFA is now looking at Kuwait and Oman, a person with knowledge of the situation told the AP on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.
Infantino visited Kuwait last month and Oman on Sunday.
Kuwait and Oman have have remained neutral in the diplomatic battle, which began in June 2017. Other Gulf countries launched a boycott of Qatar over accusations it supports extremist groups, which Doha denies.
The principle of expanding the World Cup has already been agreed by FIFA members, with 48 teams planned for the 2026 World Cup being jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Infantino first announced in April that he wanted to fast-track the expansion to 2022 , even though Qatar couldn’t cope with 16 more games.
Saudi Arabia has been leading the economic and travel boycott of Qatar with the United Arab Emirates, so holding games in those countries would be problematic. Infantino discussed that during a meeting with Saudi sports leaders at a meeting in Zurich last Thursday, the person with knowledge of the situation said. The top sports government official in the UAE on Wednesday acknowledged the fraught political climate currently impedes his country becoming part of Qatar’s tournament plans.
“As far as the co-hosting, currently with the crisis on, I think Kuwait can play a very important role,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, chairman of the UAE General Authority for Sports, told the AP. “They have one big international stadium, and they are building two extra stadiums. That could solve the problem and it would easier for the Qataris if the crisis is resolved because you (could) have Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The World Cup is already operating in a curtailed 28-day period from Nov. 21-Dec. 18, 2022 after it was shifted from the usual June-July slot to avoid Qatar’s fierce summer heat. Qatar is building just eight stadiums for a 64-game tournament. Twelve would be necessary for 48 teams playing 80 games.
Stressing that “Qataris are my brothers,” Al Romaithi embraces Qatar’s right to remain the main host for the Middle East’s first World Cup. His view contrasts with the more hostile tone from the rest of the UAE’s governmen.
“The World Cup is a Qatari World Cup, not any other country,” said Al Romaithi, who is running to be elected president of the Asian Football Confederation in April. “This is their hard work. They won the bid in 2010 and they worked hard to build the stadiums and they are almost ready to host 32 teams.
“But if a decision is taken by FIFA to increase to 48 then I hope that we all support which means the tension or problems in the Gulf is resolved.”
Kuwait has the 65,000-capacity Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium to host World Cup games, but there is a complete ban on alcohol in the nation. Qatar has exemption that allows foreigners to drink alcohol, but it has yet to confirm how available it will be in stadiums. Budweiser is a major FIFA sponsor.
Oman’s biggest stadium has 34,000-capacity stadium, which is short of FIFA’s minimum requirement of 40,000 seats.
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar in a 2010 vote forced FIFA to deal with concerns about labor conditions for migrant workers, many building the stadiums. The bidding process for the 2026 World Cup was the first where FIFA assessed the human rights records of countries. Infantino told the AP last year that he would have to weigh up the human rights records of any countries added to the 2022 World Cup hosting.
FIFA Vice President Victor Montagliani wants the governing body’s ruling council to decide whether to expand to 48 teams at a meeting in Florida next week.
“I support it,” Montagliani, who leads the CONCACAF confederation, told the AP. “I start in a positive way — unless there is something that makes me change my mind — i.e. Qatar doesn’t want it — or the analysis is negative then I would have to rethink my positive stance.
“I would think we have to have some sort of resolution in Miami because World Cup qualifying starts in some parts of the world this year.”
FIFA’s committee for organizing competitions confirmed on Monday that Asia will kick off qualifying in June, even though the number of slots of the finals is yet to be decided.
“The same reason we expanded to 48 teams for 2026,” Montagliani said, “it inspires hope, giving more countries inspiration.”