FIFA finally abandoned its hopes to fast-track its expansion of the World Cup on Wednesday, announcing that it had run out of time in its bid to find a way to accommodate 48 teams in Qatar and the wider region in 2022.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino was trying to find a way to involve one other Gulf country — a tall order given Qatar's currently severed ties with several of its neighbors — to make it possible to break with the recent World Cup tradition of a 32-team tournament, split into eight groups of four at the first round stage.
"Following a through and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now," FIFA said in a short statement. "Due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June. It was therefore decided not to pursue this option."
Gulf blockade wipes out possible link-ups
Even FIFA's internal reports had been dismissive of the prospect of expanding the competition, given the political climate.
One paper mentioned that three of the obvious candidates to help Qatar with the additional fixtures — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — were automatically excluded from the running unless they restored the economic and travel rights severed in 2017.
Only neutral Kuwait and Oman were considered viable options. Oman made it clear it didn't want the tournament. FIFA's Infantino visited Kuwait on a charm offensive in April, even though the country's two main football stadiums would have required hasty improvements to meet World Cup standards.
Given the existing controversies surrounding the construction of stadiums in Qatar, with most of the work done by migrant laborers, similar work in Kuwait at short notice was fraught with potential problems for FIFA.
Already an unusual competition
Whether 32 teams or 48, Qatar is already an atypical venue — the host nation has never qualified for a prior World Cup, although it has climbed to 55th in the world rankings and is improving on pitch.
Given the searing heat in the summer, the competition will take place in November and December of 2022 — slap bang in the middle of the European club season, prompting criticism from several teams.
And, although organizers have stressed that the Islamic country will find a way to accommodate football fans' thirst, there are liable to be unusually strict restrictions on alcohol consumption.
FIFA has already agreed that the 2026 World Cup will expand the competition's format to accommodate 48 countries in the competition. Canada, Mexico and the US will host that tournament.
msh/se (AFP, AP, Reuters)