By Andrew Warshaw
April 13 – Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, the Gulf state has consistently played down the possibility that matches might be shared with its neighbours.
But suddenly, an idea that has been bubbling under the surface has been given fresh impetus after the latest curveball manoeuvre by FIFA president Gianni Infantino that could put him on another collision course with Europe.
At Infantino’s behest, FIFA voted in January to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 for 2026, but the South American confederation CONMEBOL have now asked for that to be brought forward to 2022 and Infantino is seemingly receptive to the idea.
The BBC says unofficial talks have already taken place with Qatar officials and Infantino says FIFA will conduct their own study to determine if the plan – which would involve Qatar hosting a further 16 matches – is feasible.
“It seems to me a very interesting idea,” Infantino said after attending Conmebol’s congress in Buenos Aires this week. “We have to study it seriously and if it is possible, why not?
“I firmly believe in an enlargement because I am convinced that it is good for the development of football. That is why we have proposed it and that is why we have agreed to it since 2026.”
Qatar are currently planning to build eight stadiums – four fewer than bidders for the 48-team 2026 edition have been told they will require.
Not only that. Qatar is staging the World Cup in winter for the first time and there would doubtless be widespread concern about clubs releasing even more players for an expanded tournament at that time of the year.
Then there is the fact that taking the World Cup to Qatar’s neighbours would be politically difficult given ongoing diplomatic tensions as a result of the Saudi-led blockade.
Yet is unlikely Qatar could cope on its own with 16 more teams and a total of 80 games. “If it’s possible, if it is feasible, if the others agree too, because it is not a decision that only the president of FIFA or CONMEBOL make … of course we are going to study it,” said Infantino who undoubtedly has one eye on being re-elected for a second term next year, while critics have accused FIFA of being motivated purely by money.
Some reports suggest Kuwait, which retains relations with Qatar, could be a co-host now that its suspension from FIFA has been lifted.
CONMEBOL President Alejandro Dominguez, who apparently spearheaded the plan, is reported to have asked Infantino directly to consider moving the goalposts, handing in a petition signed by Conmebol’s 10 member associations.
“As we think big and because we want to do justice, I want to deliver an application letter, signed by the 10 nations of CONMEBOL, for the 2022 World Cup to be played with 48 teams,” Dominguez said during the CONMEBOL congress.
Under the 48-team proposal, six South American sides would qualify for the finals, while a seventh could secure a place via the planned six-nation play-off tournament.
Meanwhile, Qatar will play in the 2019 Copa America in Brazil after accepting an invitation to take part. “It’s a great opportunity for us to participate in such a tournament,” a spokesman told AFP.
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