Next stop Qatar 2022, as Infantino keeps doors open to expansion to 48 teams

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By Samindra Kunti in Moscow

July 13 – FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday repeated his position that the Qatar 2022 World Cup will be played in a 32-team format, but has left open the door for an expanded 48-team tournament in four years time. The North American 2026 World Cup is the first World Cup to have the confirmed participation of 48 teams. 

“The World Cup in 2022, whether it is 32 or 48 [teams], it is something that will be discussed and decided in the next months,” said Infantino at a news conference in the Russian capital. “First, we will discuss with the Qataris and then if there is a possibility we will discuss in the [FIFA] Council and with the stakeholders and we will decide calmly and quietly what the best decision is, so there is still time and no decision has been taken in this respect yet. For the moment we have a World Cup with 32 teams. That’s what we have.”

But the FIFA president sent a mixed message, imploring that he hasn’t been in Russia “to talk about politics”. At the same time, he implied that expanding the Qatar World Cup to 48 teams could help resolve regional tensions. Infantino was seen in conversation with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the opening game of the World Cup as hosts Russia entertained Saudi Arabia to run out comfortable 5-0 winners. In Russia, Infantino also spoke to the Qatari delegation, who have had a marked presence Moscow’s city centre.

In recent months, speculation has mounted whether Qatar may host a 48-team World Cup after all, putting further pressure on the Gulf State, who have been geopolitically isolated by neighbour Saudi Arabia. Conmebol, South America’s governing body, were keen on having more of their member associations at the World Cup and, in what looked like a somewhat FIFA-stage managed proposal, prodded FIFA’s members to expand to 48-teams as early as 2022.

It’s an idea that Infantino has seemingly entertained over the last few months and in Moscow he has kept the door open to discussion.

“Well, it is too early to start speculating about that,” said Infantino. “We have of course already spoken to Qatari delegation and we will continue to have that dialogue. Everybody is open-minded about this. We are engaging in a frank and open debate. There is no prejudice there, there is no precondition for that. We have contracts with Qatar which are the basis of our conversation. We would be very happy with a World Cup with 32 teams as previously established, but if all are involved, beginning with the Qataris – and they could insist on having agreed on a 32-team format –  that would be great in itself, but if everybody comes on board and everybody agrees that it might positive to change this format then we can have a look at it.”

In a clear allusion to the ongoing political feud between the Saudi-headed block and Qatar, Infantino stressed that the discussion over the number of participants in 2022 could offer an avenue for dialogue and rapprochement on the Arab peninsula.  “I am pretty sure that all options on the table,” continued Infantino. “Maybe some people – maybe who can bring those who are having difficulties communicating with each other to start dialoging with each other. In football it is, as in normal life, but maybe football can open up a door for communicating between neighbours. The door is slightly ajar and we will see how it moves on from there.”

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