A decision on whether to expand the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 to 48 teams has been postponed until June 5, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has confirmed.
That is when all 211 member associations of world football’s governing body will gather in Paris for FIFA’s annual congress.
Infantino has been lobbying for the expansion for over a year but he needs Qatar to agree to it, as the Gulf state has been preparing for a 32-team, 64-game tournament and the 16 extra teams and games would mean it would have to share the event with at least one co-host.
The FIFA boss had hoped to gain approval for his plan at a meeting of the ruling council in Miami on Friday but, with Qatar still reluctant to share, he has opted to buy himself more time.
What he was able to do at the meeting was share the 81-page feasibility report that FIFA’s technical experts have prepared – a study that unsurprisingly confirms that a 48-team tournament could take place in the scheduled 28-day winter slot but only if Qatar accepts at least one co-host and as many as six games a day are played in the group stage.
“If it’s possible to expand, great. If not, that’s also great,” said Infantino.
“We know 90 per cent of our member associations are in favour but I know it’s as easy as that and that is why we are working very closely with our partners in Qatar.”
The reference to the decision not being easy is something of an understatement, as Qatar is currently embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with fellow Gulf states Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Those three, along with Egypt, claim the small but wealthy state is destabilising the region by sponsoring terrorists, a claim Qatar denies.
The row, however, makes it very unlikely that Qatar would agree to sharing its great project with its closest neighbours, which means the only possible candidates are Kuwait and Oman.
Asked if he thought the dispute meant it was impossible to expand the tournament in 2022, Infantino said: “What is clear is that if move to 48 teams then some games will have to be hosted by neighbouring countries and we will present a proposal in June.
“We all know the situation in the region but we are in a lucky position in football that we only have to care about football.
“I was very pleased with the reaction of the Qataris when this was first proposed and that was that they were open to the idea and would happily look at it – a constructive attitude.
“So we’ll move to the next stage and look at who could host these games and then Congress can take the final decision.”