LONDON: A proposal to increase the number of teams at the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 may sound appealing to FIFA and broaden the appeal of the competition, but it would create a major headache for hosts Qatar, commentators say.
The tiny country announced last week that eight stadiums will be ready by 2019. If South America gets its way, however, and the 48-team World Cup scheduled to be introduced at the 2026 World Cup is brought forward four years, there will be four more arenas needed — and quickly.
Steve Kim, former head of competitions at the Asian Football Confederation, believes that the proposal from CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) that was put forward last week is not possible for Qatar to handle alone.
“It is very difficult for Qatar to host a 48-team World Cup,” Kim told Arab News. “There are all kinds of logistical issues to address.”
Kim helped organize the 2011 Asian Cup which was held in Qatar. “Then there were 16 teams but there were issues with the traffic on match days and how Qatar could accommodate the media,” he said. “It was OK in the end but that was a very different situation. I think ideally, Qatar can handle 16 to 24 teams and while 32 is possible with all the time they have to prepare, 48 sounds very difficult indeed. There would need to be detailed assessments.”
Another issue is timing. With temperatures in the Middle East soaring in the summer months, the 2022 World Cup is due to take place in winter. European leagues may not look kindly at their domestic tournaments being delayed even longer. While Europe may have doubts, the possibility of nations such as China making it would have its attractions.
“Just to have Chinese teams in the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League made a huge difference in terms of television ratings and social media interaction," Kim said. “I can’t imagine what it would mean for the World Cup, it would be huge.”
Perhaps that is one reason why FIFA is interested. The world governing body has been struggling financially, in relative terms, in recent years. They reported a loss of $369 million last year. A 48-team World Cup would be welcome in terms of attracting more revenue from broadcasters and sponsors, especially if nations such as China are able to qualify.
“It seems to me a very interesting idea,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said after meeting with CONMEBOL leaders last week. “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 and if it is possible, why not?”
While a major theme of Qatar’s successful bid to host the World Cup was that it would be a tournament for the whole of the Middle East, James Corbett, a long-time journalist and FIFA observer from the UK, is skeptical. “The prospect of Qatar hosting a 48-nation World Cup four years from now is as improbable as it sharing the tournament with its neighbors,” said Corbett.
According to Corbett, Infantino is delusional if he thinks an expanded tournament will help defuse tensions in the region. “Most likely this is an economic move by an organization unable to meet the electoral financial pledges made by Infantino in 2016.”
A spokesperson for Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy told Arab News that Qatar would wait and see but would need to talk to FIFA and other bodies.
“We are aware that CONMEBOL delivered a proposal to FIFA suggesting an increase in the number of teams at the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” the spokesperson said. “Before any decision is taken it is important that discussions are held on the operations and logistics of an increase in size of the tournament in Qatar. Regardless of the outcome, we are confident in our ability to deliver a successful World Cup in 2022.”