FIFA, football’s governing body, is considering expanding the Qatar 2022 World Cup from 32 teams to 48, with the possibility of Doha sharing the tournament with other countries in the Gulf region.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino said on Wednesday that the expansion, which is slated for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, could come early at the next event.
“We have decided as well to increase the number of teams participating in the World Cup final tournaments, from 32 to 48. This will happen in 2026. Will it happen already in 2022? We are looking into it. If it is possible, why not?”, said Infantino, speaking at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Qatar beat bid rivals Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US in 2010 to claim the hosting rights, becoming the first Arab country to do so.
One of its stated aims was to create a legacy for the Middle East, but last year, its Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed political and economic ties with Qatar, imposing a land, sea and air embargo on the peninsula.
“We have to see if it is possible, if it is feasible,” said Infantino about the potential expansion in four year’s time.
“We are discussing with our Qatari friends, we are discussing with our many other friends in the region and we hope that this can happen,” he added.
“And, if not, we will have tried. We will have tried because we always have to try to do things in a better way.”
Infantino’s favoured plan of adding 16 extra teams – with 16 three-team groups – to football’s mega event was unanimously approved by the FIFA Council last year.
The 2026 tournament in North America is set to be the first World Cup hosted by three nations.
Preparations are under way in Qatar, which is breaking with tradition with a winter kick-off, as it looks to avoid the scorching summer heat.
Seven new state-of-the-art stadiums with advanced open-air cooling technology are being built for the 2022 event.
The eighth one, Khalifa International Stadium, was inaugurated in May last year, after undergoing renovations and upgrades.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has said that Qatar 2022 is “very important for the whole region” and hopes that the football tournament will help the Arab nations “overcome difficulties”.
Earlier this year, South American countries had formally asked FIFA to make Qatar 2022 a 48-team event.
But Nasser al-Khater, assistant secretary-general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), which is overseeing the 2022 World Cup, said Qatar is still planning and working towards a 32-team tournament.
“Technically speaking, everything is possible,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s just that we need to understand the format, how it’s going to change, how many days would be increased for the 48-team World Cup and we take it from there.”
“We are going to keep an open-door policy as we have been,” al-Khater added. “We welcome everybody to come to Qatar and we still remain a Middle Eastern World Cup.”
Analysts have warned that the expansion of Qatar’s tournament would present a fresh batch of problems to a host nation that has already been the subject of much condemnation over migrant workers’ rights and its winter schedule.
“How would Qatar – already working around the clock to cater for the needs of 32 nations, 64 games and the hundreds of thousands of fans eager to support their teams – allow for another 16 teams, not forgetting, of course the extra games and extra fans it would have to host in the allotted schedule?,” wrote Ross Griffin, assistant professor of Postcolonial Literature at Qatar University.
Al Jazeera’s sports correspondent Lee Wellings, reporting from London, said Infantino’s latest remarks are driven more by FIFA’s internal politics than anything else.
“He [Infantino] is standing in Kuala Lumpur and talking to people who want to hear that there’s a chance for more teams in a tournament which is happening in their continent, so he knows he’s preaching to the converted,” he said.
“What he also believes, somewhere at the back of his mind, is that he can actually make a political difference, rather like Sepp Blatter [ex-FIFA president] before him,” Wellings said.
“But when it comes to trying to sort out situations in the Middle East … to actually make this happen is way beyond Infantino and FIFA.”