FIFA has officially scrapped plans for a 48-team World Cup at the next games in Qatar, due to logistical and political complexities associated with expanding the tournament.
Qatar 2022 will see 32 countries competing for football’s biggest prize, following months of speculation that FIFA was looking to increase the number of nations taking part and which would lead to more countries hosting the World Cup.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino and reportedly the UAE had been behind to push for the expansion of the games, with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi reportedly hoping to share the World Cup with arch-rival Qatar.
A regional diplomatic crisis which led to the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, as well as FIFA’s demands on host nations to adhere to its human and labour rights requirements, meant this option was not viable.
The 48-team format will be used for 2026, when the games will be shared between the US, Canada and Mexico.
A meeting of the FIFA Council in March authorised Infantino to work with Qatar on investigating whether Qatar accommodate an additional 16 matches and present a proposal at meetings in June.
“Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now,” FIFA said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June. It was therefore decided not to further pursue this option.”
A FIFA internal report concluded that the Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could not co-host the World Cup unless they restored economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed two years ago.
The regional diplomatic crisis left neutral Kuwait and Oman as the viable options, although both countries were ruled out due to time or logistical factors.
FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura wrote to human rights activists last month to promise there would be “an assessment of human rights risks and potential opportunities associated with a possible expansion”.
Qatar has an exemption that allows foreigners to drink alcohol, but Kuwait has a complete ban making it problematic as Budweiser is a major FIFA sponsor.
FIFA has already had to adapt to cope with taking its showpiece tournament to the Middle East for the first time.
While Qatar won a vote in 2010 on the basis of staging a June-July World Cup, FIFA shifted the tournament from its usual slot in summer to 21 November to 18 December 2022 due to the heat.