There’s less than four years to go until the Qatar 2022 World Cup, and FIFA—or at least its president, Gianni Infantino—is still pushing for it to be expanded to 48 teams.
A final decision on the format of the tournament has been pushed back to June, the latest possible date before World Cup qualification starts, presumably to give more time to turn the currently very loose ideas for a 48-team tournament into something more concrete.
With the impasse between Qatar and its regional rivals no closer to being resolved—if anything, it worsened after the sandal-throwing, fan-barring events in the United Arab Emirates at the 2019 Asian Cup—FIFA is reportedly considering Oman and Kuwait as possible co-hosts of the 2022 tournament with Qatar.
This may make political sense; with the two countries staying out of the spat between Qatar and its regional rivals, they would be the diplomatic option for co-hosts.
Infantino gets his bigger tournament; KSA keeps face & gains place at football’s top table; Oman & Kuwait need not fear Riyadh retribution; Qatar upholds its initial proposition that it’s a regional tournament; Iran/Israel/Russia/USA kept at arm’s length; everybody is happy….
— Prof Simon Chadwick (@Prof_Chadwick) March 6, 2019
But even if Qatar agrees to Oman and Kuwait co-hosting—and there’s no guarantee that Qatar would—is such a plan feasible? Infantino might be able to pull it off politically and build enough support for it within FIFA, but pulling it off logistically is another matter.
The tournament has already been scheduled to be played in the minimum number of days so as to have as small an impact on the European soccer calendar as possible, so finding the extra days for the tournament would be a challenge. So would getting Oman’s and Kuwait’s infrastructure up to speed.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE already have the stadiums required to co-host and have hosted high-profile soccer events recently; meanwhile, only one stadium in Kuwait, and none in Oman, would meet FIFA’s capacity requirements. Qatar’s stadiums are already mainly at the low end of FIFA’s required 40,000 seats, and without enough time for Kuwait and Oman to expand their current stadiums, expect to see running tracks and plenty of temporary stands like the one used in Yekaterinburg at Russia 2018. So much for air-conditioned stadiums.
There would also be a huge amount of work required behind the scenes to make it easy for everyone to move freely among the three countries so that the tournament wouldn’t turn into a logistical disaster.
None of the three countries share a land border, and Muscat, Oman’s capital, is over 800 miles from Kuwait. Qatar 2022 was based on the concept of a “compact World Cup,” where fans could travel easily between venues rather than have to fly across continents, as at Russia 2018 and United 2026. This entire concept, and the strategies and schedules that go with it, will go out the window should Qatar co-host the tournament.
If the format is similar to the one planned for United 2026, Asia would get eight spots at the 48-team Qatar 2022 World Cup. Whether or not all three hosts got an automatic spot at the World Cup, it wouldn’t be as straightforward as with United 2026, where the U.S. and Mexico will be favorites to qualify anyway.
The rest of the continent would likely be against Oman and Kuwait getting automatic spots at the tournament because that would reduce the number of spots left for the rest of Asia, and if other countries ended up hosting games, too, then this situation could get even worse. Asia’s eight spots would be effectively reduced to five, which is only one more than the continent currently gets, excluding playoffs.
If the 48-team World Cup plan is all about money, then FIFA would no doubt prefer China or another populous Asian nation full of potential sponsors and TV viewers to have a better chance at getting a spot than reserve two of Asia’s spots for the last-minute co-hosts.
Qatar has pulled up its national team’s standard over the last few years. The team won the 2019 Asian Cup and will be strong enough to compete against all but the top-tier nations at the 2022 World Cup. Oman is Asia’s 12th-best team based on the ELO rankings, and if the team improves a bit, it might be good enough to qualify without being given a free spot. Kuwait was once the best team in Asia but would struggle to qualify for Qatar 2022 on its own merits. It is a better side than its FIFA ranking suggests, though; the team is currently ranked 158th, but this is mainly due to a previous ban for government interference.
Following the allocations for United 2026, there would be 16 teams from Europe, but as we saw at Euro 2016, even heavyweights like the Netherlands can sometimes struggle to qualify. North and South America would each get six spots (basically the Hexagonal for North America), Africa would get nine, and there would also be a spot for Oceania.
The remaining two spots would be decided by intercontinental playoffs, with a South American team likely to be the favorite to win one of those playoff spots. As North America’s seventh-best team, Canada could see the playoffs as its route into the World Cup, and with one of the playoff spots possibly going to Oceania, there could be a wild card like Tahiti or New Caledonia in the mix. (New Zealand would likely get the automatic spot.) If all three hosts got an automatic spot, then one of Asia’s stronger teams could well end up in the intercontinental playoffs, too.
An enlarged tournament would be popular with those nations that are in the top 10 or 15 in their confederations but don’t regularly qualify for the World Cup. It might also bring in more TV and sponsorship money for FIFA. But with scheduling issues, a lack of stadiums and infrastructure, and the ongoing geopolitical issues in the region, getting Qatar to agree to Oman and Kuwait co-hosting the World Cup would be just the first step on an incredibly difficult journey that could easily backfire for FIFA.
The original justification for FIFA’s attempts to expand global soccer tournaments was that they could bring in more money. But with recent reports showing that FIFA is making plenty of cash, the organization will find it harder to justify attempts to uproot global soccer like this last-minute move to try to create a 48-team 2022 World Cup in countries ill prepared for it.