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Blockades, banned Budweiser and a stroppy Uefa… why does Fifa want to expand the 2022 World Cup?

Former Daily Mail foreign editor Anthony Harwood assesses Fifa's motivations to push through a 48-team tournament in Qatar.

by Anthony Harwood
Blockades, banned Budweiser and a stroppy Uefa… why does Fifa want to expand the 2022 World Cup?

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the 37 members of the Fifa Council sit down in Miami this week.

Already faced with the challenge of how to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, amid a simmering divide between the hosts Qatar and its neighbours, world soccer’s governing body has now been hit by allegations it accepted US$400 million from the tiny Gulf state before awarding it the 2022 tournament.

Fifa’s response was the same it always is when these stories come up: namely, this was investigated by the Garcia Report which cleared Qatar of any corruption allegations.

But there’s also the problem that if Fifa starts looking into Qatar’s payments ahead of 2022 it also has to examine the bonus components that the TV networks, Fox and Telemundo, added to the 2026 World Cup in the event of the US winning that bid.

As it turned out, the joint US-Canada-Mexico bid did prevail and Fifa will now earn US$300 million extra from the North American broadcasters as a result. That’s on top of the US$650 million it is already getting from them for the TV rights.

Under a similar arrangement, Qatar’s state-owned TV company BeIN Sports agreed an extra US$100 million payment to Fifa in the event that Qatar was picked to host the 2022 tournament.

But there is nothing illegal about payments like this, which in Qatar’s case was originally revealed last year by the Australian whistleblower Bonita Mersiades in her book, Whatever It Takes – the Inside Story of the Fifa Way.

Fifa  has now been hit by allegations it accepted US$400 million from the tiny Gulf state before awarding it the 2022 tournament

Fifa’s latest financial report makes no bones of the fact that the vast majority (around 95 per cent) of the organisation’s revenues comes from the sale of television, marketing, hospitality and licensing rights related to the World Cup.

It can do this because very few other events capture the attention of the world in the way the World Cup does every four years.

According to a report by Statista, revenue from TV rights have leapt from SU$1.4 billion in 2006 to US$3 billion.

So whereas the TV rights issue is a drama that Fifa cannot afford to tackle, the biggest risk to the future of the World Cup is item eight of the Fifa meeting’s agenda – the feasibility study on the increase of the number of teams from 32 to 48 in the 2022 World Cup.

It’s never been fully understood why Gianni Infantino feels so passionately about bringing more teams into the World Cup

It’s never been fully understood why Gianni Infantino feels so passionately about bringing more teams into the World Cup, aside from the fact that more games means more chances to generate an extra billion pounds through more sponsorship, ticket sales and broadcasting deals.

The main issue is that it could force Qatar to share the tournament with its neighbours that have blocked air and sea routes and left thousands stranded.

Doha is understandably lukewarm about the whole idea. After all, why would it want to share a prize it’s already won, least of all with neighbouring countries with whom it is locked in a long-running dispute?

Discussions in Miami are likely to be heated, given Uefa’s opposition to the plan. The bosses of European soccer were angered by the 2015 decision to hold the tournament in winter to avoid the searing summer heat in the Gulf because of the disruption it will cause to the fixture lists of their leagues.

But organisers were able to limit the damage by packing the 32-team tournament into just 28 days, making it the shortest World Cup since 1978.

European Leagues president, Lars-Christer Olsson, made clear his opposition to the idea of a longer, 48-team tournament in April 2018 when the idea was first raised.

“We have already been flexible to allow the World Cup to be played in winter and have agreed the dates, and we are not prepared for the duration of the World Cup to be even longer,” he said.

Another question is who Qatar should share the World Cup with, given how riven with politics and feuding the Gulf region is at present.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have pretty much ruled themselves out by subjecting Doha to a diplomatic and transport boycott for almost two years. 

Last week the UAE suggested they could ease the blockade if they got a share of the World Cup. Given that the Emiratis have done their damnedest to discredit Qatar, this is pretty rich.

Yet, Infantino has never quite ruled out the idea of Qatar sharing the tournament with its enemies.

“Maybe football is a way to build bridges,” he said, comparing – somewhat naively – the situation to Mexico, the US and Canada overcoming diplomatic problems to co-host the 2026 World Cup.

Soccer can indeed be a powerful influence over politics, but divisions are only likely to get worse if either UAE or Saudi Arabia manage to swipe the World Cup. This is finally beginning to dawn on Infantino too.

Oman and Kuwait, by contrast, have managed to stay neutral in the dispute and it was for this reason that they emerged last week as the choices to share the tournament, should Fifa go down this route at the end of its feasibility study and Qatar agree.

However, to do so would immediately run into problems of infrastructure: between them they only have one stadium which meets Fifa requirements, when they require four.

There’s also the issue of an alcohol ban in Kuwait which is sure to rankle fans, and would not sit well with one of the tournament’s sponsors, Budweiser.

During recent visits to Doha both Jose Mourinho and Phil Neville have singled out a 32-team tournament in Qatar for praise because of its ‘compact’ nature.

With all eight stadiums being within a 31 mile radius of Doha, not only would teams be able to stay in one place for the duration of the tournament but fans could see two or even three matches in one day.

The compact nature of the Qatar has emerged as key selling point in its tournament hosting credentials but an expanded tournament would negate that

Yes, to give the tournament to Oman and Kuwait would mean it was the first ‘World Cup for the Middle East’ to which many aspire, but the spirit of the event  would be lost if stadiums 500-1000 miles apart had to be used.

Fifa’s reason for expanding the tournament – already the blueprint for 2026 and beyond – is simple: more countries taking part means more fans getting inspired. Fair enough. However, there is real danger that by allowing teams who wouldn’t normally qualify to compete will lead to more boring walkovers, and groups that are easy for the big teams to progress through.

In format comprising 16 groups of three – with two going through – there is a greater likelihood of 0-0 draws if that’s what both teams know will be enough to get them to the knockout stages.

Fans want drama, and action – not the sports equivalent of a soothing bedtime drink. The reason why Russia 2018 gripped the world were the shock upsets when teams like Argentina and Germany went out at group stage.

Infantino might be reminded about the last time the World Cup was expanded in 1998. It went from 24 to 32 teams for the tournament in France, and Iran beat Maldives in the qualifiers by 17-0, the largest margin in World Cup history.

Would going to 48-teams lead to more countries like the Maldives qualifying?

Please leave the boring walkovers to the qualifying rounds – and at least for now keep the World Cup tournament itself as competitive and exciting as Russia was, where two previous tournament winners were unable to make it through to the knock-out stages.

Make the first World Cup in the Middle East the last one with 32 teams – and spare us 17-0 walkovers and 0-0 draws until 2026.