Strong support for 48 teams in Qatar but issues remain

DOHA • A "majority" of football federations support increasing the number of teams playing at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 to 48, Fifa president Gianni Infantino said in Doha on Thursday.

Speaking at a press conference after a three-day Fifa summit, which was attended by more than 70 federations, he revealed that the plan enjoyed widespread backing from different associations, but admitted there were doubts about its "feasibility".

"We will see," Infantino said. "So far, of course the majority is in favour because 16 more teams can participate, not only means 16 more countries with World Cup fever, but also 50 or 60 more countries being able to dream."

A decision will be made in March at Fifa's next council meeting, after a feasibility study is completed.

The world football governing body has backed a 48-team tournament to become the norm from 2026, when the World Cup takes place in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

But, with the 2022 host "open" to the idea of a 48-team tournament, Infantino is considering implementing the changes earlier.

He said: "Of course, the first partner with whom we are speaking to is the Qataris, the Qatar federation, the Qatari authorities."

However, any decision to extend the showpiece event would be beset by logistical and political problems.

The first World Cup to be held in the Middle East will take place over 28 days, not the usual 32 and, according to Infantino, the length of the tournament is set in stone.

Since the number of days cannot be changed, one option would be to host games across the region.

Yet that possibility seems remote as Qatar is at the centre of the worst diplomatic crisis to hit the Persian Gulf in years.

Since June last year, the country has been politically and economically isolated by its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

They have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran.

Doha has denied the charges, claiming its former allies are seeking to instigate a regime change and Infantino is well aware the embargo could prove problematic.

"Of course I am not that naive, not to know, not to read the news about what is going on. But we are in football, we are not in politics," he added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2018, with the headline 'Strong support for 48 teams in Qatar but issues remain'. Print Edition | Subscribe