MIAMI — FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced on Friday that it is “feasible” to expand the 2022 World Cup, but that any plans to do so will need to be approved by the FIFA Congress in June.
Infantino also said that the FIFA Council had voted to approve a revamp of the Club World Cup with 24 teams participating in a tournament to be held in June and July of 2021.
FIFA had already approved of a 48-team World Cup in 2026, but that edition of the tournament features Canada, Mexico and the United States engaged in a willing partnership. Infantino’s push to expand the 2022 edition is being forced on hosts Qatar and will require significant changes to its plan.
But Infantino highlighted a FIFA feasibility study that said the expanded format is possible for 2022, so long as Qatar brings on board a regional partner to provide two-to-four more stadiums needed to host the additional games required. The study identified venues in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that could be used but said Qatar would have to approve which nations it would partner with.
“I think as FIFA, we have a duty to look into that,” said Infantino about the possible World Cup expansion. “We have consulted all of our associations, 90 percent are of course in favor of an increase. But it’s not as easy as that. We cannot just take [a] simple decision. We have to analyze these matters very carefully. We are working very closely with Qatar to see what proposals can be made.
“What is clear is that if we were to increase to 48 teams, and we will decide this in June, then some games would have to be hosted by some neighboring countries of Qatar. Then together, with our partners from Qatar, we will present eventually a proposal in this respect.”
The suggestion is complicated by the current geopolitical situation in the region, where Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are currently engaged in an economic embargo of Qatar.
“We know the situation in the Gulf region, but we are in the lucky position of being in football, and in football you can care only about football,” said Infantino. “I was very pleased by the reaction of Qatar. It’s the first time this idea was shared with them because they were open to it… If it happens, fantastic. If it doesn’t, fantastic as well. At least we don’t have regrets that we didn’t analyze this question.
“So, we will move to the next stage of this. We will explore the possibility of who could potentially be hosting some of the games in the Gulf region and if we come to some conclusions in June, we will make a proposal to the council and of course the congress.”
The Qatar Secretary General Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), H.E. Hassan Al Thawadi, sounded more cautious.
“We’re looking at the feasibility of actually applying this,” said Al Thawadi. “We’re studying all the different possibilities, what actually is practical and not practical. We’re looking at the benefits of the tournament, the benefits for Qatar, the benefits for FIFA, the benefits on the game itself.”
But Al-Thawadi conceded that the current embargo by some of Qatar’s neighbors is “a big, big, obstacle” in terms of co-hosting the tournament.
And perhaps even more telling was when he was asked what the benefits were of Qatar sharing the tournament, Al Thawadi said, “Once I look at the feasibility study, I’ll give you that feedback.”
Meanwhile, a person with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press that Qatar World Cup organizers are planning to privately resist FIFA’s attempts to expand the event, citing political and logistical concerns.
Infantino was more effusive about the revamped Club World Cup, however, saying that the current seven-team competition that is held every year in December will be replaced by a 24-team event, with a “pilot edition” being held in June of 2021. It will replace the Confederations Cup on the FIFA calendar.
“From now on the world will see a real Club World Cup where the best clubs in the world will compete to crown the world champion,” said Infantino. “This is important today because club football is evolving, is moving at a different pace in different parts of the world and it’s our duty, our responsibility to make sure that we encourage professional club football all over the world. What better than having a real club football, and not a competition like the one we have now. We want to have an exciting competition, we want to have a prestigious competition, we want to have an inclusive competition and we will have this in the new Club World Cup starting in 2021.”
The announcement comes in the face of considerable opposition from European clubs. Earlier on Friday, a letter from European Club Association head Andrea Agnelli — the chairman of Serie A side Juventus — was published in German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, stating that it will boycott the competition. The letter was signed by 15 members of the ECA board, including officials from Barcelona, Manchester United and Ajax.
The signatories said they are “firmly against any approval of a revised Club World Cup at this point in time and confirm that no ECA clubs would take part to such a competition.”
The ECA added that any talk of a new competition must be made in conjunction with approval of a new framework for the FIFA international match calendar after 2024.
And after hearing Infantino’s announcement on Friday, the ECA issued a statement saying its clubs would not participate in 2021.
“ECA clubs will not participate in 2021 CWC and will asses participation in editions of the competition post-,” the statement read.
In a statement to the Associated Press, UEFA said it “shares the ECA’s view that the international match calendar in 2021 does not provide any realistic option to stage a 24-team Club World Cup and that it should furthermore not be played at a time when players should have a well-deserved rest period.”
UEFA added that it “supports the views of its stakeholders and has the duty to protect the health of players.”
UEFA confirmed “the European members of the FIFA Council therefore unanimously voted against the FIFA proposal.
But Infantino isn’t deterred.
“We hope that all the greatest teams will participate,” he said at the news conference. “We have held some positive, constructive discussions and will continue with this vein… We’ll continue our discussions, but it’s our responsibility today to take a decision and we have to deal with organization matters.”
Infantino also provided an update on organization of the upcoming Women’s World Cup, saying that the preparations were going well. He added that VAR will be used in the tournament, “the same as we did for the men’s World Cup.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.