Never a 'chance in hell' of 48-team 2022 World Cup: analysts

Gregory WALTON
AFP

Doha (AFP) - There was never a "chance in hell" the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be expanded to 48 teams because of regional rivalries, according to analysts.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies could now face pressure from their own fans to ease restrictions on travel to Qatar in force since 2017.

"We've had weeks and months of discussions about hot air. There never was a chance in hell that the 2022 World Cup was going to be expanded," said James Dorsey, a researcher at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".

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"We were also two-thirds down the road to the World Cup, that's a very late stage to change things."

Tobias Borck, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said that the main stumbling block for the push to expand the tournament from 32 teams, which FIFA shelved on Wednesday, was the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar.

Since 2017 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies have led an economic boycott of Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting Iran and Islamist movements.

They have cut direct air and land links and shipping routes, closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft and restricted their citizens from visiting the country.

"Qatar was too small for it and the only countries that would have been contenders were the other Gulf states and that was impossible," said Borck.

"It was simply a recognition by FIFA that perhaps FIFA should focus on football instead of trying to win the Nobel Peace Prize."

- 'Face-saving solution'? -

A FIFA feasibility study said the only way to expand the tournament would be to include other Gulf countries like Oman or Kuwait.

However the pair, neutral in the ongoing regional spat, showed no interest in co-hosting the expanded tournament -- something long championed by Gianni Infantino who will likely be re-elected FIFA chief next month.

"There's not much world powers agree on... but there's one thing they agree on, they want this crisis to end in the Gulf as soon as possible," said Dorsey.

"Yet they have been unable to achieve it, and there's no reason why Mr Infantino would be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat when nobody else was able to."

Dorsey suggested that Qatar effectively handled FIFA's drive to expand the tournament by neither openly embracing or rejecting it.

"Qatar was very poor at public relations in the early stages of controversy about the World Cup -- they've become very sophisticated about it today," he said.

"One of the things they've learned is you don't say 'no'. You say 'maybe, let's talk'. So they did that with the proposal for 48 teams, they never rejected it out of hand publicly. But in my mind they were questioning whether they wanted to do this."

Despite the stalemate between Qatar and the boycotting nations, Dorsey suggested the 2022 tournament could see citizens of embargoing nations demand to be allowed to attend.

"What happens in November-December 2022 if Qatar hosts the World Cup and the economic and diplomatic boycott is still in place? Qatar's detractors have a problem," said Dorsey.

"This is a soccer-crazy part of the world. This is the biggest tournament in the world being held not only in the Arab world, but for the first time in their backyard."

Borck said that "if the Saudis or the Egyptians or the Emiratis qualify, they will take part just like Qatar did at the Asian Cup in the UAE".

"But I suspect there will be slightly less of the extra bits that went on in the Asian Cup," he added, referring to the host's efforts to exclude Qatar supporters from their side's fixtures.

"One would assume -- and one doesn't know when that would be -- that there will be some point when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the others are going to realise they need a face-saving solution," added Dorsey. "Something they have rejected out of hand, until now... maybe the World Cup creates that opportunity."

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