FIFA President Gianni Infantino held talks in Kuwait on Sunday about the country staging 2022 World Cup matches as he pushes to enlarge the Qatar tournament from 32 to 48 teams. After meeting with the emir of Kuwait and soccer officials, Infantino flew to Doha to see Qatari leaders on Monday about the prospect of overcoming the logistical and political complexities of adding 16 more teams to the hosting, which requires at least one additional Gulf country being used.
FIFA maintains it is working jointly with Qatar on the viability of a 48-team tournament, but the concept is mired in complexities stemming from the boycott of Doha by neighbors. A FIFA internal report concluded last month that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia cannot join the hosting unless they restore economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed two years ago.
FIFA instead turned to Kuwait and Oman, who have remained neutral in the diplomatic dispute, as potential hosts. But Oman’s foreign minister last week said his country does not have time to prepare to host World Cup games, leaving Kuwait as the only current viable option to cope with the Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 tournament swelling to 80 games.
Infantino met with Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim and the management of the Kuwait Football Association, FIFA said in a statement. The discussions were "about football in the country in general, but also about the FIFA World Cup 2022," the world governing body said.
FIFA’s feasibility study into expanding the World Cup determined that two stadiums in at least one additional country were required to cope with the demands of extra games. Kuwait City’s Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium has 60,000 seats but Sabah Al-Salem Stadium only 26,000 and requires upgrades.
Ahead of Infantino arriving in Doha, Qatari officials held their first World Cup board meeting of the year on Sunday chaired by the ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
"The latest Qatar 2022 developments were reviewed, including infrastructure projects, stadiums and security plans for the tournament," said Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. But those plans are in flux amid Infantino’s determination to enlarge the tournament with less than four years to go until kickoff.
Qatar is still working on a 32-team tournament as it completes eight stadiums over just a 30-mile radius in the tiny nation with just 2.7 million people, most of them foreign workers.
Infantino said last week that he now believes there is only a 50% chance that the 2022 World Cup will see a fast-tracking of the jump to 48 teams that is already agreed to happen in 2026 when the United States, Canada and Mexico are joint hosts.
After coming under pressure from human rights groups since winning FIFA’s hosting rights vote in 2010, Qatar was forced to improve worker rights and improve labor conditions. FIFA has told potential new co-hosts they have to provide human rights guarantees, which have yet to be specified publicly.
Qatar has an exemption that allows foreigners to drink alcohol, but Kuwait has a complete ban which could be problematic for FIFA, which has Budweiser as a major sponsor.
FIFA has already had to adapt to cope with taking its showpiece tournament to the Middle East for the first time. While Qatar won a vote in 2010 on the basis of staging a June-July World Cup, FIFA shifted the tournament from its usual slot because of the fierce summer heat.