The Associated Press recently broke a story about FIFA completing a study into the feasibility of expanding the 2022 World Cup, hosted in the late fall/early winter in Qatar, to 48 teams (up from the current 32). FIFA has already agreed to expand the 2026 World Cup, co-hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, to a 48 team format, but they now want that format change to come four years earlier.
According to the AP, the 81-page study outlines a plan to expand the World Cup by incorporating at least one of Qatar’s neighbors as a host. Apparently, FIFA looked into stadiums in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The intention was to use stadiums in one or more of these countries in order to host the extra games through the quarterfinals. To make this happen, apparently “two to four additional venues are required in the region ‘with one or more’ nation.” If this plan were to be implemented, FIFA claims that it will come with “no major concessions to the sporting quality of the tournament.” FIFA has decided that the risk of legal challenges from the original competing bid nations was sufficiently low to consider this option (In 2013, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter ruled out the potential for Qatar cohosting the World Cup, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
This plan, of course, is absurd.
I’ve talked in years past about why FIFA wants to expand the World Cup. Doing so in 2022 would simply accomplish those aims a tournament sooner. And, correspondingly, it is estimated to bring in an additional $400 million in revenue (though that’s a big departure from the $1 billion that was apparently being talked about two years ago.) There’s the added benefit of fixing the Qatari’s big problem with getting enough stadiums of sufficient size up and running. And the nation apparently is so short on hotel rooms, it’s hoping fans will be cool with camping out in the desert. That’s what happens when you give a country the size of Connecticut the biggest sporting tournament in the world.
The problem is that this makes for a logistical and ethical nightmare. Also, the format is garbage, but we can talk about that elsewhere.
As the AP states, the stadiums they need for this expanded tournament don’t really exist. “While eight potential additional stadiums are identified in the region in the FIFA study, only two in the UAE, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Kuwait meet the 2026 requirements.” With only a couple of years before the tournament, these stadiums need to be altered in order to match the requirements for the tournament. And after the tournament, those stadiums are going to have to figure out what to do with that extra space that they only needed for that one tournament. Beyond the stadiums, you also need the corresponding infrastructure for such a big event. That means a sufficient number of training grounds, hotels, and transportation infrastructure. And it also means expanded safety, both conventional and nonconventional. (Like avoiding have tourists killed in traffic. I can say from experience, crossing the street in Dubai is all-too-often a terrifying ordeal.)
On top of all that, there’s the fact that Qatar’s neighbors hate them right now (which I also wrote about some time ago.) Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain (if you are counting, 3 of the 4 nations in the study) have broken diplomatic ties with Qatar and are blockading the country. It’s so bad, those three nations have forced Qatar Airways to reroute most of its plane routes. FIFA apparently acknowledge this, stating:
“The involvement of additional neighboring host countries would require certain conditions to be met, in particular the consent of the relevant authorities in the main host country, Qatar ... Therefore, FIFA cannot conclusively stipulate which host countries would be part of a co-hosting arrangement with FIFA and Qatar at this moment.”
So, basically, FIFA wants to fix major diplomatic and regional issues for their tournament. And all before qualifying. That said, while Kuwait has apparently said they won’t host, the UAE seems open to the idea. At least, so long as their dispute is solved. (That’s TOTALLY not passive aggressive). Oh, I should add that World Cup qualifying starts later this year. Not a lot of time to figure that one out, huh.
Then there’s the ethical mess in all this.
The Qatari World Cup has been tinged with outrage over the abuse of migrant laborers since the very beginning. The Washington Post found that at least over a thousand construction workers had died in all construction sites in Qatar since 2012 (so not only including the stadiums). That was in 2015. Since then, more people have died, with one worker at a stadium site falling 130 feet to his death last year. And the problems go beyond safety issues. Workers have exceedingly few civil protection. They are often forced to give up their passports to the companies they work for, effectively forfeiting their ability to leave. And this comes with companies that frequently shirk on actually paying those workers. Adding more stadiums in more countries would merely expand that problem. There are similar issues pervasive all over the Gulf. You see it in the UAE. You see it in Saudi Arabia. And you see it in Kuwait and in Bahrain. FIFA can say all it wants about hosting an ethical tournament. But the truth is that the 2022 World Cup is already blood stained; adding more countries will only make it worse.
Then there’s the issues for civil rights for players and fans. Saudi Arabia’s exceedingly draconian social policies are infamous worldwide, only lifting the (world’s only) ban on women driving last year. Similarly, women in Saudi Arabia have strict rules on a plethora of aspects in life, from what they can wear to where they sit in sports stadiums. While the other Gulf nations do not enforce such draconian policies on women, they are hostile towards those who identify as LGBTQ. Human Rights Watch has already raised concerns ahead of the current hosts of the 2022 World Cup. Adding a host or two from the region will only exacerbate such issues. Finally, we have the problem of journalism in the Middle East. All of these countries are rated terribly for press freedom by organizations like Reporters without Borders. And it’s not just Saudi Arabia, who brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The UAE had a massive scandal where they accused a British PhD student of spying and tortured him. All of this spells potential danger for visiting fans and reporters. It’s bad enough trying to address these issues in one country, never mind two or three.
And then there’s Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been among the most prominent participants in the extraordinarily brutal conflict that is the Yemeni Civil War. Reporting of the war shows that Saudi-led coalition forces have targeted civilians, bombing school buses, hospitals, and farms. The Emiratis, meanwhile, have seized the opportunity by building a string of mercenaries and criminal rings in order to keep control of the waters south of the Arabian peninsula. The whole conflict is waged with astonishing disregard for human life, with utter disregard for the future of Yemen and her people. Handing a World Cup to one or both of these nations would serve to legitimize and whitewash the humanitarian crimes of these countries. It would be akin to handing the World Cup to an Argentina that frequently disappeared (i.e. secretly murdered) tens of thousands of its people.
Finally, FIFA has faith that none of the original bid nations will file a lawsuit against the organization for changing the rules behind the 2022 World Cup. The World Cup has already been heavily altered from the bid plan that Qatar presented and that FIFA voted to follow. The tournament has been moved to November to December to avoid the scorching heat of the Arabian summer (it turns out, while they may be able to air-condition a stadium, they can’t air-condition a whole country). And the number of stadiums has been cut to 8 from the original 12. Qatar’s bid (originally as a single host, to be held in the summer) went up against bids from the United States, Australia, and a joint bid from South Korea and Japan. If any of these nations wanted to, they could take FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sports for changing the rules of the bid process. That would effectively delay, and thus kill, any prospect of an expanded World Cup. Apparently, FIFA doesn’t expect that to happen. Which is astonishing considering that the original decision to give the World Cup to Qatar instead of the United States helped spark the FBI investigation that targeted so many of FIFA’s biggest names (if you need a refresher on how that went down, here’s a timeline). There’s an awful lot of faith there that nobody is going to fight this when this whole World Cup has been a corrupt debacle from the start.