Monday, January 18, 2021

The story behind Gianni Infantino and the 48-team Qatar World Cup

Delving into the reasons behind the FIFA President’s stance on the introduction of a 48-team tournament, ahead of schedule, during the Qatar World Cup, 2022.

“We came to conclusion, yes it’s feasible to move from 32 to 48 teams at the Qatar World Cup provided certain conditions are met,” said Infantino during his press conference. Some pundits were unimpressed with the idea of an expansion as it would “dilute” the standards of the tournament. However, others were surprised by the pushing for the preponement of the idea. The idea was initially set to roll out for the 2026 World Cup.

Why are people surprised?

Hosting a World Cup is no mean feat. Especially in a case where most of the infrastructure has to be built from scratch. Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. It became the first-ever Middle Eastern country to host the quadrennial. The Gulf nation had to build 8 new stadiums to host the 64 matches in a 32-team tournament. The Khalifa International Stadium became the first tournament-ready venue in 2017. However, a 16 team jump will require the addition of further 4 stadiums.

World Cup
The designs of some of the new stadiums which are set to host the matches during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Photo: The Peninsula

One option suggested was that the neighbouring countries co-host the tournament. With cash-rich acquaintances, it might not be a bad idea in theory. But Qatar is essentially in the middle of what can be called as the ‘Second Arab Cold War’. Kuwait and Oman are the only countires who have remained neutral in this dispute. But nether of them have more than one stadium which meet the requirement of hosting a World Cup game.

The Saudi-Qatari standoff explained

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar on 5 June 2017. Later, Egypt, Yemen and Maldives followed suit. The prime reason quote is Qatar’s open admission of supporting Islamic extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Another important issue is Qatar’s relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field. This is a sticky point for the Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabic region and their differrences with the Shia-Muslim region of Iran.

The above-mentioned nations have banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar [except for Egypt] while asking the Qataris to leave the respecting countries. In addition, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft. They have also asked foreign airlines to seek permission for using their respeccitbe airspaces for flying to and from Qatar. And finally, Saudi Arabia has closed off all land borders with the nation in question.

World Cup
Photo: Daily Times

Companies working on new stadiums and infrastructure projects for the 2022 football World Cup faced the full force of it. They have had to secure new sources for building materials. Shipping costs have gone up tenfold. Qatar has since begun shipping cargo through Oman to get around the restrictions on access to ports in the UAE.

Where/How does Infantino fit in this?

Connections with the United Arab Emirates

Gianni Infantino played a central role in negotiations that led to a settlement when Manchester City were accused of breaking UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) rule. Manchester City, who are owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, were let off with a slap on the writs despite a clear breach of FFP regulations. The “Football Leaks” documents reveal conversations between the then UEFA General Secretary and Manchester City’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak. Infantino allegedly describes drafting a possible settlement.“You will see that I’ve sometimes chosen a wording which ‘looks’ more ‘strong,’. Then he signing off with the message “Let’s be positive!”.

Infantino and Saudi

Infantino’s allegiance, in the case of Saudi Arabia, clearr enough for everyone to see. He was keen to sell all of FIFA’s rights to British investment group SB Investment Advisers Limited and Centricus Partners LP. A joint investigation between German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcaster WDR revealed that both entities maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia. A €22.5 billion deal was supposedly meant to deliver two new tournament formats to the new investors. But would also hand over complete rights to the Football World Cup, satellite and network transmissions, archives, movies and videos, video games and merchandising.

World Cup
The iconic image during the opening game of the 2018 World Cup in Russia where FIFA President Gianni Infantino is seated alongside Mohammed Bin-Salman (Saudi’s crown Prince) and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
Photo: Irish Times

Infantino had also hinted at other Middle-Eastern nations hosting the 2022 World Cup. And despite the global outrage at Saudi Arabia following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Infantino said discussions about sharing World Cup matches could help Saudi Arabia “evolve” and have “a nice impact.

“Obviously, the relationship with (Qatar’s) neighbouring countries is a factor which is complicating the situation. Despite complications or difficulties diplomatic relations, when it comes to football people talk to each other,” Infantino said.

How does a 48-team tournament work in favour of UAE and Saudi Arabia?

Qatar has ably withstood the financial burden of hosting the World Cup. Now, leaked reports have suggested that it has become the point of discussion within the political powers of both UAE and Saudi Arabia. And the discussions led to the decision to either get Qatar stripped off their right to host the tournament or by getting them to share it. By being able to co-host, the nations will also be able to lift the blockade which has not seemed to have had the desired effect on Qatar, without ending up red-faced.

48 Team Qatar world cup

Infantino coming out and pushing for a 48-team World Cup is how these nations are looking end Qatar’s monopoly in hosting the tournament. The proposal has been routed through the South American Condeferation [CONMEBOL], who placed it on the agenda a year or so ago. South America has already been allotted 4 direct slots and 1 inter-confederation play-off slot. So, this proposal seems weirdly suspicious given the allotted slots are more than adequat. [The CONMEBOL has only 10 member nations.]

World Cup
Gianni Infantino’s press conference after the Miami conference.
Photo: Irish Times

Author’s Take (Qatar World Cup)

This shows how football has always been important to the people in power. The amount of resources, time and political capital which have found its way into the games, courtesy 2018 [Russia] and 2022 [Qatar], is absolutely astronomical. There has been a lot of discussion relating to people boycotting the viewing of the 2022 World Cup. However, the lure of the game could be too strong for any political or financial conflicts to curtail it. Assuming the that allegations are true, the controversy will not end anytime soon. It is a real shame that Middle Eastern nations with little regard to human rights have used football as a tool to launder their reputation, tainting the beautiful game in the process. The irony will not be lost when a Saudi Arabia or an UAE backed FIFA donates money to the UNICEF to preserve human rights.

Read also:- Former FIFA referee Mark Clattenburg gives his verdict on THAT Kompany challenge

Read also:- 5 Players who deserved higher rating in FIFA 19

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