Analysis: FIFA’s Qatar 2022 expansion plan: No stadiums, no profit – but still Infantino ploughs on

25 March 2019

Infantino Qatar
Photo: Getty Images Gianni Infantino, left, attend the award ceremony after the AFC Asian Cup final match between Japan and Qatar at Zayed Sports City Stadium on February 01, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The FIFA president has a few issues to sort out before June.

FIFA study reveals a number of challenges for the proposed Qatar World Cup Expansion.

FIFA Protocols Ignored with multiple games played on the same day in the same metropolis.

Kuwait and Oman favoured co-hosts but have just one stadium between them – and no funds assigned to build new stadia as time runs out.

James Corbett corbett@offthepitch.com

He barely has two months to fix it, but FIFA president Gianni Infantino keeps fighting to fulfil his dream of a 48 team World Cup in Qatar in 2022. But time is running out and a FIFA feasibility study has exposed a variety of problems related to the proposed expansion.

Spreading football’s riches to the parts that other World Cups haven’t reached may ultimately be the entire point of Gianni Infantino’s plan to create a 48 team World Cup in Qatar. A review of FIFA’s feasibility study into the proposed expansion of the tournament finds few other compelling reasons why anyone would entertain such an idea. 

In the study, FIFA conclude that a 48 team tournament in 2022 would ‘greatly increase… the representation and inclusion of all stakeholders of football and the public at large, helping to promote the game globally in line with FIFA’s statutory objectives.’ It would also see ‘no major concessions to the sporting quality of the tournament.’

FIFA argue that increasing Qatar 2022 to 48 countries is in line with historic representation levels at the World Cup – which have historically been at the 22 per cent mark. FIFA has more member associations, thus there should be more teams at its finals.

Noble rhetoric

Then there would be the distribution within the game of some of the gross $400 million FIFA say the expansion would bring – such as the $98.1 million extra that they say clubs would get.

This is all fine and noble rhetoric, but neither the financial and logistical details appear to justify the expansion.

FIFA acknowledges that it has already secured 69 per cent of its commercial revenue for 2022, which includes 67 per cent of its marketing targets, 86 per cent of TV deals and 23 per cent of licensing. Any incremental TV deals can only be applied to the remaining 14 per cent of TV markets.

It has now resurrected the plan at a time when relations between Qatar and its neighbours are at an all time low

The most lucrative of these are Italy, Hong Kong, Russia and Singapore. But unsecured deals also include places like Laos, Bhutan and Mongolia, which are of marginal economic benefit.

Bhutan, a tiny undeveloped kingdom between Tibet and India, for example, only started nationwide TV broadcasts in 2006. FIFA is nevertheless still confident of securing an additional $245 million from TV on top of what they had expected, but this appears highly fanciful.

Significant additional costs

FIFA acknowledge that there are significant additional costs for expanding the World Cup and estimate that $374 million of the $400 million gross additional revenue it anticipates will be swallowed up by the price of expansion. But even these budgets seem low: just $400,000 has been allocated towards training facilities and nothing at all to new stadia.

FIFA says it needs 2 or 4 new stadiums if it will expand the World Cup, but these do not exist – and nor does the budget to build them.

If Qatar –the smallest host in World Cup history – is to be expanded to be the largest tournament in World Cup history, it will need to co-host with one of its neighbours. The prospect of co-hosting with its Gulf neighbours was raised by Qatar in 2009, but FIFA – which had found the 2002 edition, which was shared between Korea and Japan, a difficult experience – rejected the idea then.

It has now resurrected the plan at a time when relations between Qatar and its neighbours are at an all time low: since 2017 it has been subject of a diplomatic and economic blockade from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE.

Challenging

FIFA admits it would be ‘challenging’ for blockade countries to join Qatar as co-hosts, which limits it to Oman and Kuwait, both of which have retained relations with Doha.

However, FIFA’s own stadia requirements demand a 40,000 stadium for the group stage until quarter finals, 60,000 for semis and 80,000 for the opening match and final. There are also numerous, onerous and very specific demands relating to media, hospitality and other facilities.

In the past FIFA has refused to allow even two games to be played in the same city – even in vast metropolises like Sao Paolo or Moscow – so how, or why so many games in 24 hours in a relative backwater like Doha is even under consideration remains baffling

Kuwait City has the 60,000 capacity Jaber Al-Ahmad Stadium, which would be suitable if it removed its running track – itself a significant and costly logistical challenge – but its other stadium – the 26,000 capacity Sabah Al-Salem Stadium is patently not suitable.

Likewise Oman’s 34,000 Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex – the country’s largest stadium – wouldn’t make the grade. It seems unlikely that new stadiums could be built in the 41 months between a decision and the start of the World Cup and FIFA hasn’t set aside a penny to either potential co-hosts to make this happen.

Logistical questions remain pertinent

The study asks if a 48 team World Cup feasible, but not whether it is desirable. There would be reduced rest periods between games, which have drawn condemnation from FIFPro but more basic logistical questions remain pertinent.

Qatar is a small country and most matches will be staged within 40km of Doha, a city of less than a million. Yet there are days when 6 games would need to be staged. In the past FIFA has refused to allow even two games to be played in the same city – even in vast metropolises like Sao Paolo or Moscow – so how, or why so many games in 24 hours in a relative backwater like Doha is even under consideration remains baffling. 

A more logical explanation for this extraordinary proposal is that it will delight Gianni Infantino’s core constituency of voters in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean as much as it infuriates his enemies in Europe. He has already secured another four year term as the boss of world football, but Qatar 2022 takes place six months before another FIFA presidential election and his voters are hungry for the spoils and glory of the World Cup.

Upsetting members

A look at where FIFA proposes granting new qualification slots is telling. Asia, Africa and North America currently have 41 per cent of World Cup qualifying slots between them, but 64 per cent of FIFA member associations – or votes in a presidential election. FIFA proposes giving these nations 50 per cent of available qualification lots.

Europe, by contrast, currently has 41 per cent of available slots. Its tally will fall to 34 per cent under the new plans. To be re-elected as FIFA president in 2023, Infantino only needs 106 of the 210 member associations to support him, so upsetting the 55 UEFA members doesn’t matter when he will have such a quorum of support elsewhere in the world. 

Ultimately, however, the destiny of this plan rests in the hands of Qatar. Its Supreme Committee for Delivery and Organisation are aware of the sensitivities around the plan and while they have said little publicly to deter Infantino, behind the scenes there is deep unease at both the lack of benefits to them and practicalities of the expansion.

There have also been attempts to rein Infantino in: they have insisted that it remains titled Qatar 2022, irrespective of any co-host there may be; while attempts to gloss over its power of veto have been resisted. A source who was present at last week’s FIFA Council meeting said that a presentation about the expansion was halted by Qatar 2022 CEO Hassan al-Thawadi after this key detail was left off a Powerpoint slide.

Joint proposal

Indeed, while the proposal is presented as a something of a fait accompli, this key detail remains in place in the report’s conclusion:

"If FIFA and Qatar do not submit a joint proposal as described in Stage 2… then the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 shall continue to use the 32-team format and to be held solely in Qatar, as has currently been committed to. The same shall apply in the event that either FIFA or Qatar decides at any stage throughout the process to withdraw such proposal for an expanded tournament."