Infantino in Kuwait for 2022 World Cup talks as Balkan nations firm up future bidding plans
Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, soccer's international governing body, has held talks in Kuwait about the possibility of the country hosting games at the 2022 World Cup as he continues to explore the possibility of expanding the tournament, for which the main host is Qatar, from 32 to 48 teams.
Infantino (pictured) met with Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, and the management of the Kuwait Football Association as Fifa requires at least one additional Gulf country to stage matches.
In a statement, Fifa said the discussions were about “football in the country in general, but also about the FIFA World Cup 2022."
Staging games in Kuwait could be Fifa’s only viable option as Oman, another Middle East country that was under consideration to host matches, recently closed the door on co-hosting with Qatar.
Yosuf Bin Alawi, Oman’s minister responsible for foreign affairs, told CNN: “We’ve been asked about it many times and our answer was: we are not ready, we are not ready.”
The situation is complicated by the present poor relationships between Qatar and other countries in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which have cut off diplomatic ties.
With Kuwait and Oman remaining neutral in the diplomatic dispute, soccer’s governing body turned to the two countries as potential hosts of World Cup games
Just last week, Infantino claimed that the chances of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar being expanded are no more than 50:50.
Infantino supports moves to bring forward the expansion from the 2026 tournament in USA, Canada and Mexico, but there are logistical and political challenges.
Last month, the Fifa council said that a feasibility study showed it would be possible to increase the size of the competition from 32 to 48 teams, "providing certain conditions are met."
The study states that increasing the number of tournament participants by 50 per cent would require two to four extra venues in "one or more" Middle East nations. Qatar has eight stadiums under construction for the event, whereas the last three World Cup hosts (Russia, Brazil and South Africa), had 12, 12, and 10 stadiums respectively.
One potential stumbling block with Kuwait could be the country’s ban on alcohol. Qatar has agreed to an exemption to allow foreigners to drink alcohol but Kuwait’s complete ban could be problematic for Fifa as Budweiser, the US beer brand of brewer Anheuser-Busch, is a major sponsor of the tournament.
The final decision on the number of teams at Qatar 2022 will be made on 5 June at the Fifa Congress in Paris.
Fifa has already decided to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams and from 64 to 80 matches for the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first to be held in three different countries.
Fifa has also switched the 2022 World Cup from the summer to winter for the first time in its history because of the hot summer temperatures in Qatar.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Serbia have signed a memorandum of understanding to begin preparations to launch a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup or 2028 European Championships.
Members of the four governments, including sports ministers and representatives of the respective soccer federations, met in Thessaloniki in Greece to sign the necessary documents to collaborate on a joint candidacy of the major soccer tournaments.
The four countries discussed the main aspects relating to the staging of the World Cup and Euros, which largely related to the building of sports infrastructure.
The nations have come to the agreement that there must be strong guarantees that no country will withdraw once the candidacy has been made official until the process is completed, regardless of the political situation in the countries.
Borislav Mihailov, the president of the Bulgarian Football Union, said the partnership between the four countries is of “fundamental importance for the development of sport in the region and for our mutual friendly relations.”
The meeting in Thessaloniki was the fourth in four countries between the respective parties and the next meeting will take place in Bucharest in June. The countries will make a decision by the end of 2019 over which of the two tournaments they will launch a bid for.
A major factor will be the desire of the countries to build a stadium with a capacity of 80,000 or more.
The race to host the 2030 World Cup is shaping up to be a competitive one, with the UK and Ireland undertaking a feasibility study over their proposed joint bid, Spain and Portugal considering a joint bid that could also include Morocco, a four-way South American bid from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, and Chinese interest also mooted.
Meanwhile, if the Balkan countries proceed with a bid for Euro 2028, they could face competition from Italy and Spain, whose prime minister recently flagged up that competition or the 2030 World Cup as potential targets.
A pan-Nordic bid could also be forthcoming, with Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden as the main hosts, and some matches taking place in the Faroe Islands and Iceland.