DOHA, QATAR - Adding 16 teams to the 2022 World Cup is about far more than sports. The head of world soccer thinks the proposal can help solve the bitter diplomatic fight between host Qatar and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition trying to isolate the tiny nation.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has visions of the World Cup uniting the region. He says the World Cup should expand from 32 to 48 teams by playing some of the matches in stadiums in the very nations who have cut ties with Qatar and closed land, air and sea passage to and from the oil-rich nation of 2.6 million people, all but about 300,000 of them foreign workers.
Qatar will have eight stadiums to host 64 games in an already-congested 28-day window. The World Cup was moved from June-July to November-December because of the extreme heat in the Persian Gulf, and the tournament schedule was condensed to minimize the disruption to the top leagues around the world.
Adding 16 more nations would mean 80 games, and that would require more stadiums. Infantino asked the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be held in other nations, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.
"This is something that would probably be a nice message," Infantino said.
When the joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico won the right to host the 2026 World Cup in June, a trade fight was rumbling between the North American nations. Eventually, a new trade pact was negotiated.
At the time of the 2026 vote, "the relations were a little bit tense right between these countries," Infantino said. "It's something that's comparable with the Gulf region. But for me, you know if there is a possibility [of sharing games], if there is a chance at least to even discuss, we should try."
With travel to Qatar currently blocked by its neighbors, Infantino cautions that "maybe it will never happen." He says he brought it up with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, and the emir was open to the idea.
"When we speak it remains between us of course," Infantino said. "What is, I think, important is that he told us, `Let's continue the discussions together and see if this can (work)."'
Qatar's World Cup organizing committee is wary about changing plans almost a decade in the making, and having already irritated European soccer leagues with the FIFA-imposed switch to start in November.
"We need to know pretty soon," said Nasser Al Khater, deputy secretary general of the organizing committee. "So we need to understand basically we're looking to change the format, increase the number of days. Can we do it with eight [stadiums] and increasing the number of days?"
The FIFA membership has already voted on expanding its showpiece even to 48 teams in 2026. Infantino has been saying since March he is considering fast-tracking those plans by four years and acknowledged there has been little progress since then.
"Obviously we cannot even start discussing anything like that in a serious way without Qatar," Infantino said. "I was discussing with [Qatar] federation officials and also with the Emir of Qatar and they want to look at it together with us and what kind of options ... sharing some matches with some other countries or not ... and these kind of things. These are topics that first, of course, the Qataris, of course, have to be comfortable with. Could they do it on their own? No."
Infantino hopes to have resolved the number of finalists by March, with the qualifying draw scheduled for next year. If new conditions are added to the 2022 schedule, a bidding process for the extra games might be necessary.
"This is all will all be part of their studies and the discussions," Infantino said. "We'll study it we have to make sure that we have a proper process in place."
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar in a 2010 vote forced FIFA to deal with concerns about labor conditions for migrant workers, many building the stadiums. The bidding process for the 2026 World Cup was the first where FIFA assessed the human rights records of countries.
If Qatar's neighbors joined in hosting games in 2022, human rights conditions would come into focus again.
"This will obviously be part of discussions," Infantino said. "Without the decision to go to Qatar would anything have changed? Who knows?But certainly, the fact that there was a World Cup in the spotlight for everyone has contributed to the fact that we are going, we're speaking to them and we're trying to tell them, `Guys try at least to change and so on."'
The United Arab Emirates already has close ties to FIFA, hosting the Club World Cup again in Abu Dhabi in December.
Saudi Arabia would be keen on joining the 2022 World Cup but it has angered soccer federations by hosting a television network that has allegedly been pirating Qatar's beIN Sports since the boycott of Doha began in 2017.
A partnership with the Saudis could also be problematic in the fallout from the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the country's consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
"There are other countries in the region as well," Infantino said, when asked about Saudi Arabia.
Qatar is still waiting for a proper consultation process to begin.
"Right now, as of today, we're hosting a 32 team World Cup," Al Khater said. "Our infrastructure, our stadiums are all based on the 32-team World Cup. That's as much as we know and that's as much as it's confirmed by now."