Football fans could be set for another twist in the long-running saga that is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with FIFA officials hinting that the tournament could be expanded.
At a FIFA Council meeting in March 2019 FIFA president Gianni Infantino referred to a 'feasibility study' that had been published and distributed to council members which arrived at the conclusion that a 48-team World Cup was possible in 2022.
The sport's world governing body already confirmed that the 2026 World Cup would feature 48 teams but they could now be set to expedite the novel concept and are working together with Qatar to establish whether they will submit a joint expansion proposal to the FIFA Council and the FIFA Congress this summer.
So how exactly is this World Cup expansion supposed to work? Goal takes a look at the proposal, what it means and which countries could potentially co-host the 2022 tournament.
How many teams will be at the 2022 World Cup?
The FIFA World Cup has featured 32 teams since the 1998 edition and that will continue to be the case for the 2022 tournament unless there is further movement on the 48-team proposal.
We will get a clearer picture on that front in the next two months and if a genuine move to expand the number of teams is agreed upon by FIFA and Qatar, it will be put to a vote at the FIFA Congress, which will take place on June 5 in Paris.
With the preliminary 2022 World Cup qualification draw scheduled for July 2019 and just over three years to go before the tournament itself kicks off, there is a relatively short amount of time for organisers to get things in working order in the event of an increase in competitors.
However, that is the point of the feasibility study: to assess the likelihood that a late expansion can be adequately achieved and how best to carry out such a change of plan.
It isn't the first time that FIFA has decided to increase the number of teams competing in the World Cup, as the graph above demonstrates.
The trend has always been towards expansion. Indeed, the inaugural World Cup featured just 13 teams, with jumps occurring at various points during the 20th century.
From 1954 to 1978 the World Cup featured 16 teams and from 1982 to 1994 it had increased to 24 teams, with the last six tournaments each involving 32 teams.
How would a 48-team World Cup work?
We already have a framework for how a 48-team World Cup will look in 2022 because FIFA has been planning for that exact scenario in 2026.
The plan for the 2026 tournament, which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico, will see the 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three teams.
Two teams will progress from each group and enter the knockout stage, which will consist of a round of 32, last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and then ultimately the final.
Proceeding with 48 teams in 2022 means an increase of 16 teams and that means changes to qualification place allocations.
The current allocation for the 2026 World Cup can be seen in the table below.
|Confederation||Eligible teams||Places in finals||Previous allocation|
As you can see, each confederation will enjoy an increase in representative teams and for the first time in the history of the tournament a team from the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) will be guaranteed a place.
A six-team play-off tournament will be held to decide which countries take up the remaining two finals places, with one team each confederation (excluding UEFA) involved. The last play-off place will go to a team from the confederation of the host nation (or countries).
Of course, that could vary slightly for the 2022 tournament, but it would appear to be a solid indicator of how it will work.
Who could co-host the 2022 World Cup with Qatar?
The aforementioned feasibility study concluded that "organising a 48-team tournament would require a co-hosting model with one or more neighbouring host countries alongside Qatar, as the main host country."
Indeed, the study has identified a shortlist of five potential co-hosts for an expanded World Cup in 2022. They are:
However, due to strained political relations, not all of the five teams listed are currently ideal partners. Specifically, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among a collection of countries that severed ties with Qatar in 2017 as part of a diplomatic and economic blockade.
The breakdown in relations with these neighbouring countries has resulted in severe restrictions to land, air and sea transport to and from Qatar. Naturally, such measures mean that it has become difficult for people to travel from one country to another and, as a result, FIFA concluded that it would be "challenging" for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the UAE to co-host the 2022 World Cup along with Qatar.
That leaves Kuwait and Oman as the only realistic options available - that is, unless there is a sudden, drastic thaw in the blockade.
Both countries have experience hosting football tournaments in the past, which will help their case when it comes to establishing suitability to partner Qatar.
Kuwait has hosted the Gulf Cup of Nations on four occasions - most recently in 2017-18, which Oman won - and the 1980 Asian Cup was also staged in the country. Oman, meanwhile, is a three-time host of the Gulf Cup of Nations.
When will the 2022 World Cup take place?
The 2022 World Cup will see FIFA end nearly a century of tradition with the tournament set to take place during the winter months.
Instead of the usual summer schedule, the Qatar competition will begin on November 21 and run until December 18.
The reason for the change is the dangerously high temperatures - which can regularly reach over 40°C - that are normally hit in the country during June and July. Such conditions meant that it was not wise to play the tournament during that period.