APNewsBreak: FIFA study backs 48-team '22 WC, Qatar sharing

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 file photo, men work on the construction site of the Ras Abu Aboud stadium, backdropped by the city skyline in Doha, Qatar. A FIFA feasibility study concluded the 2022 World Cup can expand to 48 teams by using at least one of Qatar's neighbors as an additional host, and found there is a low legal risk to changing the format and an additional $400 million in revenue could be generated The Associated Press obtained a copy of the 81-page report on Monday, March 11, 2019 that assesses the political, logistical and legal issues surrounding adding 16 teams _ a significant change to the format more than eight years after Qatar won the hosting rights. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

LONDON — A FIFA feasibility study concluded the 2022 World Cup can expand to 48 teams by using at least one of Qatar's neighbors as an additional host, and found there is a low legal risk to changing the format and an additional $400 million in revenue could be generated.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the 81-page report on Monday that assesses the political, logistical and legal issues surrounding adding 16 teams — a significant change to the format more than eight years after Qatar won the hosting rights. The report was prepared by the governing body so its FIFA Council can agree in principle on expanding the tournament at a meeting in Miami on Friday. A final decision would come in June.

The study identified stadiums in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that could be used but said Qatar would have to approve which nations it would partner with.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed economic, diplomatic and travel ties with Qatar in 2017, which prevents flights between the countries. The study says FIFA accepts that the ongoing political spat prevents their involvement in the tournament. The AP reported last week that FIFA was looking at Kuwait and Oman as options for games in 2022, given their neutrality in the Gulf diplomatic crisis.

"As it currently stands, the nature of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE's relations with Qatar is such that it would be challenging to organize a co-hosted tournament between Qatar and one or more of these countries," the feasibility study states.

"Candidate co-hosts would need to be regarded as sufficiently cooperative," the study adds. "Such co-hosts would not sanction or boycott economically or otherwise any other potential co-host country, including the main host, Qatar."

With logistics already challenged by the existing plan to play 64 games in eight stadiums spread over a 30-mile radius in Qatar, FIFA said two to four additional venues are required in the region "with one or more" nation.

FIFA stipulates that any additional hosts would have to supply government assurances, including on its human rights requirements.

"The involvement of additional neighboring host countries would require certain conditions to be met, in particular the consent of the relevant authorities in the main host country, Qatar," the FIFA report states. "Therefore, FIFA cannot conclusively stipulate which host countries would be part of a co-hosting arrangement with FIFA and Qatar at this moment."

The study highlights that venues with at least 40,000 seats — for games up to the quarterfinals — were demanded of 2026 World Cup bidders but doesn't come to a conclusion on minimum capacities for 2022. While eight potential additional stadiums are identified in the region in the FIFA study, only two in the UAE, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Kuwait meet the 2026 requirements.

"Whilst a 10-stadium tournament could be considered in the event that up to six matches are played per day during the group stage and matches are held in the same venue on consecutive days, 12 stadiums would still be preferable," the study says.

Since the contentious vote in 2010, which has been investigated for wrongdoing, FIFA has already had to change the schedule. The 2022 tournament was taken away from its usual June-July slot because of Qatar's searing summer heat, despite resistance from European leagues whose seasons will be disrupted.

Spreading hosting beyond Qatar would also change the nature of what has been promoted as a compact World Cup that doesn't require fans to take flights between matches.

The FIFA study found that, despite adding 16 games, the enlarged tournament could still be played in a 28-day window from Nov. 21-Dec. 18. FIFA said there would be "no major concessions to the sporting quality of the tournament" with expansion. While there were a maximum of four matches per day in the closing stages of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, FIFA said the 2022 tournament could feature six separate kickoff slots early in the tournament to cope with the additional teams.

"Implementing this format under the reduced tournament duration of 28 days would require some adjustments to aspects of the match schedule, such as the number of rest days for teams and venues," the FIFA study states. "However, these adjustments are consistent with the principles observed at confederation competitions or in the top leagues around the world. Furthermore, based on its analysis, FIFA believes that the challenges can be sufficiently mitigated, including by increasing the number of venues and matches per day."

The FIFA Congress has already agreed to expand to a 48-team tournament from the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The same format is proposed, starting with a group stage consisting of 16 groups of three teams, followed by a round of 32. That would ensure, despite adding 16 matches overall, a team would only play a maximum of seven matches like in the 32-team format.

But changing the hosting guidelines would alter the decision of the FIFA executive committee in December 2010, when Qatar surprisingly won the right to stage the Middle East's first World Cup by beating opposition from the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

FIFA said while it cannot rule out legal action from losing bidders by changing the format, the study said it "concluded that the risk was low."

"With regard to the previously administered bidding process, the process did not exclude joint bids and the possibility of co-hosting was an option for all bidders from the outset," the study states. "Therefore, there is little risk arising from bidders (or even other member associations) claiming that they could have bid for the hosting rights had they known that FIFA would contemplate co-hosting scenarios.

"Moreover, based on FIFA's analysis and previous legal analysis, there is little risk of claims by bidders due to the change in format."

The study also breaks down how FIFA can earn an additional $400 million by adding more games.

It says $121.8 million could be generated from broadcasters, based on the unsold rights for the tournaments. It also forecasts an additional $158.4 million from sponsors, $89.9 million more from ticket sales, $20 million from hospitality packages and $10 million from licensing agreements.

FIFA wants its council to agree to the conclusion of the report that "expanding the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 to 48 teams is feasible provided that neighboring countries host some games."

FIFA and Qatar would then submit a final proposal to the FIFA Council and FIFA Congress in June to make a final decision on expansion, stressing that Qatar is the "main host country."

In April, FIFA President Gianni Infantino first said he was keen on fast-tracking World Cup expansion for the 2022 showpiece. Infantino, who succeeded Sepp Blatter as president in 2016, has held talks in the region, including with the emir of Qatar , about using additional countries.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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