MOSCOW: FIFA moved a step closer on Friday to expanding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams and hopes to confirm the plans in June if a suitable co-host can be found.
An internal feasibility study supporting the expansion, which is being strongly pushed by president Gianni Infantino, was given full backing by the FIFA council in Miami.
A final decision will now be taken in Paris on June 6 after FIFA and Qatar jointly submit the names of potential co-host nations to the governing body’s Congress.
Infantino, who also confirmed a new Club World Cup with 24 teams will begin in 2021 to replace the Confederations Cup, told a press conference: “You have in front of you a happy FIFA president. I am always happy but especially today because we have taken some important decisions. We came to conclusion, yes it’s feasible to move from 32 to 48 teams at the World Cup provided certain conditions are met. We have the duty to look into it, 90 percent are in favour of an increase but it’s not as easy as that. We have to analyse matters carefully and we are working closely with Qatar.”
The move away from the traditional 32 teams which will see 80 matches instead of 64 — the notion was originally slated to come into effect for the 2026 tournament in North America — means one or more other countries will be asked to help Qatar stage the shortened 28-day event which is scheduled to kick off in November 2022.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and United Arab Emirates are all potential options yet rancorous diplomatic disputes has led to the tiny Gulf state being politically isolated from many of its former allies.
Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will need to end their diplomatic blockade of Qatar launched in 2017 if they want to be involved, FIFA’s feasibility study said.
“We know the situation in the Gulf region,” added Infantino. “We are in the lucky position of being in football, and that means you can only care about football. I was pleased with the reaction of the Qataris. We don’t want to regret not analysing the decision.”
Analysts expressed scepticism, however, that regional acrimony can be overcome to enable Infantino’s hoped-for expansion.
“The Gulf Crisis is not going to solved by playing football,” said James Dorsey, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“FIFA recognises that it is out of the question to share (matches) with (the) Qataris’ detractors, the Emiratis and Saudi Arabia. If you pull in Kuwait and Oman, it could aggravate the situation.”
The Qatari organising committee for the 2022 World Cup meanwhile gave a lukewarm response to Friday’s decision, saying organisers would continue planning for a 32-team event.
“We will work with FIFA to determine whether or not a viable operating model does exist and importantly, whether it is in the best interests for football and for the tournament, and for Qatar as the host nation,” a spokesman for Qatar 2022 said.
“Until we reach that conclusion, we will continue to work toward hosting a 32-team World Cup…”
FIFA, meanwhile, have been told that the leading European clubs will boycott a Club World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 2021 which was also given the go-ahead at the meeting in Florida.
A 17-page report distributed to the 37 members of FIFA’s ruling body calls for the new tournament to take place between June 17 and July 4 2021, replacing the Confederations Cup international tournament.
Infantino called the decision to move ahead with the plans an “important milestone for world football” and expects no problems moving forward.
“We should enjoy what is coming,” he said.
But the European Club Association (ECA) said leading European clubs would boycott the event.
An ECA spokesman said: “ECA clubs will not participate in the Club World Cup in 2021 and will assess participation in the Club World Cup in 2024.”
UEFA also confirmed Europe had voted against the new tournament at Friday’s meeting.
There was also confirmation from FIFA that the video assistant referee system (VAR) will be used at the women’s World Cup this summer.
Ahead of women’s World Cup, female fans struggle in Middle East
DUBAI: Two weeks ahead of a potentially game-changing women’s World Cup, football remains completely male-dominated in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where female fans are still battling for a level playing field.
Women fans face obstacles in many parts of the region where rival powers Iran and Saudi Arabia have traditionally enforced rules banning women from entering stadiums.
No countries from the region will be among the 24 teams taking part in the tournament in France from June 7, but at least there are signs of flexibility in the region toward a sport igniting more and more female interest across the globe.
In Iran, rules have been relaxed since the 1979 Islamic revolution and women are selectively allowed to attend some matches.
But the fact that a ban has yet to be officially lifted indicates there is still disagreement over the issue among senior figures in the Islamic republic.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia allowed women into a football stadium for the first time in January 2018 for a regular domestic football league match.
The move was part of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that included allowing women to drive and take part in other sporting and artistic events.
Zidane the boss as Bale set for final game at Real Madrid
MADRID: Zinedine Zidane hinted on Saturday that Gareth Bale could make his last appearance for Real Madrid on Sunday after saying he would make changes this summer ahead of the final match of their miserable La Liga season.
Bale fell out with Zidane towards the end of the Frenchman’s first spell in charge and their relationship has quickly soured again, with the Wales attacker starting just five times since the coach’s return in March and left out completely for Real’s last two matches against Villarreal and Real Sociedad.
Zidane said Bale would be in the squad against Real Betis on Sunday but, asked by reporters if it would be his last game for Madrid, he said: “I don’t know, I can’t tell you. It’s the season finale and next year there are going to be changes. But I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Madrid face Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu in their final match of a campaign that will see them finish third, behind both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and trophyless after being knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Barca and the Champions League by Ajax.
Zidane has pledged to make changes once the campaign is over, with several players including Bale expected to be sold, and defended his right to make the big calls.
“It’s my decision,” Zidane told reporters. “That is clear as water. I’m the coach and I will always do what I want to do. If not, I’ll leave.
“For signings and those sorts of things we have people who work on them but we work together.”
Zidane took charge with Madrid’s season all-but over and their performances have fizzled out in recent weeks.
Their defeat by Real Sociedad last weekend means they have lost two of their last three matches and won only three of their last eight.
“The message is clear, it is the last game and we want to say goodbye to the fans with a good game and a victory,” said Zidane.
“It has been a complicated year and I want to convey that we are looking ahead to next season and to show the fans that we will return with enthusiasm to make them proud of the team again.”
History made as women to referee men’s AFC Cup clash
KUALA LUMPUR: The Asian Football Confederation announced Tuesday that for the first time an all-female referee team will take charge of a men’s continental club cup clash.
Japanese referee Yoshimi Yamashita and assistants Makoto Bozono and Naomi Teshirogi will officiate the AFC Cup match between Myanmar’s Yangon United and Cambodia’s Naga World at the Thuwunna Stadium on Wednesday.
“This will be the first time three female referees preside in the Asian Football Confederation’s club competitions, marking a new milestone in Asian refereeing,” the AFC said in a statement.
The AFC Cup is the second-string Asian club competition, a rung below the AFC Champions League.
Women officials have only previously been employed as assistant referees in AFC Cup matches, with Australians Sarah Ho and Alysson Flynn becoming the first in 2014.
“This is one of my dreams,” said the experienced Yamashita, who officiated in the 2016 and 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and 2018 Women’s Asian Cup.
“We’ve worked very hard and this is the result.”
Assistant referee Teshirogi said her appointment will inspire female referees in Asia while Bozono said the experience will help in her preparations for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in June, where the trio will be among 12 officials from the AFC.
“It is exciting to work with Yoshimi and Naomi. They are very experienced and have been very supportive. I will learn a lot from them,” Bozono said.