ALREADY considered by many to be pure folly, FIFA’s decision to host a 48-team World Cup may be brought forward to 2022 in the Middle East.

Originally targeted for 2026 in North America, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in Kuala Lumpur the expansion could take place four years earlier. “We have to see if it is feasible,” he said. “We are discussing it with our Qatari friends.”

Such an idea appears to be foolhardy. Qatar is building eight stadiums for the 32-team tournament, but in such a small, football-unfriendly place, the pressure on the country and the organising committee will be amplified by 50%.

However, Infantino also said that FIFA may engage some of Qatar’s neighbours to help host the competition, should the governing body decide to make 2022 the biggest-ever finals.

What has prompted this possible change of plan? Well, Infantino is facing an election next year and a bigger, more inclusive competition (Asia will get another four places, for example), will surely win votes.

Infantino has already been accused of pursuing “pet projects” such as a revamped FIFA Club World Cup as well as the “World Nations League” following the unexpected success of World Cup 2018.

Deep down, FIFA knows that the blue riband event in world football is the UEFA Champions League. FIFA cannot compete with this, given that it gets one stab every four years to dominate the limelight. The current Club World Cup is neither here nor there, taken seriously in South America but nowhere else. It either has to be reconfigured or scrapped.

With Russia 2018 a big success and winning-back some of the World Cup’s appeal after a trail of disappointment, FIFA may feel it is a good position to introduce new competitions to build on the momentum of the summer. Certainly, a club competition on similar lines to the FIFA World Cup could have some credibility, although the imbalances that exist worldwide suggests the winners will be very predictable.

Are Infantino’s comments just throwaway, or do they represent the equivalent of a politican calling for an early election to leverage popularity? FIFA is in a better place today than it was a couple of years ago, partly due to the World Cup, so increasing 2022 and bearing gifts for potential voters might be a prudent move.

Regardless, the logistics of increasing 32 to 48 in Qatar and surrounding states might be incredibly stupid. Who will take the overspill, for instance? Let’s not forget that Qatar has been living under a trade and diplomatic blockade after neighbours – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – accused the country of financing terrorism.

Unless fences are repaired, which countries does Infantino have in mind – Oman, Yemen, Dubai, Kuwait? Obviously, if FIFA opts for a snap expansion, there are three years to go before 2022. While money will have to be spent – Qatar, despite the blockade is still on budget – the World Cup will also bring money, prestige and profile to any state that becomes part of the plan.

Expanding an already large competition is not necessarily the way ahead. A 48-team format does not bring strength to the World Cup, it merely introduces more weaker sides. It’s a good way to kill the goose that laid the golden egg and from a political standpoint, Infantino is odds-on to be re-elected – he doesn’t need to throw promises from his chariot.

The question remains, is the competition run to provide a festival of excellence, or is it ever-expanding to squeeze as much cash out of the global audience as possible. Increasingly, the latter appears to be the logical conclusion.

Photo: PA