Fifa’s fantastical diversions: stop fretting about Russia, start meddling with Qatar

Marina Hyde
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Gianni Infantino with Vladimir Putin at December’s World Cup draw. The Fifa president and Russia’s president will have plenty more photo opportunities this summer.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Michael Regan/Fifa via Getty Images</span>
Gianni Infantino with Vladimir Putin at December’s World Cup draw. The Fifa president and Russia’s president will have plenty more photo opportunities this summer. Photograph: Michael Regan/Fifa via Getty Images

Two months out from a World Cup hosted by an aspirant rogue state, what is on the mind of deeply scrutable Fifa president Gianni Infantino?

Is it the sense of gathering storm in international relations, at the very heart of which is the tournament’s host nation? Is it the mounting air of absurdity that might attend an event hosted by a Russian leader seemingly bent on playing the pariah, who is engaged in gruesome and increasingly provocative proxy conflict in Syria, and who was at the weekend accused of tampering with evidence at the site of a suspected chemical attack while denying weapons inspectors access to it?

Is Infantino wondering how he can honestly be photographed having the usual lighthearted promotional kickabout with president Vladimir Putin, who an international coalition holds explicitly responsible for the recent deployment of nerve agent against two civilians on UK soil? Is Infantino thinking that even by his own standards of grinning idiocy, this might look too useful for words?

Don’t be silly. Like anyone who understands even the Ladybird version of the news, Gianni is concerned that the television rights to the World Cup after the pending one – Qatar 2022 – might have been undersold. They could totally have got a billion dollars more, even if it is in winter and the required run of 64 matches is already cocking up all manner of domestic competitions. Consequently, Infantino muses after a very obliging proposal from Conmebol, it might be time to rush through his sporticidal plan for a 48-team World Cup and make Qatar host one of those at short notice instead. Could the tiny emirate make the jump to 84 matches too? We shall come to the geopolitical problems with such a wheeze shortly.

Before we do, perhaps I have underestimated Infantino’s grasp of the manifold tensions building as we head towards Russia 2018. After all, the Fifa president is, he assured us last week, “ready for controversy”. But the controversy he is ready for turns out to be controversy over VAR. It is a “brand new controversy”, he concedes. Then again, so is the looming threat of World War III. I suppose you’ve got to try these things.

As for the preposterous suggestion that Qatar should now be made to host a 48-team World Cup, you have to admire Infantino’s gift for diversion. “I really think it is something very interesting,” he said last week of the Conmebol proposal – and you can see why he would think such a thing much more interesting than discussing the imminent World Cup. “We have to study it seriously, and if it is possible, why not?”

No doubt Qatar would be able to answer that question with some passion, what with its attendant obligation to provide four more stadiums at short notice. They’ve already had to sling up a new town or two to stop the required World Cup venues looking silly. The alternative is that they share hosting duties with some regional neighbours. Again, I am unsure which version of the news Infantino reads, but there are what we might call local difficulties in that area, what with the Saudi and Emirati-led boycott of Qatar that has hampered the emirate since June last year.

Even delivering fully on their plans for the 32-team tournament is looking like a stretch for the 2022 hosts, with Qatar currently far from meeting their accommodation targets. Iran is already preparing to offer overspill accommodation on the sharia-enforcing islands of Kish and Qeshm if needed. Those not tempted by that possibility may be enticed by Qatar’s own idea: to use cruise ships to accommodate travelling fans, as well as – in an ironic twist some way short of delicious – upgrading the controversial migrant labour camps that housed the workers that built the infrastructure.

Kuwait may be the more palatable option, certainly for taking on extra World Cup matches. As far as any thaw in the boycott goes, even UAE, who originally offered to host matches in 2022, marked the new year by projecting the flags of all Gulf nations except Qatar on to the Burj Khalifa. Details, details. Hassan al-Thawadi, the general secretary overseeing Qatar’s World Cup planning, is looking on the bright side. “If North and South Korea can come together for the winter Olympics,” he declared this year, “so can the Middle East at the World Cup.”

Still, if even these fantastical diversions don’t draw your eye from Russia 2018, Infantino has others for you. The first is expanding the current eight-team Club World Cup competition to 24 teams. There’s up to $25bn in that, apparently, as long as it goes hand-in-hand with his second proposal – a global league for national sides. “There are companies that are interested in it,” Infantino revealed vaguely last week. Concerned at the ever-increasing demands on players, European Leagues president and ExCo member Lars-Christer Olsson told the Times this week: “It cannot just be money deciding how football should be organised.”

Oh, Lars-Christer! I think we know it can. As always with Fifa, we find ourselves where we do because of money – overt and covert. A corrupt joint bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is now running up against global politics that make even those of Fifa look decidedly Mickey Mouse. The Fifa president appears to be mounting a massive rearguard exercise in distraction – again driven by money. This feels quite the Sorcerer’s Apprentice move, but still, what’s the worst that could happen?

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