Last updated 1 year ago | By AFP
FIFA President Gianni Infantino was one of the few advocates of expanding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams and the decision to shelve the plan is a slap in the face for the leader of world football, observers say.
The decision taken on Wednesday by FIFA to abandon plans to have 48 countries competing in the global showcase in three years' time was a setback for Infantino, who has headed FIFA since 2016.
The Swiss had pushed the plan hard, arguing that it would expand football's reach across the globe.
"Of course it is not easy. But we have already taken the decision to play with 48 teams in 2026. So why not try it before then?" Infantino was fond of saying.
In the end, despite his dangling of the carrot of increased revenues with an enlarged tournament, his plan was defeated by the hard realities of global politics.
- 'Self-inflicted uppercut' -
The economic boycott of Qatar since 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies, who accuse Doha of supporting Iran and Islamist movements, left FIFA in an impossible position, without countries to share the burden of the increased number of matches.
"Infantino has managed to give himself an uppercut," one observer of the FIFA scene said.
Another was puzzled at Infantino's determination to have a 48-team World Cup "because there was nothing to be gained from it except problems".
"Infantino was the only person to really believe in it. The seed of the idea was sown by the (South American federation) CONMEBOL at FIFA's request and for the last year he has been battling to defend his project."
Infantino commissioned a feasibility study which concluded that a Qatar World Cup with 48 teams would generate "between $300-$400 million (265-354 million euros) of additional income".
However, marketing and TV rights experts were sceptical about those forecasts.
"It's actually the opposite -- it seems that a 48-team World Cup in Qatar would have made a loss," one specialist said.
However, FIFA could have comfortably made up any loss by dipping into its reserves of one billion dollars.
Now, coming just after Europe's top clubs said in March they would boycott another project Infantino has backed, an expanded 24-team Club World Cup, the FIFA president appears to have suffered a bloody nose.
What also become clear is that gas-rich Qatar was opposed to sharing its place in the international sporting limelight with other countries co-hosting.
"Infantino is paying for his arrogance," one analyst said. "This could also be seen as Qatar's triumph over its neighbours."
It remains to be seen how, in the dog-eat-dog world of FIFA, Infantino's defeat on the 48-team World Cup goes down as the world's richest sports federation heads into a congress in Paris in early June ahead of the women's World Cup in France.
Infantino has no rival in the vote to be re-elected at that meeting.
"But it will be very interesting to see if he is re-elected by acclamation or by vote... if it is the latter the slightest sign of abstention could be seen as an act of defiance," one observer said.