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Reports: 48-team 2022 World Cup decision in June

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If FIFA can find appropriate countries to help Qatar host the 2022 World Cup, we may very well have a 48-team tournament.

The 2022 edition has been under the microscope about as long as Qatar has held the rights to host it, with workers’ rights and slave labor joining a suspicious bidding process which ultimately helped usher former FIFA czar Sepp Blatter out of his seat of power.

[ MORE: Analyzing the UCL draw ]

Ten venues across five countries have been mentioned as possible co-hosts, with Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait in the running to host select World Cup matches.

FIFA conditionally approved the expansion of the tournament on Friday, pending a “joint feasibility study” conducted by Qatar and FIFA.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino infamously quipped that sharing the tournament could bring a measure of peace to the Middle East.

A 24-team 2021 Club World Cup was also approved, as the threat of big European teams boycotting the summer edition looms over Infantino’s plan to expand FIFA’s marquee club tournament.

Australian rallies call for Thais to free Bahraini refugee

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SYDNEY (AP) Scores of demonstrators rallied in Australia’s two largest cities on Friday to demand that Thailand release a detained Bahraini soccer player who has refugee status in Australia.

The demonstrations outside the Sydney Opera House and in Melbourne’s Federation Square opposed Hakeem al-Araibi’s potential extradition to Bahrain.

“This is a young man who has been tortured by a country you are working with and are contemplating sending him back to,” former Australian soccer team leader Craig Foster told the Sydney crowd in comments directed at Thailand.

The rallies focused on Thailand and Indonesia’s proposed joint bid for Association of Southeast Asian Nations to host the World Cup in 2034.

“If you want to host the World Cup, you must allow the free transit of players and officials through your country,” Foster said.

The Melbourne crowd chanted “save Hakeem” while Professional Footballers Australia chief executive John Didulica implored Thailand to remember Australia’s help in rescuing 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thai cave in July.

The rallies also called for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to consider suspending Bahrain from future competitions.

“You cannot have the privileges of the international community if you are not prepared to live by its rules or behave by its standards,” Didulica said.

The former Bahraini team player says he fled political repression in Bahrain. He had been sentenced there in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for vandalizing a police station, which he denies.

Al-Araibi had been living in Melbourne and played for a semi-professional soccer team. The 25-year-old was detained upon his arrival in Bangkok in November and a court ruled in December he could be held for 60 days.

Thailand expects to decide within days whether to proceed with extradition to Bahrain.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews wrote a letter to the footballer to say “stay strong, mate. We will get you home.”

IOC backs FIFA’s calls for Bahraini player to be released

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The International Olympic Committee has backed FIFA’s calls for a Bahraini soccer player to be allowed to return to Australia from Thailand where he is detention while being pursued for extradition by Bahrain.

But Asian soccer’s leadership is declining to publicly back the campaign to secure the release of Hakeem al-Araibi, who has refugee status in Australia.

The IOC said its president, Thomas Bach, “has personally discussed this worrying situation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”

FIFA asked the Thai government earlier this week to ensure al-Araibi was released at the “earliest possible moment.”

The IOC said its “full support for the FIFA actions in order to find a solution based on `basic human and humanitarian values”‘ has been conveyed to the Thai government by IOC member Khunying Patama Leeswadtraku.

By contrast, the Asian Football Confederation only says it “continues to work with FIFA … to find a solution.” In emails, AFC spokesman Colin Gibson would not say what the governing body believes the solution should be, specifically declining to back calls for al-Araibi’s return to Australia.

An AFC statement said Senior Vice President Praful Patel is handling the matter and not President Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family, to prevent any “conflict of interest.”

Al-Araibi has said he was tortured in Bahrain after his 2012 arrest and fled in 2014 to Australia, which granted him political asylum in 2017 and where he now plays for Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale Football Club.

Bahrain wants its former national team player returned to serve a 10-year prison sentence that was handed down in absentia after he was accused of vandalizing a police station – a charge he denies.

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

Asian Cup: UAE, Bahrain, Thailand reach last 16; India out amid late drama (video)

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The hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain all advanced from Group A to reach the last 16 of the 2019 Asian Cup, while India crashed out after late drama in their group stage finale.

[ MORE: 2019 Asian Cup news ]

UAE drew 1-1 with Thailand to win the group, while Bahrain beat India 1-0 thanks to a stoppage time penalty kick to seal third spot and a place in the last 16.

Thailand secured second place by virtue of their head-to-head record over Bahrain, and the latter advanced to the knockout rounds as they are guaranteed to be one of the top four third-place teams.


India 0-1 Bahrain

India were devastated to be the first team knocked out of the tournament, as skipper Pronay Halder conceded a 91st minute penalty which Jamal Rashed converted to send Bahrain through. India hadn’t reached the knockout round of the Asian Cup since 1964, and their wait goes on.

Had the game finished 0-0 India were going through automatically and Bahrain would have finished bottom of the group. But instead the opposite happened as India finished fourth and Bahrain took third spot and a place in the last 16.


UAE 1-1 Thailand

UAE took the lead through Ali Mabkhout, but Thailand hit back before half time through Thitipan Puangchan to set up a nervy second half. Thailand went close to grabbing the win, but the tournament hosts secured the draw to finish top of the group as they remain unbeaten after a win and two draws in Group A.

As for Thailand, this marked the first time they’ve reached the knockout rounds in 40 years.

FIFA won’t be bound by politics over sharing Qatar World Cup

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Political tensions won’t prevent FIFA from deciding whether to place some World Cup games outside Qatar, the head of world soccer’s governing body said Thursday.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used a summit of soccer nations in Qatar to gather support for his mission to add 16 teams to the 2022 tournament – a move that would require the tiny, energy-rich nation sharing games in the region.

[ MORE: Gerrard proud of Rangers in exit ]

That would be complicated by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar in 2017 in an ongoing political dispute that prevents flights between Doha and the boycotting countries.

Qatar won a vote in 2010 to host the World Cup with 32 teams and is only building eight stadiums. A 48-team tournament is already planned for 2026 in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Infantino wants to fast-track that expansion and add 16 more games for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Is it feasible to do it only in Qatar? Difficult probably,” Infantino said. “Is it feasible to have a few games being played in neighboring countries? Well, maybe this is an option, of course.

“I’m not that naive not to know not to read the news and not to know what is going on. But now we are in football, we are not in politics, and in football, sometimes the dreams come true.”

Given 32 teams compete for the World Cup and there are 211 nations in FIFA, adding more slots in 2022 is likely to be embraced by the members given they have already approved expansion of the event beginning in 2026.

Infantino used a trip to Doha in October to ask the emir of Qatar if he would consider allowing matches to be shared with nations that are part of an economic and travel boycott against his country.

“If there is something that I could do which is good for football worldwide, then we should look at it,” Infantino said at a news conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup. “I have the chance and I’m lucky enough to be able to look into that without having to be bound by any political considerations, but looking at it from a purely sporting perspective.”

Infantino did use a speech to politicians at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina last month to discuss using the World Cup in 2022 to bring countries together by spreading games beyond Qatar.

The 2022 tournament is already being cramped into a 28-day window to minimize the disruption to top European leagues because it was moved from June and July to November and December due to the extreme heat.

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