Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Infantino set to unveil idea of 48-team World Cup increase

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino / AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI

FIFA president Gianni Infantino is set to get his way on expanding the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, a move which will boost his chances of re-election in 2019. This led Infantino to leap to 48 teams, with his first idea being a one-off play-off between 32 teams to decide who should join 16 seeded teams in the current eight-groups-of-four format.

That idea, however, was also panned, as it stretched the tournament beyond its current 32 days and meant 16 teams would be travelling to an event for just one match.

Infantino appears to have got it right, though, with his fourth attempt – 16 groups of three, followed by a 32-team knock-out.This increases the number of games from 64 to 80 but the tournament stays at 32 days, with the semi-finalists playing seven games (including the third-place play-off), which is the same number as now.

The council meeting, which starts at FIFA’s headquarters at 0800GMT, will actually have all four of the proposed expansion ideas on the table, as well as leaving the tournament at 32 teams, but nobody in Zurich is expecting anything other than strong support for the 16-groups-of-three plan.Infantino has repeatedly said his main motivation for doing this is to give more nations a chance of experiencing the joy of a World Cup, which will bolster international football in developed markets and help its growth in new ones.

As evidence of international football’s inspirational qualities, Infantino has pointed to Costa Rica’s success in 2014 and the Euro 2016 runs by Iceland and Wales.But just in case this is not persuasive enough, FIFA has conducted some internal research for the council’s 33 members that has been widely leaked.

This research suggests Infantino’s 48-team World Cup could bring in #800million more in broadcasting, commercial and match-day revenue than the 2018 World Cup in Russia, taking total profits to nearly #3.5billion.

While this should be more than enough to win the day – only the German federation has gone public with its concerns about the dilution in quality – many of the key details are likely to be left to a later date and more consultation.

These include Infantino’s proposed remedy to avoid the risk of teams colluding in their third games to eliminate the other member of the group – he has suggested settling draws with penalty shoot-outs.

But by far the most contentious topic will be how these 16 extra slots are allocated among the six confederations, with the African and Asian nations expecting significant increases on their current four apiece.

European confederation UEFA, however, is desperate to defend its position as the largest provider of World Cup teams, even though its percentage of the finalists will inevitably decrease.Europe currently gets 13 slots and is understood to be aiming for no fewer than 16 in the new format – a negotiation that will be closely watched by the home nations.

Where matters get more complicated, though, is in the Americas, where two confederations, North and Central America’s CONCACAF and South America’s CONMEBOL, currently share seven guaranteed places and two play-off slots with other regions.

That may increase to 12 guaranteed slots, six for CONMEBOL’s 10 members, which will prompt many to suggest the two confederations should be merged to make qualification more of a contest.The other major decision regarding 2026, who will host the event, is not scheduled for consideration until 2020 with a bid featuring the United States, either on its own or in conjunction with one or both of Canada and Mexico, the overwhelming favourite.

Why FIFA want to expand World Cup and how it will work World football’s top brass has gathered in Zurich for two days of meetings, prize-giving and kickabouts in the snow with retired superstars but by far the most serious business will be the decision to expand the number of teams at the 2026 World Cup.

The FIFA Council will have five options to choose between when it meets on Tuesday – the 32-team status quo, two 40-team formats and two 48-team formats – but it is widely believed that a decision has already been reached to go to 48.Here, we address some of the key questions that explain how this came about and what happens next.

Whose idea was this?
The short answer to this, as with so much in recent football history, is Sepp Blatter. The Swiss had planned to expand the tournament to 40 teams – making eight more member associations happy – before his downfall in 2015 and Gianni Infantino, his eventual successor, picked up the banner. But the two proposed 40-team formats had various issues, prompting Infantino to double down and go for 48.

How will this work?
Good question, and one that Infantino has had a couple of attempts at answering. His first idea was to have a play-off round of 32 teams to decide who should join 16 seeded teams in the current format of eight groups of four, followed by a knock-out. But the “one-and-done” plan was quickly dumped and the 46-year-old Swiss-Italian came up with 16 groups of three, before a 32-team knock-out.

That sounds like a lot more football, is it?
Yes and no. It will mean the total number of games increases from 64 to 80 but most teams will play no more than three and the four semi-finalists will play no more than seven – the same as now. That last point is significant, as the leading European clubs have opposed any move to increase the number of games the top nations play. FIFA is also adamant this can be done in 32 days, the same duration as the current format, another major concern for the clubs. And with the hosts of this tournament likely to be some combination of Canada, Mexico and the United States, there will be plenty of stadiums in the mix.

What about the quality?
This is an issue raised by the German FA, currently the only association to have spoken out against Infantino’s plan, and even FIFA’s internal research on the formats admits the status quo is the best way to guarantee as many of the world’s best teams play each other at the finals. But Infantino has repeatedly talked up Costa Rica’s besting of England, Italy and Uruguay in 2014, and the exploits of Iceland and Wales at Euro 2016, as examples of underdogs overcoming their perceived superiors.

So this has nothing to do with money, then?
This is FIFA so of course it has a billion reasons to do with money, one billion US dollars being the projected increase in revenue for Infantino’s preferred 48-team event when compared to the 2018 World Cup. The president has said money should not be a reason for doing this – he says he wants to spread the passion a nation experiences during a World Cup campaign – but this is a man whose first FIFA act was to dish out bigger cheques to each FA.

Will these extra places help Scotland qualify?
Ah, that is one of the many details the council will not decide on Tuesday, as the fight over these possible 16 extra slots is only just starting between the six confederations. Europe currently gets 13 places, with hosts Russia making it 14 next time around. But with the main beneficiaries expected to be the relatively under-represented African and Asian confederations, UEFA will be fighting hard to claim at least three of the new places. Whether that will be enough to guarantee a home nation involvement at a 48-team World Cup is anybody’s guess.
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