KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING—- FIFA will decide in January whether the now-certain expansion of the World Cup finals in 2026 will take it from 32 teams to 40 or 48 as the headline issue of a major strategic and structural overhaul.

Signals of what critics will consider a victory for quantity over quality came from president Gianni Infantino in Zurich today after the first half of a two-day meeting of the newly-expanded FIFA Council.

Gianni Infantino . . . visions for a brighter future

Infantino was tasked repeatedly at a media briefing about the future of the World Cup though he would have preferred to dwell on the dry but equally important details of the rebuilding of FIFA which he has begun to undertake since being elected to succeed banned and disgraced Sepp Blatter last February.

Previously Infantino had been general secretary of UEFA and his preference for a European federation model is writ large throughout a document entitled FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future  which is the ‘handbook for change’ he and new secretary-general Fatma Soumara have compiled.

Euro example

The UEFA experience devised during Infantino’s time along the road’ in Nyon included expansion of the European Championship finals this past summer in France and Infantino believes the promotional and commercial advantages are worth importing into the World Cup once Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 are out of the way.

He said: “The first extra large council meeting was a very positive, lively meeting with a lot of discussion and debate which is what we want to foster and, with the new members who are looking to find their places, it has been really positive.”

As for the future of the World Cup: “This is still a work in progress and decisions will be taken in the next council meeting in January. For the time being we are moving forward with the analysis.

“There was a positive feeling around this topic but details are still to be elaborated whether it will be 40 teams or 48 with play-offs at the beginning.

“A decision will be taken at the next meeting . . . but the general feeling is rather positive to an expansion but, before a final decision, we have to do more homework.

‘Positive results’

“We have some examples, like the expansion of the European Championship which provided some positive results. Whether we go to 40 or 48 teams we will see in January.

“It was a positive discussion but we didn’t make a voting on the preferred option because it will depend also on the final allocation of the slots.

“For example, if it’s 48 teams but 40 would be European then the other confederations would not be happy so we need to look at it from a full 360deg, point of view. However the feeling was that allowing more teams to qualify is very beneficial for football development.”

Infantino, in support of his view, argued that World Cup qualification induced “a football euphoria” in the qualified countries.

He said: “Between November and June everyone speaks about it, more children go to the clubs, more sponsors go to the federations. But if a team don’t quality then it is a national tragedy, the coach has to be sacked, the president has to leave and the clubs are a disaster because they don’t produce the players.

“These are the sort of effects we need to look into.”

Quality control

Infantino, echoing his comments when challenged on the quality issue while at UEFA, said: “I don’t agree [that expansion] dilutes the quality. For example, in the last World Cup England and Italy were eliminated by Costa Rica so we can see the level of football and the quality is increasing all over the world.”

Infantino had promoted an expansion during his recent visits to Africa, Asia and South America. One of his own views of a 48-team finals featured ‘on-site’ single-match play-offs between 16 teams to reduce the number to 40 for a 10-group system with the mini-league winners and six best runners-up progressing to the knockout stages.

He denied that sending teams to the host nation(s) for one game was unfair or unworkable.

Infantino said: “Already teams travel from one part of the world to the next. To go to the World Cup country for a final play-off in order to enter the group stage would be an exciting moment for the countries.

“Look at England – one of the matches which is followed most closely is the match to be promoted to the Premier League.”

Efficiency aim

FIFA’s structural changes include taking a more central control of the organisation. Infantino harked back to his European roots by saying: “This is all to do with efficiency and everything is open for debate. There is the UEFA model which has been showing excellent results.

“It is a model which combines efficiency with the local touch that needs to be there.”

In effect it is too late to drive through much of a change before the 2026 World Cup but it is likely that the expansion finals would have to be cohosted through sheer practical necessity.

Infantino said: “To organise a big event like a World Cup requires a lot in terms of infrastructure – airports, stadia, hotels.

“We are aware of our responsibilities and want in future to make sure World Cups are sustainable events. This is why we are favouring cohosting because this will spread in more than one country requirements which otherwise would be a burden on only one.”

The last World Cup in Brazil in 2014 was criticised fiercely both at home and abroad because of the high-cost creation of ‘white elephant’ stadia such as those in Manaus and Brasilia.

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