KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- Gianni Infantino was born in 1970, hence 40 years after the inaugural World Cup, but this accident of birth did not prevent him today from hailing Russia 2018 as “the best World Cup ever.”
The finals in the largest-ever host country had been “fantastic, incredible, unbelievable,” he boasted in a swirl of hyperbole beyond even the usual closing press conference standards of FIFA presidential predecessor Sepp Blatter.
The greatest specific success had been the introduction of video assistance. Infantino said that disputes over offside goals would no longer exist in any match or competition using VAR. Its application in Russia had been a major triumph even though the decision had been taken at comparatively short notice.
He said: “We were brave to put it in place. We started a test phase one week after my election as president two years ago. I was sceptical but I thought that if we didn’t test it we would not know if it worked.
“So we tested it and I got into it and it was our unanimous opinion that we should try it at the World Cup – and the results are extremely clear and positive. We have had more than 440 checks so far, 19 reviews in the 62 matches – one every three-and-a-half matches – and 16 decisions changed from wrong to right.
“The word ‘progress’ means to make things better so this is progress because VAR is cleaning football, making it more honest and transparent and helping referees with their decisions: 95pc were already correct and that, thanks to VAR, we increased to 99.32pc.
“The goal on offside is finished. You will never see a goal from an offside position again when VAR is being used.”
Infantino also pointed to the ‘educational’ effect of VAR in terms of fair play.
He said: “We had six or seven red cards for violent conduct at the last few World Cups but so far here it has been zero for violent play because everyone knows that, whatever you do, someone will see it on one of the cameras and you will be sent off.
“We are very happy that we have introduced VAR and now it is difficult to think about the World Cup without VAR. It has been a more just competition thanks to VAR. This is what we wanted to achieve and this is what we have achieved.”
Looking ahead, Infantino insisted no decision had been taken on whether to rush forward to Qatar 2022 the expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams which will be enacted, in any case, for the 2026 finals in United States, Canada and Mexico.
This contradicted a statement earlier in the week by Marco Van Basten, the former Dutch international who is FIFA’s chief technical development officer, that 48 teams had been ruled out for Qatar.
Infantino said: “Whether it’s 32 teams or 48 will be decided in the next months. First we’ll discuss it with the Qataris and if there is a possibility we’ll discuss it in council and with our stakeholders. We’ll discuss it calmly and quietly. So no decision has been taken yet. At the moment [in 2022] we have a World Cup with 32 teams.”
Also later this year, said Infantino, FIFA would consider whether “additional measures” were necessary to guard against concussion.
He hailed the absence of positive dope tests, warned Nigeria that government intervention would result in international suspension and promised greater FIFA support for federations in the developing world. Notably, however, he refrained from suggesting that responsibility for raising standards in Africa and Asia lay anywhere else than with those specific federations and confederations.
FIFA’s support strategy might be expressed in an expansion of the international game’s competitive structure. Infantino hinted at the options available in terms of the global nations league – also for women’s football – and expanded Club World Cup which are being discussed in the corridors of power.
As for the World Cup currently drawing to a close, Infantino struggled to find enough superlatives.
The stadia had drawn 98pc capacity, the fan fests 7m visitors, Russia had recorded more than 1m tourists and the tournament had attracted 3bn TV viewers (1bn expected for Sunday’s Final) with an 11bn reach for FIFA’s World Cup digital channels.
Infantino said: “Since a couple of years I was saying that this would be the best World Cup ever. Today I can say it with more conviction: I believe, I lived it and it is the best World Cup ever.” For this he thanked “everyone involved in the organisation – of course the main actors are those on the pitch, the players, referees and coaches – but also those who made sure everything works smoothly.
Thanks all round
He added: “A big thankyou to Russia, to the Russian government, to President Putin of course, to the local organising committee, to the Russian Football Union, to everyone involved in this country to make sure this World Cup would be the best ever. That means more than 100,000 involved in one capacity or another.
“We had only one 0-0 draw and we had some great games with a lot of drama. On the organisational side, in terms of stadia, airports, hotels, transport and security the level of operational expertise has been excellent, unprecedented – and it’s not only me who has been saying it.”
The FIFA supremo, who is seeking re-election next year, considered the quality of the World Cup had brought the focus back to football and footballers and away from presidents, vice-presidents and administrators.
Pity that Infantino, on his $1.5m salary, undermined that claim by facing the world’s media wearing a red voluteer’s hoodie. But then, FIFA is only one of many rich sports bodies being challenged over the increasingly sensitive issue of volunteerism. That may be also be a subject for the World Cup debriefing.