ZURICH: FIFA president Gianni Infantino has defended his pet expansion of the World Cup as a mission to bring the most popular global sports event fully into the 21st century writes KEIR RADNEDGE.

The 46-year-old Swiss head of the world federation was speaking after its council, meeting in Zurich, “unanimously” approved a proposal for a leap from 32 to 48 teams at the 2026 finals.

Contentious details concerning the allocation of continental slots and whether penalties may be used as drawn-match tiebreakers in the group stage will be taken later. The approved modality is for an initial 16 groups of three teams sending the top two into the knockout stage.

Thus the tournament will feature 80 matches rather than the current 64 but still fall within the current 32-day schedule, courtesy of an initial four-games-a-day format. Each team will play a minimum of two games but no more than the current maximum of seven (to thus stymie initial European Club Association criticism).

The inaugural World Cup featured 13 teams in 1930 then a format of 16 until 1978, 24 teams from 1982 and then 32 from 1998. Hence this will be the first expansion in 28 years.

Development priority

Infantino said: “We are in the 21st century so we have to shape a World Cup for the 21st century. We have to look into the future. Football is more than Europe and South America, it is global, and the FIFA Council felt this is positive and will help football development.

“Football fever that you have in a country that’s qualified is the biggest promotional tool for football you can have. To have this football promotion in parts of the world which today have no chance to play was on top of our thoughts.”

Infantino displayed some irritation at criticism from Germany – evinced by DFB president Reinhard Grindel and national Joachim Low – that expanding the tournament would lower the quality threshold.

He said, sarcastically: “Even if we organised a World Cup with only two teams one of them would be Germany because they are one of the top teams who qualify regularly but for other countries there are not so many opportunities to qualify.

“I hope that, in time, they will see the benefit for the world. In the Bundesliga there are players from all around. It would be nice for those players also to have the opportunity to participate once in their lifetime in a World Cup.”

Returning to the quality issue, Infantino reiterated his favourite example of growing equality as demonstrated at the last World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014.

Quality quotient

He said: “My opinion is that the overall quality of football is growing tremendously. In the Premier League in England there are 69 different nationalists and in the other big leagues it is similar, so the quality is high all over.

“At the last World Cup two powerhouses of football – Italy and England – were eliminated by Costa Rica. Not by the Argentina and Brazil of Messi and Neymar.”

Infantino pointed up Iceland, Wales and Hungary at the European Championships in France last summer as having exemplified the value of increased opportunity and development for football nations below elite level.