FIFA ap­proves ex­panded 48-team World Cup

Coun­cil unan­i­mously adopts new for­mat; crit­ics al­lege ‘money and power grab’

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

ZURICH: FIFA voted to ex­pand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 in a vic­tory Tues­day for its pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino but de­rided by crit­ics as driven by money and pol­i­tics.

In a deeply di­vi­sive move which will en­rich scan­dal-tainted FIFA’s cof­fers, its rul­ing coun­cil unan­i­mously adopted an ex­panded for­mat with 16 groups of three na­tions that will bring “ben­e­fits with­out neg­a­tives,” In­fantino said.

“We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st Cen­tury ... foot­ball is more than Europe and South Amer­ica,” the FIFA pres­i­dent, who had pushed hard for the change, said af­ter the vote.

“Many more coun­tries will have the chance to dream.”

It rep­re­sents the first ma­jor al­ter­ation to the World Cup since the tour­na­ment was boosted from 24 to the cur­rent 32 teams for the 1998 tour­na­ment in France.

But its many crit­ics strongly op­pose the lat­est move, and it was branded a “money grab and power grab” by New FIFA Now, a group cam­paign­ing for re­form of FIFA.

In­fantino took over the body 11 months ago with a vow to re­pair the dam­age done dur­ing Sepp Blat­ter’s ten­ure by grow­ing foot­ball across the globe.

En­larg­ing the World Cup was the cen­ter­piece of that vi­sion, how­ever op­po­nents say a big­ger tour­na­ment will di­lute the qual­ity of play and over­bur­den al­ready ex­hausted play­ers, par­tic­u­larly in Europe’s money-rich leagues.

Foot­ball’s pow­er­ful Euro­pean Club As­so­ci­a­tion re­it­er­ated its strong op­po­si­tion, de­scrib­ing the cur­rent World Cup model as “the per­fect for­mula.”

“We un­der­stand that this de­ci­sion has been taken based on po­lit­i­cal rea­sons rather than sport­ing ones and un­der con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, some­thing ECA be­lieves is re­gret­table,” the body which rep­re­sents Europe’s lead­ing clubs said in a state­ment.

Javier Te­bas, pres­i­dent of the Span­ish La Liga, made no at­tempt to hide his dis­gust.

“FIFA is do­ing pol­i­tics. Gianni In­fantino is do­ing pol­i­tics,” he thun­dered. “To be elected he promised more coun­tries at the World Cup. He wants to honor his elec­toral prom­ises. But the prom­ises made to pro­fes­sional foot­ball, he’s not stick­ing to. It is with­out our agree­ment and it makes us very an­gry.”

Euro­pean gov­ern­ing body UEFA of­fered a tepid ac­cep­tance, say­ing it de­cided to back the plan once “it was clear that all other con­fed­er­a­tions were over­whelm­ingly in fa­vor.”

The new for­mat en­vis­ages 80 matches – 16 more than the cur­rent setup – but cru­cially will still be played over the same 32-day pe­riod, a nod to op­po­nents who fear player burn-out.

Two teams from each group will then ad­vance to a 32-na­tion knock­out round.

A con­fi­den­tial FIFA re­port seen by AFP projects a 48-team tour­na­ment would bring a cash boost of $640 mil­lion above pro­jected rev­enues for next year’s fi­nals in Rus­sia.

Africa and Asia could be the big win­ners with a rise in their num­ber of World Cup places – cur­rently five for Africa and be­tween four and five for Asia. A source close to FIFA told AFP that Europe could get 16 places, an in­crease of three, with Africa earn­ing nine.

In­fantino said no de­ci­sion was made on how the ex­tra places would be al­lo­cated, but as­sured all re­gions “will get more” berths.

The coun­cil weighed five pro­pos­als dur­ing the meet­ing at FIFA’s snow-cov­ered Zurich head­quar­ters, in­clud­ing main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo of 32 teams.

De­fend­ing In­fantino, CON­CA­CAF chief Vic­tor Mon­tagliani said there was unan­i­mous back­ing be­cause the de­bate was based on “facts and the fig­ures, not on a wink and nod.”

“Maybe the time has come where

we don’t do things on winks and nods any­more,” added the head of North and Cen­tral Amer­ica’s gov­ern­ing body, in a clear jibe at the dis­graced Blat­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion and the cor­rup­tion that threat­ened to bring FIFA to its knees.

Some have pointed to Euro 2016, which ex­panded to 24 na­tions, as ev­i­dence that com­pe­ti­tion can re­main fierce with more coun­tries in­volved, not­ing the stun­ning achieve­ments of foot­ball min­nows such as Ice­land and Wales.

Bid­ding to host the 2026 tour­na­ment has not yet opened, but FIFA opened the door to shared host­ing

among up to three coun­tries.

Mon­tagliani, a Cana­dian, said that a joint U.S.-Canada-Mex­ico bid was “pos­si­ble,” while Morocco has also been men­tioned as a pos­si­ble can­di­date.

The land­mark de­ci­sion is the lat­est over­haul of the World Cup, which has seen its global pop­u­lar­ity and fi­nan­cial might surge since the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion in 1930.

That con­test, won by Uruguay, had just 13 coun­tries.

The World Cup ex­panded to 24 teams in 1982 in Spain be­fore mov­ing to its cur­rent 32-team ver­sion in 1998. –

In­fantino took over FIFA with a vow to re­pair the dam­age done in Blat­ter’s ten­ure by grow­ing foot­ball across the globe.

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