All Whites to ben­e­fit in 48-team World Cup

Nelson Mail - - SPORT - FOOT­BALL

New Zealand’s chances of be­ing a reg­u­lar com­peti­tor at fu­ture foot­ball World Cups has re­ceived a mas­sive boost.

The World Cup will ex­pand to 48 teams from its cur­rent 32, start­ing with the 2026 edi­tion of foot­ball’s show­piece tour­na­ment, the game’s gov­ern­ing body Fifa de­cided on on Tues­day.

While a de­ci­sion has yet to be made on how qual­i­fy­ing will work, it’s likely Ocea­nia – the fed­er­a­tion the All Whites play in – will get one full au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing spot for World Cup fi­nals from 2026.

At present, the Ocea­nia group win­ners have to beat the six­th­placed Con­mebol (South Amer­i­can) team to make the 2018 World Cup in Rus­sia.

Fifa’s six con­ti­nents should find out by May how many ex­tra places they will each get.

Fifa’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing body, the Fifa Coun­cil, also de­cided that the for­mat would con­sist of 16 groups of three teams in the group stage – Fifa pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino’s favoured plan.

The World Cup, held every four years, last ex­panded in 1998, from 24 to 32 teams.

The de­ci­sion meets In­fantino’s elec­tion pledge of a big­ger and more in­clu­sive World Cup go­ing be­yond Euro­pean and South Amer­i­can teams, which have won all 20 ti­tles.

‘‘We have to shape the foot­ball World Cup of the 21st cen­tury,’’ said In­fantino, who also promised fund­ing in­creases for Fifa’s 211 mem­ber fed­er­a­tions at his elec­tion last Fe­bru­ary.

‘‘No guar­an­tees have been made,’’ In­fantino said re­gard­ing which con­ti­nents will ben­e­fit from the ex­pan­sion.

‘‘The only sure thing is that ob­vi­ously with 48 teams every­one will have a bit more than they have to­day.’’

New Zealand Foot­ball had been ex­pected to sup­port an ex­panded com­pe­ti­tion.

In­fantino, who re­placed the dis­graced Sepp Blat­ter in Fe­bru­ary, had made World Cup ex­pan­sion one of his prom­ises dur­ing his suc­cess­ful elec­toral cam­paign, de­signed to ap­peal to the bulk of Fifa’s 211 mem­ber as­so­ci­a­tions that rarely or never qual­ify for World Cups.

In­fantino had ini­tially sug­gested a 40-team tour­na­ment but then added an­other eight to that to­tal in Oc­to­ber.

In mak­ing the de­ci­sion, Fifa brushed aside con­cerns that the ex­pan­sion would lower the over­all stan­dard of the tour­na­ment, and make it too long and un­wieldy.

Crit­ics, in­clud­ing the pow­er­ful Euro­pean clubs as well as some lead­ing coaches, have said that Fifa is tam­per­ing with a win­ning for­mula.

Still, Fifa said it ex­pects the stan­dard of foot­ball to drop com­pared to the 32-team for­mat locked in for the next two World Cups in Rus­sia and Qatar.

The ‘‘ab­so­lute qual­ity’’ of play, de­fined by high-ranked teams fac­ing each other most of­ten, is achieved by 32 teams, Fifa ac­knowl­edged in a re­search doc­u­ment sent to mem­bers last month.

It made 10,000 tour­na­ment sim­u­la­tions to reach that con­clu­sion.

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