Saturday 24 February 2018

More teams and more money in FIFA's World Cup utopia

Argentinian soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, right, awards the trophy for The Best FIFA Men’s Coach award to Claudio Ranieri. Photo: AP
Argentinian soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, right, awards the trophy for The Best FIFA Men’s Coach award to Claudio Ranieri. Photo: AP

Paul Hayward

Fifa's PR onslaught in favour of a 48-team World Cup continued here with support from famous players and a leaked claim that a 2026 tournament with almost a quarter of the planet's footballing nations could boost revenues by up to a billion dollars.

The internal debate is already over, with the plan certain to be approved today.

Diego Maradona, an enemy of previous Fifa president Sepp Blatter was the first household name to declare his support for the scheme proposed by new supremo Gianni Infantino, whose power base outside Europe will be strengthened by offering World Cup places to 48 of the 209 affiliated Fifa nations.

Among controversial details are 16 groups of three, a total of 80 matches and penalty shoot-outs to settle group games.

"I'm delighted by Gianni's initiative because it gives chances to teams that otherwise would start the qualifiers knowing they had no chance of getting to the World Cup," Maradona said.

"It gives each country the dream and it renews the passion for football. It appears to me to be a fantastic idea."


Maradona then drew a tenuous connection between World Cup expansion and Fifa reforms in the wake of corruption scandals.

"We want a Fifa that is clean, so people come back to the stadiums," he said. "With so much corruption, people have got tired of always seeing the same thing."

Previously, Maradona had said there was a "mafia" inside the world governing body.

With the 2018 World Cup in Russia and 2022 going to Qatar after a joint bidding process that prompted the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to investigate, a 48-team World Cup is likely to further alienate supporters of the international game. Though the internal debate has been won, Fifa is now trying to persuade fans that opening World Cups to nearly one in four countries makes sense.

Marcel Desailly, a World Cup winner with France, was another to support the Infantino plan, while also aiming a dig at English moaning. "I am in favour of it," he said.

"We had the example of the Euros (Euro 2016) that you should not be scared. You share culture, the way you support your team from Iceland to Wales to Northern Ireland. We were pleased to see that. There were different approaches to football and the levels are higher. We should not be scared of seeing 5-0 or 6-0."

Some major nations, however, oppose the expansion.

Desailly said: "It is true, suddenly you are at risk. Now the bigger nations will have to be on their toes from the beginning, to be focused. No more excuses from the English manager that 'oh, my players have not had time to rest - my top champions have to be focused'. This is the World Cup. There is no bigger event."

As football's power balance shifts, Asian and African nations will be among the most enthusiastic advocates of World Cups as showcases and money generators rather than tightly defined tests of excellence.

"There are new people coming in the system." Desailly said. "The Chinese are coming in. Other countries in Asia will try and grow to have the opportunity. It is obvious Africa need more teams in the World Cup. You have top players coming from little nations that have not had the opportunity to play the World Cup. Now is the time. They have not changed the set-up since 1998 (when it grew to 32).

"Africa needs to have more teams in the World Cup. Blatter did well to give Africa the opportunity of having the World Cup. What is important is that they will think how many teams from each continent will play. This will bring football to a different level."

This idealistic view ignores hostility from fans and the suspicion that Infantino has simply found a 'cleaner' form of patronage than that employed by Blatter, who used grants and hand-outs to keep himself in power via the one nation, one vote culture.

Above all, behind this throwing open of the doors is a desperation to compete with club football at a time when the international game is a distinct second best. That, and the mono-religion of modern football, money. Hence the leaked claim that expansion means riches for all.

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