Sunday 25 February 2018

New plan further proof that commercial imperatives are all that count in once beautiful game

FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Photo: Getty Images
FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

A 2026 World Cup of 48 teams offers a vision of football flying back and forth across Donald Trump's border wall for a tournament jointly hosted by America, Mexico and Canada: a sprawling bonanza of 16 groups and 80 matches after the 2022 version in Qatar.

Let's try not to bury this in negatives right away. A World Cup of almost 25 per cent of Fifa nations extends participation beyond Europe's superpowers to 'developing' countries in Africa, Asia and South America. It will generate up to a billion dollars more in revenue. Objectivity requires me to type those words.

The great players Fifa brought to Zurich for its annual Oscars-inspired awards junket were noticeably on-message about geo-political shifts and football's need to move with them.

But then the mind admits a sharper reality. Even if FIFA thinks it is trying to re-energise the World Cup, it is steadily killing it, with Russia, Qatar and now pell-mell expansion likely to wipe out public faith over an eight-year stretch.

Trump's wall, if it ever materialises, will not need a special football door if the US alone stage 2026. But a three-nation bid remains a strong possibility, with China also in the reckoning for 2026 and subsequent renewals.

So while the smaller nations vote enthusiastically for growth, they also kiss goodbye to the possibility of ever hosting the extravaganza.

The infrastructure required for staging a 48-team tournament is way beyond most countries.

South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014) are likely to be remembered as the World Cup's last forays beyond the superpower nations, with white elephantism the only 'legacy'.

A political reading of the unanimous vote here in Zurich in favour of 16 extra teams and a total of 80 fixtures by FIFA's council is that football's overlords have found a new, less grubby way to extract more money from television companies and fans and spread it around the six confederations.

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