World Cup shake-up plans: 48 teams and North and South America qualifiers merged

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By Andrew Warshaw in Zurich

January 9 – As FIFA moves closer towards a landmark decision to expand the World Cup finals from 2026, saying the idea has the support of a vast majority of its national federations, the head of one South American association has revealed FIFA president Gianni Infantino is backing an equally ground-breaking and somewhat controversial move to merge the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL qualifiers.

Venezuelan Football Federation president Laureano Gonzalez, a CONMEBOL vice-president, says his confederation would seek at least 14 slots in the finals if two regions end up being combined.

The FIFA Council is due to vote on Tuesday whether in principle to increase the number of teams from the current 32 to either 40 or 48 though crucially no decision will be taken on the specific allocations of extra slots, very much the main battleground, until later.

CONMEBOL currently has four-and-a-half places for its 10 members while CONCACAF, which covers north and central America and the Caribbean, has 35 FIFA members but three-and-a-half places.

“There is a suggestion from Gianni Infantino to unify the CONMEBOL and CONCACAF qualifiers,” Gonzalez told the Venezuelan sports daily Meridiano. “This would have support if they gave us more places. At the moment, we have seven between the two confederations, plus two half places.”

“If this went up to 14, similar to what Europe has for more or less the same number of teams, the idea would catch on in the continent.”

Europe currently has 13 places (plus one more at 2018 for hosts Russia) though it is strongly rumoured this could go up to 16 under the expansion plan in order to persuade a sceptical UEFA to accept the idea.

Under Infantino’s proposal, the competition’s first round would be changed from eight groups of four to 16 of three, with the top two in each group advancing to a new last-32.

While FIFA’s Council looks almost certain to give the green light to the first increase in the size of its flagship tournament since 1998, support is far from unanimous with the Germans having already expressed their opposition, citing “considerable weaknesses” including the potential for meaningless games and deliberately engineered results. One solution to this is a proposal, backed by Infantino, for drawn group fixtures to be settled by penalty shoot-outs.

FIFA’s council will meet the morning after today’s star-studded inaugural FIFA awards ceremony, The Best FIFA Football Awards – at which Cristiano Ronaldo is favourite to pick up the main. Ronaldo has already clinched the Ballon d’Or accolade, edging home ahead the others on the shortlist, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann.

FIFA ended its six-year collaboration with the magazine France Football for the Ballon d’Or award last year and now organises its own gala occasion. Eight prizes are up for grabs including best women’s player and the best men’s and women’s coaches. Voting is by national team captains and coaches, selected journalists and, for the first time, an online poll of fans. Each category counts for 25% of the points.

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