Infantino defends 48 team World Cup as a 21st Century-looking, ‘football fever’ decision

By Andrew Warshaw

January 11 – FIFA president Gianni Infantino has defended the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams, insisting the change from 32 was based on “sporting merit” and not a money-making exercise despite his need to find promised additional revenue for FIFA’s 211 members.

After the watchdog group New FIFA Now, which admittedly has its own vested interests, described the expansion in 2026, the first for 28 years, as “a money grab and power grab”,  Infantino told the BBC: “It is the opposite, it’s a football decision.”

“Every format has advantages in financial terms. We were in a comfortable situation to take a decision based on sporting merit.”

The European Clubs Association has also lambasted the decision to increase the number of finalists though it could be argued they don’t have much of a case given the fact that the burden on their prized assets will be no greater than at previous World Cups, with the tournament’s duration set to remain at 32 days.

“This is a historic decision which marks the entrance of the World Cup into the 21st Century so we have to shape a World Cup for the 21st century,” was Infantino’s barbed response to the ECA objections.

“We have to look into the future. Football is more than Europe and South America, it is global, and the FIFA Council felt this is positive and will help football development.  The game has changed. Football has now become a truly global game. Everyone is happy about investment in Europe, but what about helping outside Europe? They need to be open.

“Football fever that you have in a country that’s qualified is the biggest promotional tool you can have.”

The devil, of course, is in the detail and Infantino admits much of that detail has yet to be worked out in terms of how the larger cake will be cut. Most indications are that Europe will have its allocation increased to 16 finalists, with Africa having nine slots, Asia eight, CONCACAF 6.5 and CONMEBOL either 6.5 or 7.

There is no time scale for determining the extra places but “this will be looked at speedily”, said Infantino. “The only sure thing is that everyone will have a bit more representation than they have.”

He rejects the suggestion that the competitive nature of the tournament will be diluted. “Costa Rica eliminated England and Italy in the last World Cup, a good solid team and there are many other teams who could make it to the World Cup,” he told a media briefing after Tuesday’s Council session that unanimously approved expansion.

“I believe that the actual quality could rise, because many more countries will have the chance to qualify so they will invest in their elite football as well as grassroots.”

“We will play 32 days like now, we play maximum seven matches like now, 12 stadiums, like now, but give the chance for more countries to dream.”

Infantino pointed to last year’s expanded Euros as evidence of why his plan works for everyone, citing the performances of countries like Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland who took full advantage of increased participation.

“It was the most interesting in the history of the European Championship. All the other teams started to believe in their chance to qualify and play matches with a different mindset that they could qualify. Qualifying created a whole new dynamic and hopefully we will do the same.”

Infantino could not resist having a sarcastic dig at German FA boss Reinhard Grindel, one of the few individual senior football officials to express opposition to expansion in public along with Spanish league boss Javier Tebas.

“Even if we organised a World Cup with only two teams one of them would be Germany because they are one of the top teams who qualify regularly but for other countries there are not so many opportunities to qualify,” said Infantino.

“I hope that, in time, they will see the benefit for the world. In the Bundesliga there are players from all around. It would be nice for those players also to have the opportunity to participate once in their lifetime in a World Cup.”

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