By Andrew Warshaw
All the benefits with no negatives. So proclaimed Gianni Infantino immediately after this week’s seismic decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams. This is not about politics, he said. This is not about money. This is purely about serving football and redressing the game’s imbalances. Does anyone in their right mind really believe that?
Not about money? Adding 16 games to the existing 64-game schedule will, according to FIFA’s own research, boost revenues by about US$1 billion (though there has been no serious analysis of interrogation of these claims).
No political agenda? Promising every confederation more slots in the finals is surely a quick-fire way of ensuring Infantino puts himself in pole position when it comes to beating off any challenges to his re-election a mere two years from now even though, ironically, he will probably have been succeeded by the time 48 teams comes into play in 2026.
Say what you like about Sepp Blatter and his autocratic style and catalogue of disastrous mistakes but consider this. Had Blatter dared to rush into such a complex, ground-breaking decision, he would surely have been deemed completely insane and guilty of another madcap error of judgement.
Yet Infantino has got away with it – despite a reform process under which FIFA is supposed to be a more open, democratic, transparent organisation. Where was the openness and transparency to be found in a landmark decision with far-reaching consequences that was taken behind closed doors in a matter of a few hours by FIFA’s new-look, supposedly more accountable, ruling Council? The idea was only floated, for goodness sake, a mere few weeks ago yet now it is a fait accompli.
We can debate all we like about whether or not a 48-team World Cup is good or bad for football but the process over how the apparently unanimous verdict was reached is desperately flawed.
Of course the Council approved the plan. Of course FIFA’s 211 national associations will endorse it at the FIFA Congress in May. They’d be crazy not to (though perhaps crazier to do so taking out personal interest). Everyone wants more slots, no-one wants to be on the losing side. Hence why UEFA appear to be going with the flow despite privately expressing strong reservations – they aren’t necessarily alone. But where was the consultation with all relevant stakeholders which Infantino, when he was elected, said he was so keen to boost.
Make no mistake, Tuesday was very much a one-man show. One could easily have imagined chants of “are you Blatter in disguise” ringing out at FIFA HQ.
Speaking of the Infantino show, where was his trusted sidekick? Under the FIFA reforms, Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s newly-appointed general secretary on Infantino’s personal recommendation, is supposed to be the organisation’s operational face, taking on the role of CEO with the president in charge of strategy.
Yet where was Samoura? In the Council session perhaps but certainly not at Infantino’s press conference afterwards. And not monitoring proceedings in the mixed zone either. Perhaps it was felt Samoura did not know enough about football. Sarcasm aside, according to well-informed sources all is not right between Infantino and Samoura, with FIFA’s first female general secretary understood to be increasingly frustrated at being marginalised when it comes to certain key decisions. As if that was never going to be the case.
Turning to the nitty-gritty of World Cup expansion, now of course comes the main battleground in terms of how the larger cake is sliced up. Does CONCACAF, with only two seriously competitive countries, really deserve 6.5 places as is being mooted? Should seven of South America’s 10 footballing nations receive a guaranteed place? Despite Infantino’s insistence that sporting criteria have been given priority, there are serious concerns over whether a 48-team format will actually work better.
The European Clubs Association, which represents over 200 clubs and fiercely opposes the new format, may not have much of a case in the sense that an expanded tournament may not place any extra burden Europe’s highly-prized (and paid) players since its duration will remain at 32 days. But the fact is there has been precious little debate. The speed at which Infantino has managed to push through the plan (first 40 teams, then in October suddenly 48) must be virtually unprecedented.
No-one would deny that Asia and Africa, the latter supplying so many gifted players to European clubs, deserve more representation in the finals. As Infantino rightly pointed out, the World Cup is not all about Europe which, one might argue, has traditionally been over-represented. Time has indeed moved on but there are nevertheless a number of flaws.
Supporters point to last summer’s expanded Euros and the performances of the likes of Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland as evidence (though even suggested otherwise in UEFA’s own technical report) that quality will not be diluted. But on a world stage, with 16 groups of three, can one actually guarantee this would still be the case with almost one in five FIFA members taking part? The prospect of Brazil or Germany hammering Haiti or Uzbekistan does not exactly set the pulse racing. This is the World Cup finals, remember, not just qualifying. Will armchair fans really be able to maintain interest with 16 individual groups?
Speaking of qualifying, there is a risk that this becomes seriously diluted especially in South America and potentially in Europe too. The World Cup is not just about its month-long climax. Being guaranteed more slots could have a worrying negative impact on the race to get there in the first place. Conmebol’s highly successful two-year programme risks being horribly jeopardised in terms of meaningful games.
Perhaps the final word should go to Javier Tebas, outspoken head of the Spanish league. Tebas may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, critics believe he should have quit long ago. Of course he has vested interests but he is not the only one to compare Infantino’s tactics to how his predecessor used to run the show.
“Infantino behaves like Blatter who made his own decisions without taking into account the rest,” charged Tebas. “He wants to keep his electoral promises but has made decisions alone without consulting anyone, I’m very angry.”
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org