Friends in need: Putin and Infantino bond at the Kremlin

May 24 – Amid the disappointment of seeing his hopes of expanding the Qatar World Cup to 48 dashed, Gianni Infantino can at least turn to Vladimir Putin to re-inforce his status at world football’s most powerful official.

At a ceremony today in Moscow, the Russian president awarded Infantino the Order of Friendship at the Kremlin and thanked him for his “glowing assessment of our efforts” to stage last year’s World Cup.

Infantino responded by saying Russia’s “bonds of friendship” with football “is not the end, it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

Russia’s successful bid to host the 2018 tournament was marred by concerns about safety and racism but the month-long event, spread across 11 cities, passed off without major security incidents and was deemed a huge success by players and fans.

The ceremony in Moscow was a welcome distraction for Infantino following the decision 24 hours earlier to scrap the idea of expanding the Qatar World Cup in 2022 from 32 to 48 teams.

Infantino was keen to bring expansion forward from 2026, in part because of the huge increase in revenue it would have generated.

The whole concept of expansion was based on sharing matches with neighbouring countries in the gulf, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke off relations with Qatar in June 2017 and have since blockaded its land borders.

Although Infantino insisted 90% of FIFA’s membership were in favour, the concept was ditched following a feasibility study which concluded that due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on Qatar, more time would be required.

Infantino’s next challenge is to press ahead with his approved plans to radically overhaul the annual Club World Cup and turn it into a far more prestigious event every four years – with or without European teams.

In March, European members attending a FIFA Council meeting in Miami voted against introducing a 24-team tournament in 2021, and Europe’s clubs are refusing to participate.

Having already failed in his bid to create a global version of UEFA’s Nations League after a Task Force set up to examine the idea reportedly said that it was unable to find consensus on a suitable format, Infantino badly needs his ground-breaking Club World Cup formula, which would replace the Confederations Cup, to take off.

He has been pushing for approval to beef up the Club World Cup ever since FIFA negotiated a secret $25 billion deal with a (still not fully identified) group of international investors, money the FIFA president needs to fulfil his election pledge to massively increase funding to FIFA’s member nations. However, it now looks like that money is off the table.

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