Belfast Telegraph

Infantino swipes back at critics of a larger World Cup

By Ian Herbert

FIFA president Gianni Infantino yesterday hit back at European nations who are resistant to the new expanded 48-team World Cup, telling the implacably opposed Germans that they always qualify and must wake up to the reality of this century, rather than live in the last one.

Fifa unanimously agreed that the tournament will now begin with 16 groups of three teams, in which the top two advance into a 32-team knockout stage and with the Scottish and Northern Irish FA already coming out in support, Infantino insisted that the countries which perennially qualify must be more broader-minded.

"Even if you organise a World Cup with two teams, one of the two teams would be Germany," said Infantino, who joked that 48 teams would help "get England" to the 2026 finals. "(Germany) are the World champions, a top team who qualify regularly, who win regularly. It's obvious that whatever format you have, Germany will be there.

"But for many other countries, it's a chance to qualify. It is a chance to participate in a big event. It's not the 20th century any more. It's the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America. Football is global. The football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the most powerful tool you can have."

Though the English FA have been resigned to the vote and not argued publicly against, Germany stated that the kudos of a place at the event will become diminished. The vote for the expanded tournament also drew a barbed response from the European Club Association (ECA) which effectively accused Infantino of currying support among smaller nations to assist his own re-election as president in 2019.

The ECA, which as a body representing the interests of big clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid has done much to maintain their dominance at the expense of smaller clubs, said: "We understand this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure."

Infantino dismissed that and pointing out that he had not added any additional days or stadia to the tournament and that the winning side in 2026 would play no more than seven matches - as under the current system.

In the new format, there will be 80 games - six more than the current 32-team schedules. European places at the competition will likely rise from 13 to 16. Africa and Asia could have as many as nine teams each. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil they had five and four teams respectively. Fifa could decide by May how many entries each continent has.

The other major decision - who will host the event - is not scheduled for consideration until 2020 with a bid featuring the United States, either on its own or with one or both of Canada and Mexico, an early favourite. Increased revenues for Fifa are also expected. Their research suggests an additional £521m profit

"I'm in favour of any decision that gives Northern Ireland a better chance of qualifying," said Irish FA president David Martin. "If the new format gives us a greater opportunity then it has my support. What it would do is give more countries hope and raise expectation levels."

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