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Irish FA chief David Martin supports 48-team World Cup expansion

By Graham Luney

Irish Football Association President David Martin says he backs a move to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 but he's still unclear whether the new format will give Northern Ireland a better chance to qualify for the tournament.

Fifa will vote today on the expansion plans in line with the vision of president Gianni Infantino who favours 16 groups of three countries, with the top two progressing to the knockout rounds.

If successful - and one insider says the vote is a "fait accompli" - it would lead to the first World Cup expansion since 1998 and Martin is hopeful the move will help Northern Ireland progress to more finals.

"I'm in favour of any decision that gives Northern Ireland a better chance of qualifying for a World Cup," said the Irish FA President.

"If the new format of the tournament gives us a greater opportunity to make the finals then it has my support.

"What it would do is give more countries hope and raise expectation levels.

"There was an increase in the number of participants for the Euro 2016 finals from 16 to 24 teams and that was well received by everyone. We won our qualification group but the added number of qualifiers created fresh hope and encouragement for countries in the campaign.

"Uefa are allocated 13 places for the World Cup and there is no guarantee that number will increase though we would like to see that happen."

The World Cup currently features 32 teams but for a 48-team tournament, the bulk of the 16 extra places are expected to go to Africa and Asia.

Europe currently has 13 places which could potentially rise to 16 with one European country in each group. Fifa is not planning to allocate the extra slots at today's vote but Martin is interested to know where the extra spots will be allocated.

"It's up to the 37-member Fifa council to determine that," added Martin. "This plan is the vision of Gianni Infantino, the new Fifa president, and opinion will be divided. Purists would prefer fewer countries participating at a World Cup and their argument is the standard of football will decrease.

"With the 48 teams you are talking around 25% of the football playing countries in the world so it's a big expansion.

"But when a country makes it to a major tournament there is a financial benefit which can be used to plan for the future and help sustain progress at elite performance level.

"The money secured from the Euro 2016 campaign gives us a platform to go forward and improve the pathway that exists for players to ultimately play for the senior international side."

The Fifa Council will have five options to choose between when it meets today - the 32-team status quo, two 40-team formats and two 48-team formats - but it is widely believed that a decision has already been reached to go to 48.

Infantino has said that Fifa's 211 member federations are "overwhelmingly in favour" of a 48-team tournament but the most common criticism is that a greater number of participants would result in quality being diluted.

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