Belfast Telegraph

Fifa's bigger World Cup plan won't benefit Northern Ireland, insists Shaw

By Stuart McKinley

Irish FA President Jim Shaw isn't convinced that an expanded World Cup would be good for Northern Ireland.

And he doesn't believe that the global showpiece would be enhanced by having extra teams competing.

Fifa's Executive Committee has discussed increasing the number of nations taking part in the finals from the current 32 teams to 40 for the 2026 tournament.

Bigger isn't necessarily better as far as Shaw is concerned and those behind the proposals - the Asian and African members of Fifa - appear to be pushing for the increase so that their teams have more chance of qualifying and the other continental bodies wouldn't feel the benefit.

"This issue has been around for a while and has been driven by the lesser confederations," said Shaw.

"Those confederations want to see more of their own teams competing in the World Cup.

"Increasing Uefa's current level of 13 isn't within their proposals so it wouldn't mean expansion would be a positive for us in Northern Ireland.

"When you see the level that the World Cup is at, there is a stage where you can go too far.

"We now have 24 nations in the European Championship finals - and we are delighted to be one of them.

"We qualified as group winners and there will be 24 top countries in France next summer.

"I think if you increase the World Cup to 40 teams you start to dilute the quality.

"There are countries in other parts of the world who, with no disrespect to them, just couldn't compete at a world level.

"The last thing that anyone would want to see is the quality of the World Cup diminished just to accommodate more teams."

A decision was deferred by Fifa's Executive Committee yesterday. There is, however, strong support for expansion, with Uefa general secretary and Fifa presidential candidate Gianni Infantino joining the African and Asian confederations in backing such a move.

It would mean a huge change for the tournament. The addition of eight extra countries could mean another 32 matches in the group stage, adding another week to a tournament which is currently 31 days in length.

It would take the total number of games to 96.

The most likely way of accommodating the eight extra nations would be having eight groups of five teams, with the top two qualifying for the last 16 knock-out round.

Under that system, it would mean an extra four matches in each group, totalling 32 in all.

The proposal is being seen as a sweetener to persuade the Fifa Congress to vote through the package of reforms.

It would also take the pressure off Europe, whose 13 places has for a long time been the source of envy from other continents.

Africa has five while Asia and South America are only guaranteed four places under the current format, with a further spot available through a play-off.

Oceania has never had a guaranteed World Cup qualification place and that is viewed by many as wrong. It is also the reason why Australia now competes in the Asian qualifiers.

In May, Fifa decided against any change to the World Cup system and keeping the same allocation of places to the continents.

British Fifa Vice-President David Gill was among those who secured a deferment on any decision and he has warned against rushing into a change.

"This is such a major decision that it needs proper analysis," he said.

"There needs to be full consultation with the stakeholders including the clubs, players and fans and a proper analysis of all the implications including commercially and in football terms.

"It is not being proposed to come in until 2026 so I do not see that there is any rush to make a decision."

The meeting in Zurich followed a dramatic day of developments which saw two FIFA vice-presidents - Alfredo Hawit of Honduras and Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay - arrested by Swiss authorities in another swoop at the Baur au Lac hotel as part of a US-led corruption inquiry.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland have dropped one place in the latest Fifa rankings, despite winning last month's friendly against Latvia.

Michael O'Neill's team are now in 30th place.

Belfast Telegraph


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