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Fifa boss boosts Northern Ireland hopes of a return to the World Cup stage

 

By Daniel McDonnell

The door to the next World Cup opened wider for Northern Ireland last night as Fifa President Gianni Infantino held out the possibility of making Qatar 2022 a 48-team tournament.

World football's governing body have already voted to expand the competition from 32 to 48 teams from 2026 and there will be no going back on that divisive plan.

But, speaking ahead of tomorrow's Croatia-France final in Moscow, Infantino said that the prospect of the expansion taking place for the 2022 World Cup remains a possibility.

Before the start of this World Cup, Infantino had appeared to rule out that prospect, but he said at his end-of-tournament press conference in Moscow that a decision will be made within a 'few months' after discussions with the authorities in Qatar.

A change would have implications for Northern Ireland, with the number of European slots due to rise from 13 to 16 for the new format.

It would present logistical problems, however, with the amount of games rising from 64 to 80 and that might prove beyond Qatar as they are currently in the process of trying to meet the initial requirements.

"For now it's a World Cup with 32 teams but everybody is open-minded and we will have a frank and open debate," said Infantino.

"We will decide in the next few months."

Infantino added: "We must have discussions with the Qataris and then, if there is a possibility, we will talk about it with the Fifa Council and stakeholders. Then we will decide calmly what the decision is. If we do have 48 teams, there will be more slots for everyone."

Infantino has defended the idea of welcoming more sides into the competition, but critics argue the bottom line is boosting Fifa profits and the cost of that will be the dilution of quality and a confusing format of 16 groups containing three teams.

"48 teams is less than 25 per cent of the Fifa members so I think it's still a reasonable number," said Infantino. "The quality is certainly there.

However, Infantino offered the view that Russia 2018 has been the best ever World Cup.

"For a couple of years, I was saying that this will be the best World Cup ever. Today I can say it even more, with more conviction... It is the best World Cup ever."

Infantino confirmed that the 2022 competition will kick-off on November 21 with the final set for December 18, with leagues around the world given advance notice so they can construct a plan to cope with a long break in the middle of a regular campaign.

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