Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill would back World Cup expansion

By Paul Ferguson in Panama

Forward-thinking Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill would back any Fifa proposal to expand the World Cup at Qatar in 2022 from 32 to 48 teams - because he says football's greatest spectacle should not just be a tournament for the big nations.

O'Neill, in Central America on Northern Ireland's two-match tour, also insists Europe must be given a fair allocation of any additional places.

He was speaking ahead of this morning's early hours game against Panama.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino last year secured approval at Council to expand the teams at the 2026 World Cup by 16. But the Swiss may hasten the plans in time for the next World Cup in four years time.

Northern Ireland will not be at this summer's finals in Russia after a controversial refereeing decision in their two legged play-off with Switzerland last November gifted their opponents the goal that took them through to the football extravaganza.

Europe, the biggest confederation in Fifa, is also notoriously the most difficult to qualify from and the proposals for this World Cup expansion indicate the continent would only receive three more places at the top table.

Northern Ireland were last at the World Cup finals 32 years ago when Billy Bingham led his men to Mexico in 1986.

O'Neill says: "For us, I would always be in support of expanding the World Cup. But it's very difficult. The World Cup has proven that in this campaign for us in the nature of how we went out.

"I'm a wee bit concerned that it's only going to open up three more spaces for Europe. Central and North America are going to go from three to six."

The Northern Ireland boss went on: “I don’t know if there’s a better way to have some sort of global play-off system or something in place as well.

“I think the more countries that get the chance is better. It’s very difficult to grow the game in your country unless you can have that exposure.

“There’s countries like ourselves and those that are smaller than us that don’t have professional leagues, and then they may get an opportunity to go to a major tournament and what it does for football in their country, both in terms of profile and financially, is invaluable.

“The World Cup cannot just be for the big nations all the time. Infantino’s thinking is about the development of football and using the World Cup as a way of developing football.”

Fifa could nevertheless run into logistical and infrastructure problems as Qatar may simply not be big enough to host 48 countries and the relevant matches, while there is also opposition from European Leagues President Lars-Christer Olsson.

The European Leagues, an umbrella group for 32 professional leagues and associations from 25 European countries, is against the proposed expansion, which would add extra days and matches to the event.

“We are not prepared to make any changes on the calendar for expanding the 2022 World Cup,” admitted Olsson.

“We have already been flexible to allow the World Cup to be played in the winter and have agreed the dates, and we are not prepared for the duration of the World Cup to be any longer.”

In 2015, Fifa announced that the 2022 World Cup would be staged in the last two months of the year in an effort to avoid issues arising from the extreme heat in Qatar during June-July, forcing most leagues to heavily adjust their calendars.

World football’s governing body are likely to decide on the expansion plan for 2022 during the next Fifa Congress in June.

Infantino also previously said that several companies were interested in expanding the Club World Cup from its current eight-team format to a grander 24-team event.

“There is also talk about expanding the Club World Cup and we have serious reservations about that too,” Olsson added.

“Fifa seems to be on an expansion drive. It’s time people thought about the players — they need time to rest. It cannot just be money deciding how football should be organised.”


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