Gianni Infantino’s presidential campaign wheeze of expanding the World Cup is rapidly taking shape after only nine months in office.
Observers are divided over whether the latest varied proposals emanate from a strategy of ‘making it up as we go along’ or is the result of transparent and controlled worldwide consultation.
Either way the FIFA president’s kite-flying about the shape of the world federation’s one guaranteed major revenue-earner has diverted critical focus from the unresolved questions hanging over the next two scheduled World Cups in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022.
A fortnight ago Infantino, an advocate of engorging the finals from 32 to 48 teams, suggested that maybe 16 of them – players, officials and fans – should fly halfway around the world at great wasteful cost to the land of the tournament host, play one (losing) game and fly home.
That idea was laughed out of court both privately within the game and publicly within the media.
Now, several continental conferences later, Infantino has suggested that two matches could be the preferred minimum (rather than the present three).
This would be achieved by drawing 48 teams in 16 groups of three: each team would play two games guaranteed and the top two in each group would progress to a further group stage.
Here the finals would pick up the present format viz. eight groups of four playing three games each followed by a knockout stage comprising second round, quarter and semi-finals plus a final.
This does at least have the virtue of addressing complaints about Infantino v.1: no-one would travel for merely one game, each confederation would have a guaranteed number of qualified countries (presumably through a geographically fixed draw) and it would “easier to understand ” (a FIFA source) among fans, broadcasters and sponsors.
Those, like this writer, who have heard the Chilean accountant Leandro Shara present his own revolutionary concepts, remain baffled as to why FIFA in general and Infantino in particular – if they really are open to new ideas – have not even given him even the polite courtesy of the time of day.
One of Shara’s many systems allows for 48 teams to play a minimum of not one, not two but THREE matches in a format which adds very little time to the schedule.
Of course, it may be that Infantino is interested in hearing only what he wants to hear his constituency telling him. That would be a shame on many fronts and not only World Cup organisation.
Meanwhile the latest idea – and others – will be delivered by what appears to be a comparatively irrelevant and superseded World Cup working group to a meeting of the FIFA Council on January 9. A recommendation will then be sent forward for a vote in FIFA Congress in Bahrain on May 11.
The first new-look World Cup would probably be the 2026 edition which is widely expected to be staged in the United States (in conjunction and Canada and/or Mexico).
One factor is certain: traditionalists may not like it but the World Cup will be enlarged. Infantino was enamoured of the recent expansion of the European Championship while he was UEFA general secretary. Now he is determined to make his expansionist vision felt around the world.