Football: Expanded World Cup will 'allow more countries to dream'

Germany captain Philipp Lahm raising the World Cup trophy after they beat Argentina in the 32-team 2014 World Cup Finals.
Germany captain Philipp Lahm raising the World Cup trophy after they beat Argentina in the 32-team 2014 World Cup Finals.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

ZURICH • Fifa's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 has gathered mixed reactions from coaches, players and football associations around the world.

Football's world governing body is bidding to widen the game's global appeal and also to repair the image of the sport, after it was hit by Sepp Blatter's corruption scandal during his tenure.

Its president Gianni Infantino, who took over from Blatter in February last year, had in recent weeks voiced confidence that his flagship project would be approved.

Following the approval yesterday, Infantino said that the expansion will allow more countries to "dream" of qualifying for the globe's top sporting event.

"We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st century... football is more than Europe and South America," he said.

"Many more countries will have the chance to dream."

OUTSIDERS HAVE CHANCE NOW

For the countries that had tried for many years to qualify for the World Cup and miss out narrowly, this could be the time for them to make it.

V.SUNDRAMOORTHY, Singapore national caretaker football coach, approves of the expansion plans and believes smaller countries will stand to benefit.

FORMAT WON'T IMPROVE CHANCES

It will not... provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations. Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations.

NEW FIFA NOW, a pressure group campaigning for Fifa reforms, lambasting the decision to increase the number of World Cup teams, which they feel will be to the detriment of quality on offer.

No decision was made on how the 16 extra places would be allocated among football's regional confederations, but "everyone will get more" in the new system, the Fifa chief added.

This means good news for Asia. Under the current 32-team format, it receives between four and five places in the World Cup Finals.

These spots are usually taken by powerhouses Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia. A bigger allocation could see perennial outsiders Syria, Iraq, or even China and Thailand, making the World Cup Finals.

Infantino's views were also supported by Singapore national caretaker coach V.Sundramoorthy.

"This is a good opportunity for many smaller nations to have a chance to play against the world's biggest teams on the world's biggest platform," Sundram said.

"It does not necessarily mean a drop in quality as we had seen from teams like Wales and Iceland, who did so well at Euro 2016.

"For the countries that had tried for many years to qualify for the World Cup and miss out narrowly, this could be the time for them to make it.

"Reaching the World Cup finals could lead to tremendous growth in the sport in such countries."

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho also believes that an expanded World Cup tournament would develop the sport in areas lacking strong football foundations without proving to be a burden for clubs or players in major leagues.

"I'm totally in favour. As a club manager, if the expansion meant more games, less holidays and less pre-season for players, I would say no," the Portuguese told Fifa's website (www.fifa.com).

"It's important for critics to analyse and understand that expansion doesn't mean more matches. Players are protected and clubs are protected in this way."

In the current 32-team format, there were a total of 64 matches played at a World Cup Finals tournament.

The new format of 48 teams - 16 groups of three teams, then into a 32-team knockout competition - would entail 80 matches.

"Teams with less potential and experience will probably play two matches and go home," said Mourinho.

"But they would do so having improved and gained experience on the pitch, which would be added to the economic rewards of appearing at the finals - including further investment in their footballing infrastructure."

However, not all are in favour of the change.

Football's powerful European Club Association (ECA) was against the 48-team format, describing the 32-team model as "the perfect formula".

"We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable," the body which represents European football clubs said in a statement.

"We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives."

The pressure group New Fifa Now, which has campaigned for reform of Fifa, was also critical.

"It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations," it said in a statement. "Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

  • Additional reporting by Wang Meng Meng
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Expanded World Cup will 'allow more countries to dream''. Print Edition | Subscribe