Fifa boss woos the Asian dollar

Infantino reiterates vision of more World Cup berths for Asia, amid meetings with sponsors

SEOUL • Fifa president Gianni Infantino dangled the carrot of more World Cup spots for Asia during a visit to Seoul yesterday. But while the Swiss was keen to press his case for an enlarged 40-team tournament, he will not try to twist anyone's arm.

Infantino, who arrived in South Korea to meet sponsors Hyundai Motor Group, said his visit was aimed at rebuilding trust with corporate partners and presenting his vision of a "new Fifa".

World football's scandal-hit governing body is in the midst of the worst crisis in its 112-year history, with more than 40 individuals and entities, including many former Fifa officials, charged with corruption-related offences in the United States.

Infantino, elected in February to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter, told reporters that adding eight more teams to the World Cup from 2026 was "perfectly justified".

"Football is not only Europe and South America. Football is the world," he said.

"I'm not a dictator so I can't impose anything (on anyone) but I'm trying to convince everyone.

"I believe we have to increase the number of teams... because we have to be more inclusive."

INCLUSION IS THE GOAL
 

Football is not only Europe and South America... I believe we have to increase the number of teams... because we have to be more inclusive.

GIANNI INFANTINO , the Fifa president, on expanding the World Cup and offering more spots to Asia.

Asia currently has four automatic spots at the World Cup, with a fifth up for grabs in an inter-confederation play-off, and Infantino said that number could rise to at least six under an expanded format.

Fifa has struggled to find new sponsors since the current crisis erupted and Asia's financial muscle could see the region play a bigger role.

Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, South Korea's two largest automakers and affiliates of the Hyundai conglomerate, have extended their partnership with Fifa until 2022.

China has also shown its ambition on the global football stage with Dalian Wanda Group, the country's biggest commercial property developer, becoming the first Chinese top-level sponsor of Fifa last month.

A source close to the deal said the 15-year sponsorship agreement with Wanda would be worth "hundreds of millions of dollars".

Infantino also said the nature of football took the sport beyond borders to new frontiers and that the organisation could work as a vehicle to bring people together.

He mentioned that he was willing to try and set up a football match between North and South Korea as a way of easing hostility on the divided peninsula.

"We should bring everyone together around a football pitch... I'm ready to help and assist in whatever way is necessary," Infantino told reporters.

Military tensions have been running high on the peninsula following North Korea's nuclear test in January and a ballistic missile test staged a month later.

Cross-border relations have sunk to their lowest level in years, with almost all official communications cut off.

The two Koreas last held a friendly match in Seoul in 2005. Before that they played two consecutive games in October 1990, in Seoul and Pyongyang, under the title "Inter-Korea Unification" matches.

Sporting exchanges have since halted, along with other ties, as relations soured.

"Sometimes imagination can come true. Sometimes dreams can come true. These things can become a reality," said the Fifa chief.

Infantino will next travel to Bangkok today to take part in the Football Association of Thailand's 100th anniversary celebrations.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline 'FIFA BOSS WOOS THE ASIAN DOLLAR'. Print Edition | Subscribe