Infantino's vision for World Cup team expansion is harmful

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Gianni Infantino.

It seems nobody at FIFA has ever heard of, or at least agreed with, the concept of less being more.

Gianni Infantino’s idea to expand the World Cup to 48 teams is wonderfully Blatter-esque in its ridiculousness but also a disappointing reminder that those who govern the world’s most popular sport don’t really care for the people who have helped elevate it to that status – you, I and the rest of the planet’s 3.5 billion football fans, who surely want to see a tournament based on quality, not quantity.

Because while Infantino and the delegates that are sure to follow in endorsing his plan will speak of how the bloated tournament will offer greater inclusion to the more marginal football nations, thus growing the “global game”, it just looks like yet another political manoeuvre with some nice sponsorship opportunities as an added bonus. Always a heady and winning combination in FIFA-land.

As Infantino said in Bogota on Monday, “It’s more than a competition, it’s a social event.” But while that socio-cultural backdrop is important and helps give World Cups their individual identity, what ultimately defines a tournament is the calibre of football. Nobody wants to watch a social event, Gianni.

Granted, the Swiss isn’t wanting 48 teams to enter the tournament proper – whatever that will eventually resemble – he just plans to create a one-game play-off round where 32 teams will be halved to join 16 automatic qualifiers. The World Cup is absolutely fine in a 32-team format. FIFA have hit upon a formula that is the gold standard when it comes to international tournaments. On the field, Brazil 2014 was one of the best tournaments this century, yet the desire remains to tinker with it for no reason other than self-interest.

There are a multitude of issues in football that need addressing – financial inequality, match fixing, doping, corruption, a lack of transparency with agents – while the fact this news comes a week after FIFA disbanded their anti-racism task force is beyond parody.

In the four tournaments since France ‘98, 14 nations have reached their first World Cup. The game is growing relatively organically. It doesn’t need this kind of charity to make emerging teams feel like they belong. It is, after all, a sporting competition and participation should be earned, not given.

But in their admirable or cynically exploitative desire to expand football beyond the boundaries of the traditional elite, FIFA have created a monster. Because as nations who have previously felt marginalised gain greater influence and power – often contrary to their standing in the game – that has to be reflected on the field. Those election-swinging votes from north and central America need satisfying, and what better way to do it than making them feel like the possibility of qualifying for a World Cup is that much more realistic.

Except, the caveat to this, which FIFA won’t be promoting, is that the format will more than likely safeguard those established teams who don’t make the initial 16.

Based on FIFA’s traditional seedings being via world rankings and history at previous tournaments, the likes of the Netherlands or England – who could realistically struggle to make the 16 – will receive favourable match-ups and be up against minnows who, in a one-off game, are more than likely to beat and therefore form the 32.

So while you’re presenting the illusion of being at a World Cup, the reality is fleeting – you’re there for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the concern from the game’s elite is alleviated by the knowledge that, if anything, it gives them an extra chance of qualifying. Miss out on the 16, it’s okay, 90 minutes against Zambia should get you in.

But Infantino and his successors have their votes while sponsors and television companies have more markets to work in, and football slowly eats itself sick on the neverending desire for more.

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