Football

AFC chief: Give Asia more World Cup spots

Fifa's expansion plan could see Asia get up to eight places from 2026 and AFC chief Sheikh Salman agrees

Fifa's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 was cheered in countries from China to New Zealand.

Chinese state media said the move could help realise the country's "dream" of returning to the World Cup, while New Zealand, who look set to be a key beneficiary, called the move "fantastic news".

Many critics have rounded on the decision, complaining it will dilute the quality of the World Cup and saying it was driven by hunger for profits and political gain.

A confidential Fifa report seen by AFP forecasts a 48-team tournament would bring a cash boost of US$640 million (S$918m) above projected revenues for next year's edition in Russia.

But Sheikh Salman, president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said that the region's size and economic might merited more than its current allocation of four guaranteed spots, which is expected to rise to eight.

He added that the expansion plan would have a "positive impact on Asian football".

"We believe that Asia, as the biggest continent, deserves more slots compared with the current quota, looking at the economic power it has, and the popularity for the game in Asia, in addition to the huge development for football at all levels," he said in a statement yesterday.

The 51-year-old Bahraini, who is a vice-president of the Fifa Council, attended Tuesday's meeting in which the world governing body decided to add 16 more teams to its current 32 from the 2026 edition of the tournament.

In the current format, Asia has 4.5 places for the Finals, with the top four teams earning direct entry while the fifth-placed side face an intercontinental play-off.

Fifa is yet to determine the number of extra slots for each continental confederation and Sheikh Salman said the expansion would ignite fresh hopes among Asian countries to make their World Cup Finals debut.

DOMINANT

Asian teams have largely failed to make an impact at the World Cup, which is dominated by European and South American sides, although co-hosts South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002.

In China, who are 82nd in the world rankings but have set their sights on becoming a global football power, the official Xinhua news agency said Fifa's move represented a big opportunity.

"Even if the levels of skill and strategy in the Chinese men's football do not grow in leaps and bounds by 2026, the initial objectives of (China's) football reform will have been realised," a Xinhua commentary said.

"By then, with the added bonus of World Cup expansion, it is highly possible that China's return to the World Cup will no longer be just a dream."

Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic said the expansion "makes sense", while Japan Football Association chief Kozo Tashima told local media: "We would like to see the extra profits shared with many countries."

Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said Fifa's move "recognised the growth of the game outside of Europe and South America".

"As the quality of Asian football continues to improve, AFC member associations will justifiably deserve greater representation at the World Cup," he said in a statement.

Similar optimism prevailed across the Tasman Sea with New Zealand Football (NZF) hoping the 11-team Oceania Confederation, who have a 0.5 qualifying spot, would finally be spared the uncertainty of a play-off.

"We can only hope that means a direct entry as a minimum," NZF chief executive Andy Martin said.

"We don't know the details, but we are led to believe that it will mean at least one place.

"If that is the case, then that will be fantastic for the whole of Oceania." - WIRE SERVICES

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