Football

Fifa's World Cup expansion move irks some

European Club Association and La Liga oppose move, but Scottish FA in favour

An association comprising some of the top clubs in Europe has criticised the Fifa Council's backing for an expanded 48-team World Cup.

It was confirmed yesterday that Fifa president Gianni Infantino's idea to increase the number of participating nations at the Finals from 32 to 48 had been approved by delegates in Zurich, with the plans set to be enforced from the 2026 competition onwards.

However, the European Club Association, a body representing the interests of clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has blasted the move, claiming it is motivated by political rather than sporting intentions.

A statement from the body, which represents 220 teams across the continent, said: "The European Club Association reiterates that it is in principle not in favour of an expanded World Cup.

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

LA LIGA PLANS TO SUE

"Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.

"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.

"ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its Executive Board scheduled for the end of January."

The ECA is not the only one to oppose the expansion move.

The Spanish La Liga is planning on taking Fifa to court to stop the World Cup expanding to 48 teams, reported Sky Sports yesterday.

A senior source at the Spanish league says it will do everything possible to reverse the Fifa Council's decision.

La Liga warned Infantino before yesterday's vote that it would take legal action if the Fifa president went ahead with his plans.

Infantino was told that Europe's professional leagues had to be consulted on all decisions which affect professional footballers.

According to La Liga, that consultation did not take place.

The new format which is to be introduced from 2026 will mean the number of players taking part in the tournament will increase by 50 per cent.

The source said: "We are not happy at all. We are providing extra players, but we have not been consulted. We are looking at ways in which we can challenge today's decision."

One association to welcome the proposed new format was the Scottish Football Association, with Scotland having not qualified for the Finals since 1998.

"We believe this is a positive step, particularly for the smaller nations, and will allow more fans across the globe to revel in their country's participation at a Fifa World Cup Finals," said SFA chief executive Stewart Regan.

"This will also allow these nations to invest further in their infrastructure and youth development which, in turn can yield significant social benefits.

"The exploits of Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 showed what an impact the smaller teams can have, and how beneficial to a tournament their participation can be.

"A greater eclectic mix of footballing cultures at the Fifa World Cup will create a bigger and better atmosphere than ever before." - WIRE SERVICES

Why the expansion and how it will work

WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?

The short answer to this is Sepp Blatter.

The Swiss had planned to expand the tournament to 40 teams before his downfall in 2015 and Gianni Infantino, his eventual successor, picked up the banner.

But the two proposed 40-team formats had various issues, prompting Infantino to double down and go for 48.

HOW WILL THIS WORK?

Infantino's first idea was to have a play-off round of 32 teams to decide who should join 16 seeded teams in the current format of eight groups of four, followed by a knock-out.

But the 46-year-old Swiss-Italian later came up with 16 groups of three, before a 32-team knock-out.

The total number of games increases from 64 to 80, but most teams will play no more than three and the four semi-finalists will play no more than seven - the same as now.

That last point is significant as the leading European clubs have opposed any move to increase the number of games the top nations play.

Fifa is also adamant this can be done in 32 days, the same duration as the current format, another major concern for the clubs.

WHO STANDS TO BENEFIT?

It's yet to be decided how the 16 extra places at the World Cup in 2026 will be allocated, but one proposal under review is for Europe to have an additional three teams.

Africa would have an extra four and six South American teams would automatically qualify.

Oceania would have a guaranteed finalist, while there would be a play-off between one of the Asian teams and one from the Concacaf.

Infantino is expected to announce further details shortly but one thing is certain - there will be a scramble for places.

WHAT ABOUT THE QUALITY?

This is an issue raised by the German FA, who has spoken out against Infantino's plan, and even Fifa's internal research on the formats admits the status quo is the best way to guarantee as many of the world's best teams play at the Finals.

But Infantino has repeatedly talked up Costa Rica's besting of England, Italy and Uruguay in 2014 and the exploits of Iceland and Wales at Euro 2016, as examples of underdogs overcoming their perceived superiors.

HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH MONEY?

The projected increase in revenue is US$1 billion (S$1.44b) for Infantino's preferred 48-team event when compared to the 2018 World Cup.

The president has said money should not be a reason for doing this - he says he wants to spread the passion a nation experiences during a World Cup campaign - but this is a man whose first Fifa act was to dish out bigger cheques to each football association. - WIRE SERVICES

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