FIFA boss backs bigger World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Saturday claimed there are “no down sides” to expanding the World Cup to 48 teams and “no taboos” in discussing changes to soccer’s flagship competition.

Infantino has proposed increasing the number of teams at the World Cup from the current 32 to 40 or 48 from 2026, and will present five format proposals to members of the FIFA Council when it meets on Jan. 9-10.

The proposals have met with fierce opposition from the European Club Association, which represents Europe’s top clubs. The ECA on Thursday called on Infantino to scrap his plans on the grounds that the number of games played each season “has already reached an unacceptable level.”

But Infantino, who took over from Sepp Blatter in FIFA’s top job in February, hit back ahead of Sunday’s Club World Cup final in Yokohama, arguing that an expanded tournament would add nothing to the players’ workload.

“I would just like to underline that even a 48-team format does not require more matches per team,” said the Swiss-Italian. “A maximum seven matches if you win or reach the final, like today. It does not require more days in the tournament — 32 days, like today. It does not require more stadiums for the tournament — 12, like today.

“It has no impact on the health or the fatigue of the players because the number of the matches is the same for each player. The only difference is that eight or six more countries will participate in the biggest event of the world, which is the FIFA World Cup. So there is really no down side at all. There are only up sides.”

Infantino also refused to rule out drastic changes to the Club World Cup, which is currently contested between seven teams and held over 10 days in December. Infantino has previously floated the idea of a 32-team tournament held in June, and the 46-year-old reiterated that “everything is on the table.”

“The Club World Cup, which is such a great competition, to have it squeezed in the middle of leagues and other competitions, it loses part of the impact and the appeal that it could have,” he said. “I think it’s only natural and normal that we speak about it and put it on the table, and see if there can be better timing and format.

“If yes, if everyone is happy, then fine. And if not, then we have a great tournament already. But we should always look at how we can improve things, especially when you speak about the World Cup. When you speak about club football, which today is not only any more Europe and South America. We need to put all the topics on the table, we have no taboos.”

Infantino also declared himself satisfied with the first test of FIFA’s Video Assistant Referees review system, which is being trialed at the ongoing Club World Cup in Japan.

Critics have argued that the system, which allows officials to consult video footage for decisions involving goals, penalties and red cards, disrupts the flow of the game and creates long interruptions while the officials review the footage.

Infantino acknowledged that the system still needs to be fine-tuned but suggested it could be used at the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

“I hope that the results will be so positive that it can be implemented (at the World Cup),” he said.

“At the World Cup, what are 30 seconds? What is one minute in a World Cup if you can win or lose a final because of a mistake made in good faith by the referee? How much time do the players sometimes waste during a match, when they fall down, when there is a free kick?”

The video review system has been used twice so far at the Club World Cup – first to award Kashima Antlers a penalty in their semifinal win over Atletico Nacional, and then to query whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal for Real Madrid against Club America was offside.

Referee Enrique Caceres’ hesitation before awarding Ronaldo’s goal prompted Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane to warn that the system “could cause confusion,” but FIFA Chief Officer of Technical Development Marco Van Basten believes it is natural to expect a few teething problems.

“The communication between the video assistant referee and the referee was not really optimal, but that’s also why we have waited to make this decision,” said the Dutchman. “I think everybody understands that if you start a new thing, sometimes you need in the beginning a few more seconds.

“If these 10 or 15 seconds give us all a better feeling of the right decision, I think we should all be happy with it. I’m convinced that in a few months or years, everybody will understand and improve. It’s just a matter of time.”

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