After much discussion, argument and counter-argument, FIFA will determine Tuesday whether president Gianni Infantino can force through his vision of an enlarged World Cup.
Infantino’s credibility will be on the line as the world body looks to revamp the four-yearly moneyspinner, potentially opening its door to 48 teams in 2026.
That would stretch the action out to 80 matches as opposed to the 2014 format of 32 teams and 64 matches.
Several options stand before the 30-strong FIFA council: maintain the status quo; extend to 40 teams featuring either eight groups of five or 10 groups of four; or got for 48 teams. That format would involve either a 32-team playoff allowing 16 winners to join 16 already qualified nations, or Infantino’s preferred option of 16 groups of three with the top two in each progressing to a round of 32.
The first World Cup in Uruguay featured just 13 countries, since when the tournament has evolved in a world of consumerism and on-demand global communication.
For the 1982 finals in Spain, the event moved from 16 to 24 teams, then 32 for France ’98.
Infantino puts forward a raft of arguments to back a further leap to 48, not least that by giving more countries a piece of the finals cake, interest will rise in more viewer markets, generating more revenue.
According to a confidential FIFA report seen by AFP, a 48-team tournament would bring a cash boost of $640 million (605 million euros) over and above projected revenues for next year’s finals in Russia.
The report forecasts television rights also rising by $505 million and marketing revenue by 370 million. And even if organisation costs would rise, the tournament could still function in a 12-stadium format, as per the 2018 model.
– Infantino option –
Yet the FIFA forecasts are hard to compare with a 2018 event whose own financial scope is somewhat clouded by the non-replacement, to date, of sponsors such as Sony and Emirates.
The Infantini option, which AFP brought to light in December, has drawn criticism and UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has complained of lack of information on the project while pointedly adding that in his view the current system “works”.
The European Clubs Association, presided by former German international Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also voiced opposition to expansion, citing an already overloaded calendar.
Even so, Spanish daily Mundo Deportivo has since reported that figures including Real Madrid’s powerful president Florentino Perez and Barcelona counterpart Josep Bartomeu are backing Infantino.
“If the format he is proposing wins out it is certain that will be a good thing for the clubs and football in general,” Perez told AFP in a recent interview.
One of the major facets within the proposed revamp is the attribution of extra berths for each confederation, a crucial point which will be discussed Tuesday in Zurich.
Whereas the shareout for a 40-strong event is already known — Europe would gain one slot to 14, Africa two and Asia one — the putative 48-nation distribution still has to be agreed on.
Asia and Africa and “smaller” countries have much to gain from an enlarged format — that much was shown by opening up the Euro 2016 to more finals participants — but undecided camps have to be won over.
Among those who are convinced by the argument of radically extending the tournament are former Cameroon international and Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o.
“Do it for the poor, for those who don’t always have the chance to play a World Cup,” Eto’o recently appealed to Infantino. – Agence France-Presse