Infantino’s Plans for Future World Cups are Truly Infantile

He is now the man in charge of future World Cups, but can you imagine the young Gianni Infantino choosing a team in the school playground? “I’ll have you…and you…Oh, and you too…In fact, I’ve have ALL of you!”  The opposing captain would have pointed out to the young Gianni, “You can’t have all of them!”, to which Gianni would undoubtedly have replied, “Why not? That way I’m guaranteed to win!”

In his latest plans for future World Cups, the new FIFA President had originally suggested that there should be 40 teams competing: a suggestion that was part of the manifesto on which he was elected head of world football earlier this year. Now, however, he has gone one step further—or more precisely eight steps further—and suggested that there should be 48 teams. Even more incredibly, he has suggested that 16 of those 48 would be knocked out after a first “preliminary” round.

The first thing to say about Infantino’s latest idea is that it may simply be a ruse, a crude attempt to deflect criticism of his original proposal to expand the number of competing teams at a World Cup finals from the current 32 to 40.

That increase alone is hugely contentious, as it would inevitably prolong the tournament into a fifth or even sixth week while diluting the quality of the games themselves. Even the best and fittest players in the world would struggle to play eight games in succession to win the greatest prize in football.

However, that idea looks positively rational compared to an expansion in the number of finalists to 48. That may be precisely why Infantino has made his latest proposal. Perhaps he thinks that this proposal will make the other one look like a good idea.

Unfortunately, it could be the case that he is simply trying to carry even more favour with FIFA members by suggesting an almost infinite expansion of the number of competing teams at future World Cups. This way, more countries would get a chance to play, and those countries would be more likely to continue to support him as President.

Where will it all stop, one wonders? If he can propose a World Cup finals with 48 competing nations – almost 25% of the total number of FIFA’s 200-odd members – then why not got go the whole hog and eventually have a year-long tournament with all of FIFA’s members competing in it? At least it would get rid of qualifying.

Indeed, the initial reaction to Infantino’s proposal of a World Cup with nearly a half-century of competing nations was not just of amazement but disbelief. One media organisation felt compelled to contact FIFA to confirm that it was actually a genuine proposal.

There is a wonderful saying in Brazil that God gave Brazil the best footballers in the world but to give the other countries a chance he also gave Brazilian football the worst administrators. Anyone who has ever tried to make sense of Brazil’s labyrinthine compendium of state and national championships would certainly agree with that comment, but it may be true of football administrators as a whole, Brazilian or otherwise.

To adapt the Brazilian phrase: “God made football the best game in the world, but to give all the other sports a chance he also gave it the worst administrators.”  The appalling financial abuse of Blatter and Platini was bad enough, but now it seems that Infantino is determined to follow in their footsteps by ruining the game’s greatest tournament.

It is remarkable to consider now that when the first World Cup was staged in Uruguay in 1930 so few international teams wanted to compete; particularly those from Europe, which was a two-month journey-by-sea from South America. Despite the fact teams did not even have to qualify but were simply invited to compete, there were only 13 finalists in total.

That literally odd number meant that only one of the four first-round groups actually had four teams in it, while the other three first-round groups consisted of only three teams. Such has been the expansion of football since 1930 that now every nation on earth clamours to compete in a World Cup finals. But that is not to say that all of them—or even a very large number of them—should be allowed to do so.

It is not as if we do not have a very recent reminder of the danger of the excessive expansion of international tournaments. This summer, the number of teams competing at the European Championship, which for the last 30 years or so had probably supplanted the World Cup as consistently the greatest international tournament, increased from 16 teams to 24.

For all the undoubted delight of smaller nations such as Wales, Iceland or Northern Ireland at reaching a major tournament, the overall quality of the play was extremely poor, mainly because the new format, whereby the four best third-placed teams after the first round reached the knockout stages, actively encouraged defensive play. Northern Ireland, for example, may have reached the last 16 but they only did so by virtue of achieving one win and two narrow defeats.

What made matters even worse was that this supposedly “new” format was really an old and discredited one; it was the same format that had plagued the four World Cups between 1982 and 1994. Michel Platini, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and who personally instigated the expansion of the Euros to 24 teams, really should have known better.

Perhaps the real lesson to be learned here is about the danger of nominative determinism, which is the idea that naming something, or someone, has a direct influence on how it develops. Successive FIFA Presidents seem to have thought that the “World Cup” should include the whole world of football, rather than the best 16 or 32 footballing nations in the world. Infantino is proving that he, like many of those running football, wants to change things for the sake of it.

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