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FIFA boss Infantino confronts numbers game in World Cup expansion

Paris (AFP) – FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Wednesday that everyone agrees on the need to expand the World Cup finals but there are divisions on whether there should be 40 or 48 teams.

Infantino campaigned for the FIFA leadership this year on the back of adding to the 32 nations at the current World Cup. The FIFA Council is to decide in January how big the tournament can go from 2026.

The FIFA leader held the first of a series of regional meetings with federation chiefs outside Paris on Wednesday and said after “the aim was to explain, to lift misunderstandings and I think we succeeded.”

“The concluding view of the associations who were there was that everyone wants an expansion.

“After there were some who want 40 and others 48. The question is how to make the shareout, to guarantee that teams from (all) continents will participate in the final phase.”

FIFA gains from a bigger World Cup because its television revenues would get a major boost with more countries.

Infantino said that with 40 countries there could be 10 first round groups of four or eight groups of five. 

“With these two variations we realised that we give more teams a chance to participate but from a sporting point of view the problem is that it (qualification) is not very direct.”

With 32 teams, the top two from each group qualify for the knockout stages. With 40 there would be more best third-placed teams.

Infantino highlighted the case of Albania at this year’s European Championship. The Balkan state had to wait a week before finding out whether they had qualified from their group as one of the best third place teams.

With a 48-nation final, there could be 32 in the group stages but there would be 16 playoffs to get the last 16 places in the groups and these would be held at the World Cup host country.

Infantino said it would be like 16 “finals” before the group stage.

Noel Le Graet, president of the French Football Federation, said he was “not very taken” by the playoff idea.

Teams and supporters could end up going to the World Cup finals for just one match if they lose the playoff.

“It is a question that is being studied,” said Infantino. “It is negative if there has to be a lot of preparation for just one match.

“We know that matches which interest the public the most, including supporters, are the matches where there is really something at stake,” he added.

“FIFA’s aim is to have more countries, whatever the formula,” said Le Graet. “I think doubts will be raised about playoffs at the next FIFA Congress.”

The French football chief said European federations preferred the “status quo” and that even with 48 teams it was possible to hold a tournament without playoffs.

The heads of other major European federations have said that they will follow the expansion because it is wanted by smaller nations.

Infantino has another of his football summits in Singapore and Indonesia on December 6 and 8 before the FIFA Council meets on January 9-10 to decide the World Cup revolution.

Infantino will hold similar talks in Miami, Doha, Addis Ababa and London up until March next year.

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