FIFA president: World Cup could expand to 48 teams in 2022, ahead of schedule

The Washington Post

FIFA remains open to expanding the number of teams in the World Cup by 50 percent in 2022, four years earlier than planned, the president of soccer's international governing body said Friday.

The organization will continue discussing the matter with the host country, Qatar, and "calmly and quietly" decide whether to grow the tournament to 48 teams from 32, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said.

During a news conference at Luzhniki Stadium, two days before the final between France and Croatia, Infantino seemed bullish on the idea, saying, "The quality is certainly there. … There is nothing more powerful than participating in an event like the World Cup to boost football in a country."

FIFA already had approved expansion for the 2026 tournament, which the United States, Mexico and Canada will share. Growing the field in 2022, however, is problematic because Qatar is such a small nation. Qatari organizers have expressed concern about staging a larger tournament. The country is in the process of building or renovating a number of stadiums. A 48-team World Cup would add 16 matches to the schedule, to 80 from 64.

Proponents of a larger event point to the addition of teams that otherwise would have failed to qualify in a smaller field. This year, for instance, the Netherlands, Italy, Chile, Ghana, Cameroon, Ireland and the United States did not make it. Opponents see a watered-down competition with numerous teams ill-suited for the world stage.

Even with 48 teams, fewer than 25 percent of FIFA-eligible countries would participate, Infantino said.

"It's still a reasonable number looking forward," he added.

- - -

Infantino did not directly answer a question about how he reconciles his tight relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the political and human-rights issues dogging the host country.

"Football cannot solve all the problems in the world," Infantino said. "Football cannot change the past. But football can have an impact in the future. Maybe some people who are making important decisions for our planet could take some advice or at least look at what we are trying to do in football and maybe take some inspiration or at least try to address these issues. We have to look forward to learning from what has happened without denying what has happened."

FIFA has worked closely with the Russian government and local organizing committee in staging an event that has received glowing reviews from participants, fans and reporters alike.

"There are many injustices in the world," Infantino said. "There are many things that we are not happy are happening in the world, not in one country, not in one region, not in one area, but in the entire world. We have to try to work and speak and change for the good whenever we can. But at the World Cup, we are focusing on football, we are focusing on celebrating football.

"One of the things we are missing in the world, more and more, is the capacity to speak to each other, to have a dialogue. That is the basis to solve some of these issues. If there is no dialogue, discussion or not even understanding or a little bit of respect, we cannot go anywhere. If football and the World Cup can contribute to open some channels, to open some discussions, to help those who make decisions for the world to start to speak to each other, and realize people living everywhere are living in worse conditions, we have done something."

- - -

The video assistant referee system, introduced in the World Cup for the first time, has been "extremely clear and extremely positive," Infantino said. "It's accepted. It's working. It's working well. … It's making football more clear, more transparent."

Through the semifinals, FIFA said, 140 plays have been checked through VAR, 19 were formally reviewed and 16 decisions changed "from a wrong decision to a right decision."

VAR has improved the accuracy of officiating from 95 percent to 99.32 percent, Infantino said. However, VAR is used only for reviewing goals, penalty kicks, straight red cards and mistaken identity.

Infantino said VAR has helped keep players honest because the cameras see almost everything. Red cards for violent conduct have dropped considerably, in large part, he said, because someone is always watching. VAR has also ended disputes about offside on goals. "It's over," Infantino said.

"Today it's difficult to think about the World Cup without VAR," he said. "It has been a more just competition."

- - -

FIFA will look into whether additional efforts are necessary to "protect the health of the players" in the wake of multiple incidents in which players suffered head injuries and returned to action, Infantino said.

"Concussions are a very serious matter that we take very seriously," he said. "That is why we have evaluation and recommendation and expert advice. Can we do more? Of course."

After a collision with Belgium's Eden Hazard in the semifinals, France's Blaise Matuidi underwent a brief evaluation and was helped from the field. He returned moments later but lasted only about a minute and slumped to the ground, in need of assistance and a substitute.

In the aftermath, Matuidi was not diagnosed with a concussion, which, according to FIFA's guidelines, would have sidelined him for at least six days. Such judgments, however, are made by individual teams, not FIFA.

In the group stage, Morocco's Nordin Amrabat was hospitalized and suffered memory loss after a clash of heads against Iran, yet he played five days later against Portugal.

"This is yet another alarming example of a player being put in harm's way," FifPro, the global union for players, said at the time. "Amrabat returned to action too soon according to medical guidelines. Four years on from the debacle of the last World Cup, where several players did not receive adequate care, football has not made sufficient progress in concussion management. Repeated calls to implement world-class safety standards have been overlooked."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°