Gianni’s goal

FIFA's World Cup expansion hailed by Harris

President of the Barbados Football Association (BFA) Randy Harris is ecstatic over FIFA’s decision to increase World Cup Finals participants from 32 to 48.

FIFA, football’s world governing body, Tuesday announced it would add 16 extra nations to the 2026 tournament that is likely to be held in North America. FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s favoured plan – for 16 three-team groups with the top two advancing to a round of 32 – was unanimously approved by the FIFA Council.

It meets Infantino’s election pledge of a bigger World Cup, and should help fund promised raises for FIFA’s 211 member federations.

Gianni Infantino (left and Randy Harris

Harris told Barbados TODAY that any decision by FIFA to increase teams participation in the World Cup was a blessing for those that have traditionally not been able to make the showpiece finals.

“This is a blessing for CONCACAF teams like Barbados and others in the Caribbean. It gives us a greater hope and a better chance in this region to advance past the early rounds. This is one of the best decisions made for football in recent years,” Harris attested.

The top football administrator said the onus was now on both local and regional players to raise the level of their performances and position themselves and their respective nations to take advantage of the opportunity.

“If I were a young player today, I would have to look at things differently and the possibilities that this could open up for me and my country. I would be committing myself to do all that is possible to up my game and my teammates to make my country better on the field,” he said.

Harris noted that 2024 would be the period of qualification for the 2026 World Cup and therefore young footballers should be starting from now in shaping their game, attitude and commitment to the pursuit of excellence.

“It is all about attitude and committing oneself to pursuing certain goals, working on football fundamentals, certain basics,” he noted.

The BFA was one of Infantino’s staunchest supporters in his efforts to ascend to the FIFA presidency following the demise of former president Sepp Blatter. Infantino visited the Caribbean early last year where he met with top officials of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU), including Harris. The CFU had 25 votes in the election that saw Infantino assume the presidency.

Harris told Barbados TODAY he was certain that FIFA’s decision today had its genesis in the agitation of the CFU for an expansion of teams prior to Infantino’s election.

But some countries, especially in Europe, believe the move will dilute the quality of the World Cup. And today Infantino hit back at critics of his initiative such as Germany, stressing the expansion would be good for the global game.

“Even if you organise a World Cup with two teams, one of the two teams would be Germany,” said Infantino, who joked that 48 teams would help “get England” to the 2026 finals. “[Germany] are the world champions, a top team, which qualifies regularly, who win regularly. It’s obvious that whatever format you have, Germany will be there.

“But for many other countries, it’s a chance to qualify. It is a chance to participate in a big event. It’s not the 20th century any more. It’s the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America. Football is global. The football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the most powerful tool you can have, in those nine months before qualifying and the finals.”

The decision by FIFA is also expected to provide tremendous financial benefits, likely to redound to member football organisations across the globe.

With 80 matches instead of 64, FIFA forecasts the equivalent of $1 billion extra income at current rates from broadcasting and sponsor deals, plus ticket sales, compared to $5.5 billion revenue forecast for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

FIFA projects an increased profit of $640 million despite some extra operating costs and prize money for teams.

FIFA’s six continents should find out by May how many extra places they will each get.

UEFA wants 16 European teams at the tournament, which is strongly favoured to be played in North America. The CONCACAF region has not hosted the World Cup since the 1994 tournament in the United States.

American, Canadian and Mexican soccer leaders have had informal talks about a co-hosting bid.

Africa and Asia could be winners in a bigger World Cup with up to nine places each. They had only five and four teams, respectively, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Still, FIFA said it expected the standard of soccer to drop compared to the 32-team format locked in for the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

The “absolute quality” of play, defined by high-ranked teams facing each other most often, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA acknowledged in a research document sent to members last month. It made 10,000 tournament simulations to reach that conclusion.

But Infantino wants to create fervour and months of anticipation in the 16 extra nations which would qualify, some probably making their World Cup debut. FIFA has pointed to Costa Rica, Wales and Iceland as examples of teams that overachieved at recent tournaments.

FIFA must break with soccer tradition to make its new format work after an original 48-team plan – with an opening playoff round sending 16 “one-and-done” teams home early – was unpopular.

Instead, three-team groups will replace the usual groups of four to create simple progress to a knockout bracket. However, it leaves one team idle for final group games and could risk collusion between the other two teams.

FIFA said it could guard against the rigging of results by introducing penalty shootouts after group games that ended in draws.

Source: (BBC)

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