Welcome to a grand new world – the Fifa way, the Gianni Infantino way, and in many ways very Orwellian. As Zurich got covered under snow, the conclave of football’s presumed “immorals” concluded with the outcome that had long been projected, manufactured and then pushed through by its president: a 48-team World Cup.
Not that Gianni Infantino had struggled to find support for his idea once he launched the notion of an inflated World Cup, with the suave demeanor and self-confidence that only football officials at the Zürichberg possess.
“Our AFC (Asian Football Confederation) representatives will be voting for the 48-team option,” said Praful Patel, the president of the All India Football Federation and vice-president of Asia’s football governing body, earlier this week. “It would open up the World Cup to more countries and also generate more finances for Fifa.”
Will it facilitate the influx of new football powers? Patel’s fantasies are utopian – there is not a chance of the Blue Tigers progressing to the finals, not even in the mega-sized, extra large, mammoth version of the tournament that will be enforced upon the footballing community from 2026 onward. Even in the new format, there is more chance of India winning the Rugby World Cup or joining the European Union than entering the pearly entrance gates of the select club that goes to the World Cup – India’s highest Fifa ranking was 96th, achieved in February 1996.
Textbook Fifa hogwash
But for Asia, it may indeed offer development and a higher profile on the world stage. Fifa expanded the World Cup claiming that world football needs more inclusiveness. That line of argument has been consistently at the heart of Fifa politics ever since Dr Joao Havelange, the godfather of the organisation, dethroned Sir Stanley Rous as president in 1974. Havelange won the game’s prime job on this ticket, and so did Sepp Blatter. Infantino has continued the tradition, delivering on his election manifesto promise to benefit smaller nations across the globe.
From the moment Infantino became Fifa’s prime chief, he has neglected any promises of reform, or much-needed introspection, notwithstanding the ever-simmering pressure from FBI investigations and preening journalists. It is the aggrandisement of an another sporting event, and self-aggrandisement by Fifa and its many impervious football administrators.
At his press conference, Infantino beat the drum again for the development of the game. “We are in the 21st century and you have to shape the World Cup of the 21st century,” said the Fifa president. “Football is more than South America and Europe; football is global. It will help to develop football.”
That is textbook Fifa hogwash, a belated political correctness that ill-befits the organisation. A World Cup of 48 teams is a victory for pragmatists over purists, for quantity over quality, for entertainment over sport, and, a giant money-grab by Fifa.
Much of Monday and Tuesday had been PR at Fifa, but then much is at Fifa anyway. Infantino had paraded Diego Maradona as his new mascot. The whimsical Argentine played a five-a-side kick-about in the snow with the Fifa president and at “The Best”, a dismal concoction of the Ballon D’Or, Cristiano Ronaldo rightly won the accolade of men’s supremo in 2016.
The glaring facts
But the PR can’t obfuscate the glaring facts: Infantino has delivered his manifesto of bread and games to get re-elected in 2019. He is desperate for re-election – less than a year in office and Infantino is already a power addict. His ploy is a tried and tested one – of a Blatteresque order: expand and cash in. It consolidates his power base in the vote-rich confederations of Africa and Asia and underpins Fifa’s financial future.
The proof lies in the format that was approved. At first, Infantino had envisaged a World Cup with 40 teams. Then a World Cup with 48 participants, with two different sub-models, was contemplated. Ultimately, the model of 16 groups with three teams each was chosen, coincidentally the format with the highest projected revenue of $6.495 billion and the biggest project profit of $640 million.
The madcap expansion, however, will dilute the quality and degrade the ultimate global football tournament, notwithstanding the lustre and higher quality of the European Champions League. The World Cup was Fifa’s asset, but they have now cast it away, like pearls before the swine.
So, nothing much has changed at Fifa and neither will the 48-team World Cup impact India much. On merit, Asia and AFC don’t deserve more slots either in the World Cup. South Korea’s mind-boggling run back in 2002, accompanied by a giant pink army out in the streets in Seoul, is Asia’s lone achievement at Fifa’s flagship event. Overall, the Asian World Cup record is poor. At present, Asia has 4.5 slots. Come 2026, the AFC can expect three or four more slots, but it will still be miracle if India were to qualify.