By Matty Lawrence
Gianni Infantino is trying to turn the World Cup finals into a school sports day.
The new FIFA boss has successfully masterminded the increase of teams from 32 to 48 for the 2026 finals. I assume each participant will get a medal and probably a gift pack from some despicable company that affiliates itself every four years with the WC.
Of course, this is still dependent on FIFA and football in general surviving the madness of Russia 2018 and the desert based tournament of 2022 in Qatar. And, to think, our beloved sport has been called “the beautiful game” for decades.
It’s no real surprise that this Infantino borne plan has prevailed: let’s be honest, which smaller nation wouldn’t vote in favour of the 12 countries increase?
Maybe it is too easy for me to sit here in my aloof position of being a citizen of a country that regular qualifies, and castigate FIFA’s decision, but I’m quite at ease with the notion that the WC should actually be decreased in size to 24 countries. Six groups of four and bish-bash-bosh. You can bet your life that England would struggle to qualify for that tournament, but it wouldn’t bother me one iota.
As Martin Samuel wrote eloquently in The Daily Mail earlier in the week, the clue is in the title: World Cup FINALS. The preceding two years of qualifying is there to cut the wheat from the chaff; not the bloody finals themselves. Infantino has overseen a dilution of the World Cup for purely monetary reasons and his own personal gain: “fellate” the smaller nations and you instantaneously secure a greater number of votes than if you did the opposite and pandered to the larger football nations. Gianni Infantino secures his position at the head of FIFA and boosts the coffers of that trusty Swiss bank account. Jobs a good ‘un.
The loser: the WC as a spectacle.
If the 2026 WC really proceeds with 16 groups of three, with the top two from each qualifying, then we are going to see an awful lot of meaningless games. Perhaps, even worse, we are going to see teams playing for a draw from their very first game. Football is supposed to be about flair, excitement and a desire to win. WC 2026 could turn out to be nothing short of turgid.
Add to this, the fact penalty shoot-outs have been mentioned as a way of trying to curtail draws and too many teams finishing on the same amount of points and goal difference and you can add the terminology “lottery” to an already dreadful formula.
I go back to my initial point, why on earth is Infantino trying to turn this tournament into an all-inclusive ego massage for nations that shouldn’t be good enough to grace the WC finals? If you’re not good enough, you shouldn’t go to the finals. The same as if I finish 7th in the schools 60m dash I don’t want a certificate thank you very much. What I will do, though, is practice and work harder and make sure I deserve a certificate next year. I didn’t require a certificate, or moan, when I lost in five moves to the school chess champion: he was just better than me. Granted, I went over the top of the ball when we next had a 50/50 in five-a-side, but that’s by-the-by.
Of course, I understand that smaller nations are at a disadvantage because they have fewer footballers to choose from. As an avid supporter of the England national team I seem to recall population size didn’t do a great deal of harm to Iceland. And it wasn’t so long ago that Greece were winning the European Championships.
With the right structure in place, smaller nations can achieve a modicum of success and, without being too patronising, for that they should be applauded. But a solid structure for a smaller nations football success, of course, requires money. This is the route Infantino should be going down instead of metaphorically trying to buy votes with his increase of nations at the 2026 WC.
How about FIFA pass around the cash more liberally to smaller nations and oversee changes in the structure of football around the world? I don’t mean hand out the cash automatically to the heads of nations FA’s, I mean actually go into smaller countries with stringent guidelines and set about improving football from grass roots all the way through to the professional game.
The concept really isn’t a difficult one, but it will require money and patience: the former we know FIFA has plenty of, but doesn’t like
liberally splashing about, and the second it really does not have.
Finally rescued from the fraudulent hands of Sepp Blatter, football now seems to have fallen into the lap of another megalomaniac intent on ruining the World Cup. I, for one, hope that in the forthcoming three finals of 2018, 2022 and 2026, that the World Cup isn’t ruined immeasurably.
As a small aside I just wanted to share with you the fact that this is my first column coming to you directly from the streets of NYC. I moved here last month after falling out of a Brexit riddled England and straight into the arms of Donald Trump.
Now I see what a few of my old coaches were getting at when they said that too many of my runs to the back post were mistimed.
I feel in these narcissistic times that envelop us, it was the right time to move to New York City: what better metaphorical flick of the hair in front of the mirror is there, than being able to sit in the soccer bars of the city and read my column in First Touch.