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Infantino's grand World Cup plan under scrutiny

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino attends the World Summit on Ethics and Leadership in Sports at the headquarters of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
FIFA President Gianni Infantino attends the World Summit on Ethics and Leadership in Sports at the headquarters of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland September 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

By Brian Homewood

ZURICH (Reuters) - FIFA president Gianni Infantino's controversial proposal for a 48-team tournament will come under the microscope when the decision makers at soccer’s governing body discuss the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup this week.

The FIFA Council, which meets on Thursday and Friday in Zurich, still has to decide on basic questions such as the size of the tournament and which continents are eligible.

A decision was due this week under the timeline drawn up in May but Infantino has now said that discussions will continue until January.

The number of participating teams is the biggest issue.

Infantino, elected in February to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter, promised during his campaign to increase the World Cup to 40 teams, an idea opposed by Europe's biggest clubs.

He went even further last week, however, when he suggested adding another eight teams.

Infantino's plan is for 32 teams to take part in a preliminary knockout round played in the host country, with the 16 winners progressing to the group stage, where they would join 16 more teams who would get byes.

The tournament would then continue as it does now with a 32-team group stage followed by knockout rounds.

French sports paper L’Equipe described the idea as ridiculous and Germany coach Joachim Loew said it would dilute the sporting strength of the tournament.

Critics said the move could also be interpreted as yielding to the 211 national football federations which elect the FIFA president.

"He certainly has the example of Blatter holding on to power by pandering to the FAs," said Alexandra Wrage, an anti-corruption expert who is president of TRACE International which specialises in anti-bribery compliance.

"Some of that is to be expected, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the game, the clubs, the players and the fans," she told Reuters.

GOOD IDEA

Infantino must also convince the Council that it is a good idea to send teams across the world to possibly play just one game before returning home.

It could also be hard to sell to broadcasters and there is the contentious issue of how to decide which teams get byes.

"The whole sudden-death approach for the early rounds seems a bit soul-destroying to me. The key, though, is whether all key stakeholders will be consulted or whether Infantino will just ram this through for reasons of his own," said Wrage.

FIFA must also effectively confirm whether or not European countries will be able to bid.

At present, continental confederations must wait eight years between hosting World Cups but FIFA could decide to increase this to 12. With Russia hosting the tournament in 2018, that would mean Europe having to wait until 2030 before bidding again.

The hosts were originally due to be chosen next May but the whole process was put on hold last year because of the corruption scandal that led to Blatter’s downfall.

That date will now mark only the end of the consultation phase and the final decision will be made in May 2020.

FIFA was forced to reform its bidding process after the 2018 and 2022 tournaments were awarded to Russia and Qatar at the same vote in 2010.

That vote is the subject of a criminal investigation by Swiss authorities and Infantino has said that this time round the process must be "bullet proof."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)


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