Words By Andrew Warshaw
December 3 - FIFA appears on the verge of agreeing to expand the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams, but has deferred a final decision pending discussions about commercial and organisational ramifications.
The move was a surprise and unexpected inclusion in the reform package submitted today to the FIFA executive committee by Reform Committee chairman Francois Carrard but acting FIFA president Issa Hayatou made it clear more discussions had to be held before the idea takes root.
The first World Cup to embrace 40 teams would almost certainly be the 2026 tournament which seems likely to go to North America. It would add another week to the tournament, which is currently 31 days in length, and take the total number of matches to 96.
The most likely way of accommodating the extra teams would be eight groups of five teams, with the top two qualifying for the last 16.
The proposal was immediately interpreted in some quarters as a sweetener to persuade the FIFA membership to rubber-stamp the rest of Carrard's package of reforms which did away with the idea of age limits and replaced it with 12-year term limits for senior officials.
Carrard sidestepped the question when asked in the post-exco press conference why he had included World Cup expansion in his final package of reform measures. It is understood African and Asian exco members were particularly keen on the idea which will now presumably have to be agreed one way or the other at FIFA's very last session in its current format - just before the electoral Congress at the end of February.
"The exco have been extremely receptive to it but will take its own decision," said Carrard. "The simple reason we did it was to enlarge participation."
The issue of extending the finals is an old chestnut and will be of particular interest to those hoping to gather support in the FIFA presidential election. UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, for one, has already stated he would be in favour of a 40-team finals.
At present Europe has 13 places, Africa five, Asia and South America four and a half, CONCACAF three and a half, Oceania half a place plus one automatically allocated to the host nation – Russia in 2018.
In May, FIFA decided against any change to the World Cup system but Germany's FIFA exco member Wolfgang Niersbach told reporters: "It was seen that particularly the Asian and African representatives were in favour increase. The subject was initially passed to the administration for further consideration."
As distinct from the other reform measures since it does not involve a change in the statutes, World Cup expansion does not require approval of FIFA's 209 member associations.
Carrard told reporters that while his package would not revolutionise FIFA overnight, he had done the best he could to set reform in motion.
"The road will be difficult, the task is not beginning. The train has left the station and the next one is the Congress," he said. "FIFA is at least showing its determination."
If approved, the reforms will come into effect 60 days after the February congress.
Carrard also made mention of a "small independent advisory group" that will assist the reform process but stopped short of confirming it would include representatives from FIFA's increasingly anxious and vocal sponsors. That could end up being a serious omission financially for FIFA but it may also a potentially serious mistake to assume FIFA's sponsors with clear commercial priorities have objectives that are in total alignment with a not-for-profit global sports organisation.
As for stand-in FIFA president Issa Hayatou, himself no stranger to allegations of wrongdoing, the long-serving African powerbroker refuted suggestions that FIFA could not possibly restore its credibility with him at its helm.
"I haven't been involved in any scandal," insisted Hayatou who was reprimanded in 2011 for receiving 100, 000 French francs from ISL and who has been a FIFA exco member for 25 years . "I would not be here if I was corrupt. I have never received a single dollar or euro to vote for anyone. FIFA is not corrupt. Do not generalise the situation."