Is FIFA’s new boss repeating Blatter’s mistakes?

Any time something you do results in someone comparing you to Blatter you should immediately do exactly the opposite

Gregory Wilcox
Gregory Wilcox - Special to Al Arabiya English
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After a prolonged period in which events surrounding FIFA seemed part of a poor man’s Mafiosi movie set in Switzerland – the capo’s mendacity and corruption catching up with him and resulting in his downfall; his henchmen on the run from the FBI; and the family being a byword for dodgy dealing – you’d think the organization would opt for keeping its head down and out of the news for a while.

But football’s governing body doesn’t really do obvious. Why make do with your gold-plated salary package when you can take be accused of taking backhanders worth a few million? Why have an open transparent bidding system to host World Cups when you can encourage bribes and kickbacks instead?

Under its new boss Gianni Infantino, FIFA, like a washed up former star desperate to remind the world of her existence, seemingly wants to remain in the spotlight. Its latest headline-hogging plan is to propose the World Cup is expanded to 48 teams from 2026.

On the face of it such a move can be seen as - cue nauseating PR speak – increasing the participation of the football family’s biggest and most popular gathering, and ensuring that the game’s biggest prize isn’t perennially out of reach for the majority of football-mad countries.

Indeed, in unveiling the plan Infantino ticked all the boxes when it comes to inoffensive, slick PR chat when he said: “Our vision is pretty simple but pretty clear as well – to promote the game, protect its integrity and bring the game to all. How will we do this? By investing, by innovating, by involving the fans more.

“When a team qualifies for the tournament the whole country is in football euphoria. More youngsters want to play the game, companies want to get involved in sponsorship and the benefits to football as a whole are immense.”

On the face of it that all sounds rather pleasing; in FIFA’s collective mind it would look like something along the lines of the football family gathering around the campfire singing harmoniously, all smiling and happy.

What that image conveniently forgets is that all is clearly not well in the “football family” (a horrid, sickly sweet PR term, if ever there was one). It’s still operating in the shadow of over a decade of corruption, moral inadequacy and manifest idiocy. The image also sidesteps the one fact we all know about FIFA: that it loves money, be it in the back pockets of executive members, or in its big fat Swiss bank account. And it’s not being overly cynical to question whether that, rather than any sense of altruistic inclusivism, is the real motivation behind this plan.

More teams mean more games, which mean more opportunity to sell advertising, which means more money. And if there’s one thing most global sports bodies know how to do, it’s squeeze every last dollar out of tournaments and in doing so reduce the prestige of their showpiece events.

Qualifying for the World Cup should be tough; getting to a World Cup should be seen as the pinnacle of international football, not something any half-decent side can be guaranteed to make; then once at a World Cup there should be no easy games, getting out of the group should be seen as a success, not a given. By increasing the number of teams FIFA will just dilute the class on show and the entertainment dished up.

This year’s European Championships illustrated what happens when a tournament becomes too big and too packed full of average sides. It was all too easy for poor teams to make the second round (exhibit A: England) and excitement was a rarity. It never used to be like that. There was a time when the Euros were arguably harder to win than the World Cup, up until 1992 rather than 24 teams only eight made the tournament, every game was a tough, must-win match and the format produced all-time classic showpieces such as France ‘84 and West Germany ‘88.

What is really baffling about the plan to increase the number of teams at the World Cup however is that it leads people to question whether FIFA has learned anything from its dalliance with infamy. Allowing more teams into the tournament could easily be interpreted as trying to curry favor with the 211 national football federations that elect the FIFA president. Want to stay FIFA boss? Why not give as many countries a present as possible and couch it in terms of “growing the game” and “increasing football’s popularity” (clearly forgetting that football is far and away the most popular sport in the world).

It’s a move straight from the playbook of Sepp Blatter who was obsessed with increasing the number of African and Asian teams in the World Cup. The disgraced ex-FIFA boss insisted he was motivated by a desire to grow the game, but many saw it as a way to secure his position as FIFA president with European federations long tired of his reign.

Such a comparison between Infantino and Blatter hasn’t gone unnoticed. “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 specializes 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 added.

Any time something you do results in someone comparing you to Blatter you should immediately do exactly the opposite. If Infantino realizes ruining the World Cup isn’t the best thing to do, he’d do well to kick the idea of a 48-team World Cup into row Z.

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