FIFA's new 48-team format means we could see Tahiti vs Curacao! Welcome to the 2026 World Cup

Diego Maradona, pictured with Infantino, backed plans for reform of the World Cup finals
  • The members of the FIFA Council voted for a 48-team World Cup on Tuesday 
  • The World Cup finals should be treated as such and not watered down 
  • Gianni Infantino is clearly looking at the confederations and picking them off
  • Tennis player Maria Sharapova will return to action before her drugs ban expires 
  • Michy Batshuayi and Vincent Janssen have both been flops since signing for Chelsea and Tottenham 

With the certainty of night following day, the members of the FIFA council voted through their wallets for a 48-team World Cup from 2026.

And now the fun begins. For the downside is not the 48th best team in the world lowering the standards at what should always be a globally representative, but elite, competition; it is the 148th.

Tahiti. The 148th-strongest team in the world but, if qualification reflected the FIFA rankings, one that could soon be a play-off away from the World Cup finals, as runners-up in the Oceania confederation. FIFA did not vote on the precise composition of their monster — let's call it the FrankenCup — because they prefer to eke out the nasty surprises, like all good horror auteurs.

 Gianni Infantino speaks during Tuesday's press conference after the FIFA Council meeting

Gianni Infantino speaks during Tuesday's press conference after the FIFA Council meeting

But the clever money is on 16 for UEFA, nine from Africa, 8.5 from Asia, 6.5 for North and South America respectively and 1.5 for Oceania. The fractions represent play-off matches, so the lowliest qualifiers from Asia, North America, South America and Oceania would compete for two spots. And that would leave the door open for Oceania's second strongest to qualify: Tahiti.

This is not to dismiss their hard work or improvement. In 2012, Tahiti became the first country other than Australia or New Zealand to win the OFC Nations Cup — although Australia had decided they were Asian by then, so Tahiti's cup run consisted of two matches with New Caledonia and fixtures against Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Samoa.

They then went, by right, to the 2013 Confederations Cup, where they charmed everybody by showing tremendous spirit despite leaking 24 goals in three matches. They even scored in a 6-1 defeat by Nigeria.

 Infantino's plans for a 48-team World Cup finals from 2026 were outlined on Tuesday

Infantino's plans for a 48-team World Cup finals from 2026 were outlined on Tuesday

And that is meritocracy in action. Tahiti were Oceania's champions. They deserved their place in Brazil just as Auckland City, Oceania's club champions, deserved their entry to the 2016 Club World Cup. 

Yet what FIFA's council did on Tuesday went too far. A quarter of the planet is not a finals. Tahiti, as Oceania's second best, could end up playing the ninth strongest team in Asia — currently Qatar, 87 in the world, according to the rankings — for a place in the World Cup; or the seventh best team in North America, Curacao, ranked joint 75th. Tahiti versus Curacao. This is not a fixture that shouts elite competition. This is a holiday dilemma for windsurfers.

And it is an elite competition, the World Cup finals. The clue is in the word 'finals'. The idea that expansion is a noble aim because it gives everybody a go betrays the essence of the tournament. Yes, the World Cup should be open to all. But it is. Everybody competes from San Marino to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. But when it gets down to those late stages it should be all about the best.

That is the point of a final, in football, athletics, or any event. Only seven sprinters get to stand on the start line with Usain Bolt, because heats and semi-finals narrow the field to the most outstanding. Yes, in the heats, inferiors get their turn. But not in the final. The final is about The Best.

While attaching that claim to their latest round of overblown awards as a rebranding exercise, FIFA are ensuring the World Cup will be about the best no longer. It will welcome teams from outside the top 80, maybe the top 100, because this will guarantee more votes for president Gianni Infantino.

 Diego Maradona, pictured with Infantino, backed plans for reform of the World Cup finals

Diego Maradona, pictured with Infantino, backed plans for reform of the World Cup finals

It will expand and expand, until China are almost certain to be in, because there is nothing FIFA love more than a dictatorship with a few quid. To argue that FIFA have not demeaned their competition is to argue that the athletes who ran a 48th best time of 10.36sec to Bolt's 9.81 had as much right to be on the start line for the Olympic 100metres final in Rio as he did.

We wish Solomon Bockarie, Vitor Hugo dos Santos and Zhang Peimeng well, but at some stage we want to see only Bolt and his genuine challengers in those eight lanes.

In 2018, there will be 14 from UEFA — including Russia as hosts — five from Africa, 4.5 from Asia and South America, 3.5 from North America and 0.5 from Oceania. It is easy to see where FIFA president Infantino is now targeting votes. Asian participation doubles despite not getting a team out of the group stage in 2014.

North America also does well having put one country in the quarter-finals since 2002, while Africa goes up from five to nine, despite providing just six of 80 knockout places in the World Cup's last five editions — including the first tournament to be held on the African continent.

In this, Infantino is no different from Sepp Blatter. He picks off confederations with glorified bribes — in this case the promise of £5.29billion in revenue and a berth at the big one even if, like China, you happen to be the 82nd best team in the world.

 In this, Infantino is no different from Sepp Blatter when it comes to picking off confederations

In this, Infantino is no different from Sepp Blatter when it comes to picking off confederations

And this is all before we consider the travesty of the three-team group, with two progressing, which no amount of artificial rendering can overcome. The format is simple: A versus B, A versus C, B versus C. So if B and C beat A, then game three, B versus C, is a dead rubber.

And with 16 groups, there could be plenty of them. Equally, if A beats B, C beats A, then B beats C, all teams have three points. With so few matches, goal difference or goals scored might be level, too.

There is the potential for confusion on a par with Albania having to hang around at Euro 2016 only to be eliminated three days after their last game, when the third-place shake-up was calculated. Games might be decided on the toss of a coin, or a countback to qualification records. And first or second won't matter because the random nature of an overblown tournament will make knockout seeding irrelevant. In this case, three is certainly no magic number.

Already, tied games will require penalty shootouts in a bid to halt collaboration, meaning mediocre teams — and there will be plenty more of them from 2026 — can progress by playing for penalties. Anyone who saw Steaua Bucharest use that tactic to overcome Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup final will know how stultifying it can be.

'The more the merrier,' said Amaju Pinnick, president of the Nigerian Football Association. But it wasn't merry at the European Championship this summer. It was a dull, low- scoring tournament, played on the counter-attack, or between workmanlike, massed defences, the quality diluted by a bloated 24-team format. Yet as FIFA have now proved, that was only the half of it.

HOW THE NEW FORMAT WILL WORK AT THE 2026 WORLD CUP 

Q: How will the group stages look?

Every team play twice in their three-team group. The top two advance to the last 32, when the knockout stages begin. Group matches ending in a draw could be decided by a penalty shootout to stop any final-game collusion.

Q: What other impact will 48 teams have?

More teams means more games. Eighty matches will take place, as opposed to the current 64. However, if a team reach the final, they will have played a total of seven matches, the same total as the current format.

Q: Where will the 2026 World Cup be held?

Not known yet, but the United States are expected to make an offer. They could be sole bidders, or come forward with a joint proposal alongside Mexico or Canada.

Q: Why did FIFA want the World Cup expanded?

Infantino vowed to increase the number of teams when he was campaigning to replace Sepp Blatter. His proposal appealed to a lot of the 211 FIFA members, many of whom do not normally qualify. Confederations outside Europe have felt disadvantaged for many years.

Q: When was the last time the World Cup was revamped?

Its inception in 1930 saw 13 countries take part. Only 16 qualified for the finals until the 1982 edition in Spain, where 24 teams competed. The current format of 32 teams has been used since the 1998 tournament in France.

Q: Who would get the extra 16 World Cup spots?

Yet to be confirmed.

One proposal could see Europe's allocation rising from 13 to 16 teams with Africa the biggest beneficiaries gaining an extra four places to nine. Asia would get 8.5 places, North and South America 6.5 each and Oceania 1.5. The half-places represent play-off spots, with the lowest qualifiers from Asia, North America, South America and Oceania battling for two places.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: 'Confederations all have wishlists in terms of how many slots they would like. Discussions are going to take place but nothing is decided.' 

Cheat Maria cruises back in

Maria Sharapova will return to tennis at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, even though the event begins two days before her drugs ban is completed.

The draw will be arranged so that Sharapova does not play before April 26 and, Porsche being one of Sharapova's most loyal sponsors, she has been granted a wildcard for the event. 

'I'm sure the fans there will be excited to see her play,' said Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA Tour, who can add his name to the lickspittles inexplicably in thrall to a generation of Russian drug cheats.

Maybe it's just the money they love but, either way, it's quite an extensive list now.

 Maria Sharapova will compete in Stuttgart two days before her drugs ban is completed

Maria Sharapova will compete in Stuttgart two days before her drugs ban is completed

Doping is the new normal for Mutko

LORD COE IS HAVING A DIFFICULT TIME

The Culture, Media and Sport select committee led by Damian Collins takes its work very seriously. If Lord Coe can, however, simply defy its call to reappear then what is the point? It is not a good look for a man who claims to be cleaning up his sport; but it is not a good look for them, either. 

Vitaly Mutko, elevated from Russia's Minister for Sport to Deputy Prime Minister, despite evidence of a state-sponsored doping scheme, was in full obfuscation mode at FIFA's gathering this week. 

'Everything is normal' in Russian sport, he claimed, the focus on Russian cheating was 'double standards' and attention would be better aimed at cycling, which was 'not a Russian problem'.

Really? Sir Bradley Wiggins, British Cycling and Team Sky may have questions to answer over TUEs, but this does not compare to the recent list of Russian drugs cheats: Tour de France stage winner Ilnur Zakarin (2009), Olympic silver and bronze medallist Olga Zabelinskaya (2014), road racers Sergey Shilov (2009), Denis Menchov (2014), Petr Ignatenko (2015), Alexander Serebryakov and Denis Galimzyanov (both 2012), madison cyclist Alexey Shmidt (2015), mountain bikers Alexey Lomilov (2012) and Ekaterina Anoshina (2016), track sprinters Victoria Baranova (2012) and Ekaterina Gnidenko (2016). 

And there were those whose positive tests were later rescinded on technicalities, like road racers Eduard Vorganov (2016) and Alexandr Kolobnev (2011).

So when Mutko says everything is normal, he is probably right. This would all be perfectly normal . . . for a country with a state-sponsored doping programme.

 Sir Bradley Wiggins (left) may have questions to answer over TUEs, but he doesn't compare to some Russian athletes

Sir Bradley Wiggins (left) may have questions to answer over TUEs, but he doesn't compare to some Russian athletes

Stadium the least of West Ham woes

Strangely, two of the biggest transfer flops this summer have passed beneath the radar. Michy Batshuayi cost Chelsea £33.2million from Marseille while Vincent Janssen was less expensive for Tottenham, at £17m, but both have scored a solitary goal in the Premier League so far.

The reason over £50m of bad business has gone unnoticed is because the players Batshuayi and Janssen were bought to rival have done their jobs.

Batshuayi is not needed because Diego Costa once again looks the best striker in the Premier League; Harry Kane's consistency means little pressure has fallen on Janssen.

Now compare those situations to what has unfolded at West Ham. The club bought poorly in the summer. But the signings have come under greater scrutiny because the players in situ have failed.

 Michy Batshuayi has been a flop since joining Chelsea last summer for £33.2million

Michy Batshuayi has been a flop since joining Chelsea last summer for £33.2million

Going through West Ham's starting XI there are, at best, three players who have maintained or improved their form, year on year: Winston Reid, Michail Antonio and, arguably, Pedro Obiang. The rest, including Dimitri Payet, Manuel Lanzini, Mark Noble and Aaron Cresswell are markedly inferior.

Much the same happened at Chelsea last season when only Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta retained high standards. As a result, new arrivals such as Pedro and Kenedy looked poor. With the team back to their best this season, Pedro appears a different player.

The same could be true of West Ham's signings. In Argentina, for instance, there is surprise that Jonathan Calleri has made no impression. He was rated one of his country's best young strikers.

As for Simone Zaza, who has been dismal since signing from Juventus, might he not be one of those players who returns to mainland Europe and thrives? He played for Italy at Under 16, Under 17 and Under 19 levels, before Antonio Conte picked him 16 times for the senior squad — and Chelsea's manager is not looking such a bad judge.

 Simone Zaza is another player who has failed to impress since arriving at West Ham

Simone Zaza is another player who has failed to impress since arriving at West Ham

This is not to defend West Ham's summer activity, which did not deliver the marquee striker promised. When only one of seven new arrivals would get into the best XI — Andre Ayew — serious mistakes have been made. Yet, equally, the existing squad have done little to ease the path of the newcomers.

At the moment, the new stadium is the scapegoat, but that reasoning is simplistic. So far this season, West Ham have played away in the Premier League at Chelsea, Manchester City, West Brom, Crystal Palace, Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Swansea and Leicester. They have won just two of those games, lost six and accrued eight points.

In the corresponding away fixtures last season, West Ham won five, lost once and collected 19 points. So while we will never know how West Ham would have fared at Upton Park this season, we can be pretty sure that events at the Hawthorns, the Etihad, Anfield and Goodison Park cannot be the fault of the Olympic Stadium.

As consistent as ever, Neil Warnock bemoaned Premier League clubs playing understrength sides in the FA Cup — then dropped half of his Cardiff team, and lost at home to Fulham.

Warnock thinks a Champions League place should be offered to the Cup winners to make it more appealing — but that would only benefit the established elite, who could use the competition to compensate for a poor league season. Last year, Manchester United would have entered the Champions League ahead of Manchester City. Big deal.

 Neil Warnock has suggested the winners of the FA Cup should get a Champions League place

Neil Warnock has suggested the winners of the FA Cup should get a Champions League place

Cardiff drew little over 5,000 for Sunday's game, which many blamed on the 11.30am kick-off time demanded by BBC Wales. Yet Warnock's announcement he was playing a weakened side would not have helped.

'At least we've told the public what we're going to do,' he said.

Indeed, and they saw through that bluster, and pleased themselves, just as Warnock did.

It was very predictable that Jeremy Corbyn should pick on footballers as employees whose wages need capping. What a pity he does not appear to be as interested in Labour-run Lewisham Council and their bid to chase out Millwall.

In Chievo's Serie A match with Atalanta at the weekend, goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino wore No 70, while midfielder Jonathan de Guzman — on loan from Napoli — wore No 1. Chievo lost 4-1. Good. 

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By Shane Walker 01/11/2017 04:47:00