When comedian Simon Brodkin interrupted a news conference in Switzerland to shower then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter with money, it reflected a growing feeling that change was desperately needed. The prank was by no means subtle or nuanced criticism. It was, though, perhaps the defining moment in the 80-year-old’s downfall. Murmurs of corruption and mismanagement had plagued Fifa for years, and the pressure mounting on Blatter to stand down as its head finally had its cover shot.
The fervent anti-Blatter sentiment played a big role in Europe’s support of Gianni Infantino. The young, charismatic Swiss-Italian maneuvered past the banned Michel Platini and the aging Blatter, and the more optimistic saw genuine change as possible. Surely the new face of Fifa couldn’t and wouldn’t top the farce of condemning the 2022 World Cup to the 40-degree heat of Qatar. Surely with the lens so tightly focused on Fifa’s finances, its new president would be wary to make any money-grabbing moves.
Well, it took less than a year. Infantino’s landmark new bumper World Cup - which will see 48 teams compete across 16 three-nation groups - will make its debut in 2026, with the Americas emerging as the likely destination. The expansion plans have been a poorly kept secret, and Infantino wasted no time setting them into motion. The smaller, streamlined groups have been widely criticised. The likelihood of the final group game becoming redundant is far higher, some teams will have far longer between games than others, and teams finishing tied on points is more likely - Infantino has even floated the idea of settling group stage draws with penalty shootouts.
Logistics aside, perhaps the most vehement criticism is in response to the widening of the goalposts that comes with adding a further 16 teams. World Cup qualification was once a privilege - that teams would give blood, sweat, and tears for - something the Independent and others have declared a thing of the past thanks to the more inclusive set up. The expansion essentially renders failing to quality more difficult than qualification, and the opening stages will become only more routine for the biggest footballing nations. It should be noted at this point that the number of teams involved in the competition has long been a political battleground, a sticking point that highlights the intrinsic modern conflict between footballing excellence and commerce.
Infantino has been careful in his defence of the change. His claims that the truly global reach of football necessitates wider involvement in the competition are shaky. In theory, yes, more teams will have at least cursory involvement in the World Cup. What it will undoubtedly mean in practice, though, is a spike in the number of absolute drubbings and win-less teams. An eight goal German victory over San Marino to guarantee immediate qualification to the knockout stages is hardly the nail-biting first round many would want to see.
What it does mean, though, is a significant boon to the Fifa treasury. Having more teams involved means more money - it really is that simple. An estimated $1 billion revenue boost is set to boost Fifa’s profits by around $631 million. Fifa’s 36-person council voted unanimously in favor of the change, with the incredible influx of funds clearly too persuasive to turn down. Campaign group New Fifa Now have described the move as ‘a money grab and a power grab,’ and Infantino’s assertion that it’s first and foremost ‘a football decision’ will do well to convince anyone. Cramming in another round to a competition sponsored by Adidas, Coca-Cola and a host of others is as transparent a business decision as one could imagine.
Finances aside, commentators have been quick to point out what Infantino himself stands to gain from the change. The 46-year-old will, of course, be seeking re-election in 2019, and a second term hangs on convincing the 211 member associations to vote for him. By positioning himself as a champion of the smaller footballing nations, Infantino has given his prolonged stewardship the very best chance of happening.
Whatever your opinion of a more inclusive, far larger World Cup, it’s impossible to get away from the murky truth that Fifa’s first concern is finances. Having said that, as jaded as fans become, the excitement for the World Cup refuses to wane. As a group, we’re ready to complain, question, scoff, and tut when Fifa’s money-hoarding is brought up in conversation. But when the four-year wait is over, the summer rolls round, and the first ball is kicked in football’s most iconic competition, fans are largely happy to suspend their disdain, don their nation’s shirt, and get straight back in front of the TV in child-like wonder.