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Sunday 22 January 2017

Maradona delight as FIFA set to expand

FIFA’s Gianni Infantino and Diego Maradona (r). Pic: Getty Images
FIFA’s Gianni Infantino and Diego Maradona (r). Pic: Getty Images

FIFA president Gianni Infantino is set to get his way on expanding the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, a move which will boost his chances of re-election in 2019.

A vote to expand world football's premier event by 16 teams is second on the agenda today's meeting of the FIFA Council in Zurich, with one insider saying it is a "fait accompli".

Increasing the number of teams at the World Cup was one of Infantino's manifesto pledges last year, although his original idea was to follow predecessor Sepp Blatter's preference for 40 teams.

But the two 40-team formats proposed by FIFA's experts - eight groups of five or 10 groups of four, both followed by a 16-team knock-out - have failed to attract much support for a variety of reasons.

This led Infantino to leap to 48 teams, with his first idea being a one-off play-off between 32 teams to decide who should join 16 seeded teams in the current eight-groups-of-four format.

That idea, however, was also panned, as it stretched the tournament beyond its current 32 days and meant 16 teams would be travelling to an event for just one match.

Infantino appears to have got it right, though, with his fourth attempt - 16 groups of three, followed by a 32-team knock-out.

This increases the number of games from 64 to 80 but the tournament stays at 32 days, with the semi-finalists playing seven games (including the third-place play-off), which is the same number as now.

Europe currently gets 13 slots and UEFA is understood to be aiming for no fewer than 16 in the new format - a negotiation that will be closely watched by the home nations.

Meanwhile, Diego Maradona is delighted by the plans with Argentina's former captain stating that it would rekindle interest in the tournament.

Maradona, one of the greatest players to grace the game, has been a long-time critic of FIFA but the two sides buried the hatchet last year after Gianni Infantino was elected president of the global soccer body to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter.

"I'm delighted by Gianni's initiative because it gives chances to teams that otherwise would start the qualifiers knowing they had no chance of getting to the World Cup," Maradona told reporters after a veterans' match at FIFA headquarters.

"It gives each country the dream and it renews the passion for football, it appears to me to be a fantastic idea," added Maradona, who captained Argentina to World Cup success in 1986.

He said it was important for the sport that FIFA's image improved after it was battered by a corruption scandal that has seen 40 individuals and two sports marketing companies indicted in the United States.

"We want a FIFA that is clean so people come back to the stadiums, with so much corruption people have got tired of always seeing the same thing," said the 56-year-old.

Maradona was a frequent critic of Infantino's predecessor Sepp Blatter and claimed there was "a mafia" inside FIFA.

He had also previously criticised Infantino, saying it was "very wrong to go from drawing the lots to running for FIFA president."

The remark was a reference to Infantino's previous role as general secretary of European soccer governing body UEFA, where his duties included supervising draws for European competitions.

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