An association comprising some of the top clubs in Europe has criticised The FIFA Council’s backing for an expanded 48-team World Cup.
It was confirmed on Tuesday that FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s idea to increase the number of participating nations at the finals from 32 to 48 had been approved by delegates in Zurich, with the plans set to be enforced from the 2026 competition onwards.
However, the European Club Association, a body representing the interests of clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has blasted the move, claiming it is motivated by political rather than sporting intentions.
A statement from the body, which represents 220 teams across the continent, said: “The European Club Association reiterates that it is in principle not in favour of an expanded World Cup.
“We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives. Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
“We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.
“ECA will analyse in detail the impact and the consequences of the new format and will address the matter at the next meeting of its Executive Board scheduled for the end of January.”
Speaking to Press Association Sport in October when the idea gathered pace, Infantino claimed he favoured expansion because he thinks it would “promote football” across the world.
One association to welcome the proposed new format was the Scottish Football Association, with Scotland having not qualified for the finals since 1998.
“We believe this is a positive step, particularly for the smaller nations, and will allow more fans across the globe to revel in their country’s participation at a FIFA World Cup finals,” said SFA chief executive Stewart Regan.
“This will also allow these nations to invest further in their footballing infrastructure and youth development, which in turn can yield significant social benefits.
“The exploits of Wales, Iceland, and Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 showed what an impact the smaller teams can have, and how beneficial to a tournament their participation can be. A greater eclectic mix of footballing cultures at the FIFA World Cup will create a bigger and better atmosphere than ever before.”
However, there was plenty of scepticism from others on Tuesday afternoon as the news was digested.
New FIFA Now, a campaign group founded by, among others, MP Damian Collins that is seeking change in the way the governing body operates, claimed the plans were “a money and power grab”.
“It will dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans,” read a statement on their website.
“It will not help development of the game or provide improved competitive opportunities for lower-ranked nations. Instead, it will make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations.
“It is a money grab and power grab. The aim is to increase revenue in order to fund the extravagant election promises of the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, as well as to consolidate Infantino’s personal position. This is straight out of the (former FIFA presidents) Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter playbooks.”
Concern was also expressed in Spain, where La Liga president Javier Tebas fumed about what he suggested was a lack of consultation between Infantino and the clubs.
“Infantino behaves like Blatter,” he told L’Equipe.
“He also made decisions alone without consulting anyone about them and I’m very angry. It is easy to expand this competition without having to pay the players. The football industry is maintained thanks to clubs and leagues, not FIFA.”