Here’s What the World Cup’s 48-Team Expansion Could Mean For CONMEBOL & CONCACAF

Here it is then, revealed with a tweet from a snowy FIFA HQ, the mammoth World Cup, the big money-spinner, the latest deluded installation of the never-ending FIFA saga: the 48-team World Cup, to debut at the 2026 finals. It is the aggrandizement of another sporting event, and self-aggrandizement by FIFA and its many impervious soccer administrators, who have neglected any endeavors for reform, or, much-needed introspection.

The week had begun briskly enough, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Diego Maradona walking out and playing a 5-side tournament on the synthetic field next to FIFA’s headquarters, the Home of FIFA. Infantino grinned; after all, Maradona’s presence was a coup. The Argentine is notoriously whimsical and opinionated. The urchin from Lanús remains a misfit among in the soccer establishment. Maradona never forgave FIFA for his expulsion from the USA 1994 World Cup. ‘The Scream’ against Greece is iconic, but the Argentine failed to pass an anti-doping test. He blamed Dr. João Havelange, FIFA’s first autocrat, and Julio Grondona, FIFA’s long-time finance master, of a plot to oust him from the tournament.

Even in FIFA’s realm of fantasy, Infantino and Maradona didn’t form a great soccer partnership, but, with much pride, Infantino paraded Maradona, his newfound mascot. He had convinced soccer’s biggest rebel to meekly toe the FIFA line. Did Maradona back a 48-team World Cup?

Diego Armando Maradona (L) in action during the FIFA Legends tournament ahead of the FIFA awards ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
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“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 the match. “It gives each country the dream and it renews the passion for football, it appears to me to be a fantastic idea.”

Former players, however, yield little influence in the morass of FIFA politics. FIFA’s power structure is an inverted pyramid, made up of Infantino, at the top, closely followed by the FIFA council, and the FIFA congress.

“We have already revealed that we will be bidding for the 2026 World Cup and, along with the rest of CONCACAF, believe that a 48-team tournament is the best option,” said Decio de Maria, the president of FMF and a member of the CONCACAF Council. “A bigger World Cup would also help the development of the game, allowing FIFA to distribute even more funds to its members.”

Infantino’s new brainchild will not cause a seismic shift in world soccer, but the ramifications for CONCACAF may be manifold. In many ways, last year CONCACAF had a blockbuster twelve months with the Hexagonal World Cup qualifying games, the centennial Copa América on U.S. soil and the installation of a new president in Victor Montagliani from Canada. The future, however, may not be that hunky-dory for the organization.

Infantino’s new brainchild will not cause a seismic shift in world soccer, but the ramifications for CONCACAF may be manifold.

FIFA expanded the World Cup, claiming that world soccer needs more inclusiveness. That line of argument has been consistently at the heart of FIFA politics ever since Dr. Joao Havelange, FIFA’s godfather and soccer’s first true autocrat, dethroned Stanley Rous as the governing body’s president in 1974. Havelange acquired the game’s prime job on this ticket, and so did Blatter. Infantino has continued the tradition, delivering on his election manifesto promise to benefit smaller nations across the globe.

But on merit, CONCACAF, like Asia and Africa, shouldn’t benefit from the expansion drive at FIFA. Mexcio, the USA, and the entire region have a mediocre World Cup record that scarcely justifies a further allocation of slots for future World Cups. That discussion has now turned academic, with the FIFA council rubber-stamping Infantino’s preferred format.

That first mega-sized World Cup may well take place in North America, with Mexico, the USA and Canada possibly tri-hosting the tournament – repayment for CONCACAF’s support of Infantino in his election against Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, and a big boost for Fox Sports.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino gestures during a news conference prior to the Confederations Cup 2017 official draw in Kazan, Russia, November 26, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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“What is crucial for FIFA is to make sure that all the criteria that we now set are all fulfilled and that there are sufficient bids and bidders, so that FIFA can take a decision that benefits for world football,” said Infantino at the press conference about a possible joint North American bid.

It’s the first time that FIFA has altered the format of the World Cup since 1998, but serious considerations remain, no less about the CONCACAF region. Much of the region’s faith – the qualifying process and the number of additional slots – will be dependent on the machinations in South America, the CONMEBOL zone. “There is a suggestion from Gianni Infantino to unify the CONMEBOL and CONCACAF qualifiers,” said Laureano Gonzalez, a CONMEBOL vice-president. “This would have support if they gave us more places. At the moment, we have seven between the two confederations, plus two half places.”

The proposal may be detrimental to CONCACAF’s smaller nations, who are no match for the level of South American football. Yet, in the corridors of FIFA HQ, there seems to be little enthusiasm for a merger. CONMEBOL is worried about the competitiveness of their marathon World Cup qualifying format and corresponding revenue from TV rights, with a projected addition of two more slots.

“Not a chance,” said CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez of possible joint qualifiers shortly after FIFA revealed the new World Cup format. Montgliani was unequivocal in his comment. “It is totally off the wall,” said the Canadian.

But given the importance of the slots, that may all change in the future, and so, the horse-trading at FIFA and its confederations can begin again. For decades, a system of patronage, pork-barrel politics and double deals has been in place in Zurich and has defined soccer officialdom. Not much has changed then at FIFA. At CONCACAF it may well.