Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fifa’s World Cup boost for Africa

By Majuto Omary and Agencies @majutoy2k

Dar es Salaam. Tanzania Football Federation (TFF) has warmly welcomed the decision by Fifa to expand the 2026 World Cup finals to 48 teams from 32, saying it is a positive step.

TFF secretary general Mwesigwa Celestin said yesterday that the decision would increase chances for Tanzania and other African teams to qualify for the finals.

The national soccer team, Taifa Stars, whose first ever appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations dates back to 1980 in Nigeria, have never appeared at the World Cup finals.

Mwesigwa said the new format would also allow the domestic game to develop with the extra finances that qualifying for the quadrennial football showpiece would bring.

“We are pleased with the news that the Fifa World Cup will expand to 48 teams from 2026,” he said.

He added: “This will also allow these nations to invest further in their footballing infrastructure and youth development, which in turn can yield significant social benefits.”

“Africa has more than 50 members in Fifa so, technically, the continent contributes about 25 per cent of the total number (of members). This means Africa will be immediate beneficiaries of the move.”

Yesterday, Fifa’s ruling council unanimously approved an expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, in a major coup for the body’s president Gianni Infantino.

In a bid to widen the game’s global appeal and enrich its coffers, the Fifa panel endorsed a format with 16 groups of three nations, a tweet from Fifa’s official account said.

The move represents the first major change to the World Cup since the tournament was boosted from 24 to 32 teams for the 1998 tournament in France.

Critics strongly oppose the move and it was branded a “money grab and power grab” by New Fifa Now, a group campaigning for reform of the scandal-tainted Fifa.

Infantino took over the body 11 months ago with a vow to repair the damage done at the end of Sepp Blatter’s tenure by growing football across the globe.

Enlarging the World Cup, the planet’s top sporting competition, was the centrepiece of that plan.

Critics say the expanded tournament would dilute the quality of play and overburden already exhausted players.

Football’s powerful European Club Association reiterated its opposition, describing the 32-team model as “the perfect formula”.

“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,” the body which represents European football clubs said in a statement.

Despite the opposition Infantino had in recent weeks voiced confidence that his flagship project would be approved, noting it would improve FIFA’s bank account.

And a confidential FIFA report seen by AFP projects a 48-team tournament would bring a cash boost of $640 million (605 million euros) above projected revenues for next year’s finals in Russia.

But Infantino has also argued that more World Cup berths would help serve football’s interest by boosting “inclusion” in the “biggest social and sporting event”.

Big winners

Among those who seemed convinced by that argument was Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who on Monday said a 48-team format “will give more possibilities to countries that have never reached that level of competition”.

Africa and Asia could be the big winners with a rise in their number of places -- currently at five for Africa and between four and five for Asia.

But in order to smooth over scepticism about World Cup reform within UEFA, it is likely that Europe will also see its allotments rise above the current 13 places. A source close to FIFA told AFP that under the new format Europe could get 16 places, with Africa earning nine.

But that information remained unconfirmed and world football’s governing body was not expected to immediately announce its final decision on allotments, which may fuel a tough debate in the months ahead.