48-team World Cup good news for Asia, Africa

FIFA chairman Gianni Infantino’s plan to expand the World Cup to 48 teams got the go-ahead on Tuesday when FIFA’s ruling council unanimously approved the proposal.

The plan, which will take effect in 2026, is not universally popular, with many of the critics coming from Europe. Germany’s DFB has been especially vocal, saying the expansion will only water down the quality of a tournament that many believe already has too many teams.

And while that may be true to some extent, is there any sporting competition in the world where there isn’t the occasional heavy defeat? Aside from concerns about quality, the plans have shown that competing teams will still play the same number of games and the tournament will last no longer. So what’s not to like?

Besides, who are the likes of Germany and Spain to deny millions of fans from Asia and Africa the right and experience of cheering on their team at a World Cup? The attitude of some of the plan’s critics smacks of old-world colonial style paternalism.

As the rise of the Chinese Super League has shown, the world of football is changing and the World Cup, like everything else has to change to reflect that.

After all, the World Cup is supposed to be a celebration of football – for the whole world. The clue is in the name.

While millions of fans in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world have gotten used to supporting and cheering for club and international teams from the other side of the globe, they surely would much rather prefer to support a team of national heroes.

Asian teams may benefit from more places.

Of course, the changes will only have the desired effect if the new slots are allocated in a fair and sensible manner. Asia and Africa, the two largest continents by number of countries, currently only receive nine places for more than 100 countries, while South America and Europe receive 17 places for roughly 60 countries. The two developing continents should be handed the lion’s share.

As the AFF Suzuki Cup has shown in recent years, give teams a stage to perform on and an incentive to develop and they will. In just two decades, gone are the days when the likes of Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines would get beaten by double figures. They can now compete with other teams in the region thanks to investment in the game. The expansion of the World Cup will produce a similar effect.

An opportunity to play against some of the best teams in world football will inspire players and football associations alike around the world to do better, and as long as the increased revenue from the expanded tournament trickles down and is invested in the game this will happen.

The chance for smaller nations to improve with the hope of showing what they are capable of on the world’s biggest stage far outweighs the risk of embarrassment.

And if they, the world’s minnows don’t care, why should Germany? They will probably still win the thing anyway.

Richard Hazeldine

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