40-team World Cup in plans of FIFA hopeful Infantino

Infantino, the face of European competition draws as UEFA’s general secretary, discussed his first plans to transform FIFA in an interview with The Associated Press after making a surprising late decision to enter the election.

European football scrambled to find a candidate as a substitute for Infantino’s boss, Michel Platini, after the UEFA president was provisionally suspended by FIFA.

Platini is at risk of a long ban once the ethics probe into a 2011 payment from FIFA has been completed, which would make him ineligible for the Feb. 26 election to replace suspended president Sepp Blatter.

Infantino has worked in Platini’s shadow, implementing the president’s vision from Financial Fair Play for clubs to expanding the European Championship from 16 to 24 teams starting with next year’s tournament. If Infantino gets his way, the World Cup also could have to find space for an additional eight teams.

“I believe in expanding the World Cup based on the experience we had in Europe with the Euros,” Infantino said by telephone from the campaign trail in South America. “Look at qualifiers now where some teams who have never qualified did and some teams which have always qualified didn’t make it.

“So it created a completely new dynamic in the qualification. It created new enthusiasm. If you are serious about developing football it must involve more associations in the best football event in the world: The World Cup.”

It would be too soon to swell to 40 teams in Russia in 2018 given that qualifying has already started and it could be problematic for Qatar since the plan is to squeeze the 64 games into 28 days to cope with staging the tournament in November-December 2022 rather than the traditional June-July slot.

But the proposal could help Infantino collect votes from some of the smaller FIFA members outside Europe.

“I don’t have a European vision,” he said. “I have a vision for football.”

The 45-year-old Infantino, a lawyer who has been UEFA’s general secretary since 2009, was endorsed by the organization’s executive committee to stand for FIFA president only hours before the candidate deadline on Oct. 26.

“We made a draw and my name came out,” he joked.

Infantino does not hide that he never previously publicly expressed any desire to run the global game as it recovers from a corruption crisis which had seen Blatter announce plans to quit even before he was suspended along with Platini last month.

Infantino’s candidacy gave the impression of UEFA being dissatisfied with the other options: Asian football leader Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, former South African politician Tokyo Sexwale, Liberian federation president Musa Bility and former FIFA official Jerome Champagne.

“It’s not a question about other candidates, it’s a question about Europe being present and making its voice heard,” Infantino said. “When you have a function in football like mine with responsibilities you have to assume responsibility when times are difficult, to put yourself forward in order to try to change this and bring messages forward.”

Those messages are not just Platini’s rehashed with a different name on the manifesto, Infantino maintained.

“I hope all of them he will agree with, but maybe on some of them we are not exactly the same – some of the priorities are maybe not exactly the same,” Infantino said. “I have been working with Michel Platini for the last nine years. We share many views and many ideas. It’s obvious we have the same philosophy on many things but I am a candidate on my own, I will have ideas on my own.”

He also insisted he would not stand aside for Platini if the former France captain later wins any appeals.

“I take it seriously which means if I am elected on Feb. 26 in case Michel cannot run, then I will be the FIFA president and I will act as FIFA president,” Infantino said. “There is no stepping down or whatever.”

Infantino’s UEFA is not universally popular across the continent. Fans of both Barcelona and Manchester City have booed the Champions League anthem in recent weeks in protest against UEFA sanctions. City is facing a UEFA punishment over the jeering.

“When you are in charge of a governing body like UEFA it’s of course very difficult to be popular,” Infantino said. “If you think fans in general have the opportunity and right to give raise to their opinions in the way they do best. They are booing their team, they are booing opponents, they are booing the UEFA Champions League anthem.

“We have to not be offended by it, live with it and to make things always better and try to prove and show people what is down in our heart is football basically. I am looking forward very positively and I hope I can convince as many people as possible.”


Rob Harris: The big Story