FIFA President Suggests Major Changes to Soccer World Cup

  • Field could expand to 48 teams from 32 starting in 2026
  • FIFA plans $4 billion development fund, boost for women’s game

FIFA President Gianni Infantino walks through the FIFA headquarters on Oct. 13, in Zurich Switzerland.

Photographer: Valeriano Di Domenico/FIFA via Getty Images

FIFA’s new president unveiled a wide-ranging strategic plan for soccer that includes major changes to the way the World Cup will be run as the sport tries to move beyond a financial scandal that nearly led to the governing body’s collapse.

The tournament will be run by FIFA from its home base in Zurich beginning with the 2022 competition in Qatar, President Gianni Infantino said Thursday as he presided over the first meeting of the FIFA Council, the organization’s top board. The move will take control of the $5 billion cash cow away from host countries, meaning that future hosts, which could include the U.S. in 2026, probably will be limited to infrastructure development and providing security.

Gianni Infantino

Photographer: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

Infantino, 46, a surprise leader for world soccer following the 2015 scandal, outlined other plans to improve FIFA’s global standing and shore up support from member nations he promised cash giveaways to during his election push in February. FIFA will spend $4 billion over the next decade to increase the number of participants in the sport from 45 percent to 60 percent of the world’s population, and wants to double the number of female players to 60 million by 2026.

“We live in a time that presents us with a wealth of opportunities to make the beautiful game bigger," Infantino told the council as he presented a blueprint called “FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future."

FIFA Crisis

Major decisions on the World Cup will be left to FIFA’s administration, something similar to the operating model for the European Championship, a tournament run by Infantino’s former employer, UEFA. Infantino has already said he wants to increase the tournament to 48 teams from 32. The FIFA Council will vote on whether to expand the tournament and if so by how much in January.

The FIFA crisis stemmed from its then 24-member executive committee choosing Qatar and Russia to host the next two World Cups, its vice president Victor Montagliani said last week. They were picked even after being ranked as the most high risk by a FIFA technical group. Such warnings will no longer be overlooked, according to the new plans. Since being picked, officials have decided that Qatar is too hot to host the World Cup during its usual June-July window, and the tournament has been moved to December, upending the global soccer calendar.

To reduce the risk of misuse of its record-breaking development funding, FIFA plans to open 11 regional offices by 2018.

Limited Power

The changes also appear to limit the power of the FIFA Council, a group that was renamed from the Executive Committee following the scandal. Several committee members were accused in the U.S.’s corruption case. The rule changes appear to devolve much of the power the executive had to professionals in its administrative ranks. Still, a rule change pushed through by Infantino this year allow the executive branch to hire and fire leaders of oversight bodies tasked with preventing wrongdoing.

Focus on the lifestyles of FIFA’s most-powerful officials intensified following arrests at a luxury hotel in May 2015. FIFA Council members, required to attend quarterly meetings, continue to get $300,000 annual salaries, five-star travel and accommodation and $500 per diems for themselves and their partners. That is now under threat with a new secretary-general reviewing their pay and benefits.

Executive Changes

Infantino, former general secretary at UEFA, has wasted little time in imposing his will on FIFA, replacing senior staff with handpicked executives, including some former colleagues. The clear-out of top executives who served under ex-president Sepp Blatter continued last week with the departure of longtime marketing director Thierry Weil, who was responsible for sponsorship.

The changes had been met with resistance, with some FIFA executives who predated his arrival filing complaints about his conduct to its ethics organs. He was cleared of any improper behavior in August.

Having survived that rough start, Infantino is pushing through his vision, and old ways of doing business are next in line to be axed. FIFA’s long-term World Cup ticketing partner Match will end its contract at the Russia World Cup in 2018. FIFA will strengthen its oversight of the company and then take direct control of operations for the 2022 event, when organizing the tournament will be in the hands of specialists at FIFA, and not with local hosts for the first time in decades.

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