- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2016

ZURICH (AP) - FIFA wants to decide in January if the 2026 World Cup will expand from its 32-team format, with 40 or 48 the favored options.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino expects a decision when the ruling council meets in January, likely in Zurich, he said on Thursday.

“The general feeling is rather positive” toward expansion, Infantino said at a briefing after FIFA’s ruling council met. “The level of quality of football is increasing all over the world.”

Infantino justified the plan as a way to create more “football euphoria” for months in countries which qualify, and guard against “disaster” being declared where national teams fall short of world sport’s most-watched event.

The 2026 World Cup - which many expect to be hosted across North America - could also be run centrally by FIFA from Zurich instead of by the hosts’ own local organizing committee.

Infantino outlined plans for FIFA to take “full control of all money flows,” and how it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each tournament, before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The idea was detailed in “FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future” - a 70-page document relaunching Infantino’s sometimes troubled eight-month presidency.

It follows FIFA paying $453 million to Brazil’s 2014 World Cup committee, and budgeting to spend $700 million on Russian operations running the 2018 tournament. FIFA covers World Cup operating costs though not the host nation’s stadium, transport, and security projects typically running to billions of dollars.

The World Cup is FIFA’s prize asset earning around 85 percent of its revenue, of around $5 billion tied to the 2014 event. It also shapes as a defining issue for Infantino before his term ends in less than three years.

The promise of extra World Cup slots should appeal to the 211 member federations who vote, and FIFA would expect more matches to drive up the price of broadcasting and sponsor deals. That would help fund Infantino’s campaign promises of $5 million grants over four years to each member.

Infantino was elected in February having pledged during his campaign to add eight teams to the tournament.

In a recent speech in Colombia, Infantino suggested 48 teams with an opening playoff round of 16 games. The winners would advance to join 16 seeded teams in a balanced 32-team group stage before the knockout rounds.

The 40-team options are problematic. The typical format of four-team groups would likely mean four of the 10 runners-up do not advance to a round of 16.

Groups of five teams unbalance the fixture schedule and create integrity issues, by leaving some teams idle for the final round of games. It also adds one more fixture to create an eight-game program for the finalists, which would be unpopular with clubs releasing their players to national-team duty.

Expanding the World Cup also revives a difficult debate on how to share entry slots and seedings among the six continental confederations.

UEFA, where Infantino was the CEO-like general secretary for six years, has long been pressured by FIFA and other regions to relax its quota of 13 of the 31 qualifying slots.

Infantino said talks on allocating extra places have yet to begin.

He set out a 10-year plan for FIFA after facing resistance from some staffers loyal to his predecessor Sepp Blatter, and being subject to an investigation into suspected unethical use of private jets.

Now Infantino wants to give FIFA staff more control of organizing the World Cup.

“It’s nothing to do with trust,” he said, when asked if Brazil or Qatar could feel slighted by the plan. “It’s simply to do with efficiency.”

It also follows how UEFA, including under Infantino, has long run the four-yearly European Championship from Switzerland with a dedicated tournament director.

FIFA will also look at outsourcing broadcasting and sponsorship sales, as UEFA does. Since 1992, Champions League rights have been sold for UEFA by a Swiss agency.

FIFA’s last agency partnership ended in 2001 with ISL’s collapse into criminal bankruptcy. That case led to a kickbacks scandal which forced out Ricardo Teixeira as leader of the 2014 World Cup organizing committee.

Also outlined in FIFA 2.0:

- Plans to overhaul World Cup ticketing and move away from long-time partner, MATCH, which has a contract through 2018. Infantino noted, “sadly,” the perception of World Cup ticketing often “goes together with scandals.” FIFA wants stronger “control, approval, and audit rights” over match tickets in Russia, then run its own operations or create a subsidiary it will control.

- Use ticketing to engage with tech-savvy fans and earn more money, by making “closer relationships with the fans, ensuring the quality of the fan’s ticketing experience, and realizing the full potential of the gate revenues.”

- Reduce costs by cutting benefits for committee members, which include first-class travel and expenses for spouses.

- Increase FIFA’s role in the “exploding eSports market.”

- Become an “angel investor” by creating a FIFA fund for “potential investments in emerging technologies central to the future of the game.” FIFA believes this could develop staffers’ careers and “create a more entrepreneurial mindset at FIFA.”

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