Gianni Infantino is like the dad hosting his daughter’s birthday party who seeks to ensure no one goes home disappointed so he engineers the games - pass the parcel, musical statues, pin the tail on the donkey - to ensure that everyone gets a prize.
The new Fifa president has suggested the World Cup be enlarged from the present 32 teams to 48. This would be expansionism - already a curse in the game, ruining many a good tournament - gone raving mad. This dad is eager to impress the other parents; he thinks he’s Superdad. Affix a tail to him right away.
Look at the Champions League. The group stages are all too often a tedious procession right through to Christmas with the top clubs advancing routinely to knockout where, equally routinely, Chelsea play Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal get thumped by Barcelona. Now and again there is a corker of a game in the sections, such as Celtic vs Manchester City last week, but nowhere near enough of them.
Look at the Euros where the number of finalists was upped from 16 to 24 this summer but early excitements in France could not be sustained and, while we in non-participating Scotland might have rooted for Wales and Northern Ireland and enjoyed them having their moment in the sun, the tournament was probably a bit dull for those without that vague interest.
And look at the World Cup. It used to be 16 teams, a true elite. Ah, but isn’t elitism bad? And hasn’t Planet Football broken up and got bigger with perky new nations keen to come to the party? So can’t the formula be exploited to squeeze more out of it?
But the World Cup has become flabby and unwieldy. Now Infantino wants to make it obese. And not just unwieldy to watch but unwieldy to stage. There are few nations in the world who can support a 32-team competition without breaking the bank and being left with white-elephant stadia afterwards. Who on earth can accommodate 48?
“From a sporting point of view it is ideal to have 32 countries, while 48 is complicated,” says Infantino, kind of defeating his own argument. He stresses that 48 is only an idea, and that he’s put it out there “to see if anyone has a better idea”. But who said a new plan was needed? The only quibble you could have with the World Cup is that it’s already too big. No one has ever suggested it should be bigger still.
Fifa are obviously on a charm offensive. After the recent scandals they’re trying to be everybody’s friend by threatening to print off yet more invitations to the greatest show on earth. But why can’t they just be football’s friend and do right by the World Cup?
Infantino campaigned for the presidency on an expansionism ticket but back in February he was only proposing 40 teams. To accommodate 48 he suggests there should be 16 seeded countries who would then be joined by the same number who have progressed from a preliminary knockout round. The 16 teams beaten at this stage would pack up and go home after just one game, having barely felt like they’d participated at all.
Imagine if such a system had been in place for previous World Cups. Your wee nation qualify and everyone gets terribly excited. The manager promotes carpets and predicts a triumph. The players flog cars with goofy grins and sing on Top of the Pops. Thirty-odd thousand turn up at the national stadium and pay to watch no football, just a bus going round the track. Then, 90 minutes into the tournament, they’re out. Of course some would argue that was all Scotland deserved in Argentina in 1978.
Infantino outlined his big idea in Bogota, Colombia. The aim of FIFA, he said, was “to develop football worldwide and the World Cup is the biggest event in the world. It is a competition, it is a social event, it has a very important impact”.
If Colombia progresses in the World Cup, he added, the country is euphoric, but elimination brings sadness, “a national tragedy”. A bigger tragedy after the 1994 tournament, of course, was the murder of Andres Escobar, gunned down after scoring an own goal in the tournament from which his country exited at the group stage.
Perhaps Colombia, who have failed to qualify for three World Cups since then, would be interested in Infantino’s idea. Maybe Scotland, missing since 1998, would be very interested. But do we really want to get all dressed up, with kilts neatly pressed and the biggest feathers in our Glengarrys, for just one match?
The everyone-gets-a-prize philosophy stretches far and wide in football. Kids can’t take disappointment so cups are banned. The professionals can’t take criticism so disciplinarian managers are redundant. It’s all gone too far, and a 48-team World Cup is the ludicrous extreme.