Matt Maher: Exciting? Yes but Gianni Infantino’s risking all that

There will no doubt be many who agree with Gianni Infantino’s assertion the group stage at this World Cup was the most exciting ever.

 The group stage at the World Cup in Qatar has been hailed as the "best ever" by FIFA president Gianni Infantino
The group stage at the World Cup in Qatar has been hailed as the "best ever" by FIFA president Gianni Infantino

You could certainly make the argument for it.

Yet there can also be no disguising the irony of Fifa’s president making such a claim, considering the major role he played in ensuring such drama may be hard to replicate at future tournaments.

It was Infantino, after all, who successfully pushed through the expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026 and, incredibly, only now has it begun to dawn on the sport’s governing body how problematic that decision might be.

In the haste to make the tournament even bigger – and snare the added riches that entails – Fifa neglected to sit down and work out just how it might work in practice.

The symmetrical 32-team format used since 1998, with eight groups of four, has always been easy to follow and in Qatar helped serve up some thrilling finishes.

Fifa’s original plan for the expanded format was for 16 groups of three. Or at least it was until they realised that in all likelihood meant less excitement, with one team in each group sitting idle for the final round of matches, together with an increased risk of dead rubbers or, worse, collusion between those teams in action, who would know exactly what was required to progress.

Hence a hasty backtracking in recent days, with Fifa technical director Arsene Wenger confirming the format is still to be finalised. Alternative ideas include 12 groups of four, or a more radical conference structure, which would see the tournament split into two before joining up in the semi-finals.

It all seems so unnecessary and needless.

Why change something which has worked so well for years and has just, in the words of Infantino, served up one of the best group stages ever? Why further dilute the quality of the finals tournament? Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

But once you realise Fifa makes more than 90 per cent of its income from men’s World Cups, it all starts making perfect sense.

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