There are moments, as a fan of football, when you question whether anyone involved in running the game actually watches it.
Gianni Infantino, Europe’s candidate for the FIFA presidency, announced this week that he would expand the World Cup by eight teams, to 40, should he be elected.
The UEFA secretary general, under Michel Platini’s guidance, has already expanded the European Championships to 24 teams. One of the most brilliant things about the Euros has always been the fact that it is genuinely Europe’s elite nations.
It was previously very rare that a team got into the competition that did not deserve to. That leads to excitement and the knowledge that no match is unimportant.
The expansion has led to a qualification campaign by which countries had to plunder new depths of ineptitude to avoid a place in France next summer. Only the Netherlands, of the usual suspects, managed to sink that low.
Having an expanded finals slightly damages the significant achievement of some teams from Great Britain. Wales have a golden generation at their disposal – it would be hard to argue that Gareth Bale is not world-class, and not comfortably better than any player in England’s squad. Add in Aaron Ramsey, who would be a top-level midfielder if he could sort out his injury troubles, and Wales have a squad that would expect to qualify in any circumstance.
Northern Ireland, on the other hand, qualified against all the odds.
The reward for that should be guaranteed competitive ties against Europe’s best nations, the likes of France, Italy, Spain and Germany in the tournament itseld. Instead they could face a slog through the group stages against Slovakia, Romania or Albania. In previous years, runners-up would have had to go through a play-off process. Yes, it may be nice for those nations to reach the finals of a major tournament, but it weakens the competition.
What the proposed expansion of the World Cup is clearly intended to do is secure votes from smaller nations for Europe’s candidate. Infantino has been pressed into service after the provisional suspension of Platini. Beyond being the slightly mysterious face of UEFA’s draws, Infantino is not particularly well known. Having this ace up his sleeve is guaranteed to win votes.
It is not for the good of the competition, though, which seems to be a secondary consideration in these matters.
International football has already become something of an unwanted aspect of the footballing calendar, something of an annoyance as a break in the club schedule.
The only time that really changes is when a competition rolls around, and, in part, that is because the standard of football tends to be high. There is always a sense that every game is must-watch, something that draws in viewers with only a minor interest in football.
What we now see is a replication of the qualification process on a grander scale, killing finals before they start. No-one wants to begin a World Cup with matches that hold no appeal. Infantino’s proposals could be the final nail in the international football coffin.