FIFA President Gianni Infantino dangled the carrot of more World Cup spots for Asia during a visit to Seoul and Bangkok, pressing his case for an enlarged 40-team tournament.
Infantino, who met with sponsors Hyundai Motor Group in South Korea on Wednesday before travelling to Thailand yesterday, said his visit was aimed at rebuilding trust with corporate partners and presenting his vision of a “new FIFA”. World football’s scandal-hit governing body is in the midst of the worst crisis in its 112-year history, with more than 40 individuals and entities, including many former FIFA officials, charged with corruption-related offences in the United States.
Infantino, elected in February to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter, told reporters in Seoul that adding eight more teams to the World Cup from 2026 was “perfectly justified”.
“Football is not only Europe and South America. Football is the world,” he said. “I’m not a dictator so I can’t impose anything but I’m trying to convince everyone. I believe we have to increase the number of teams ... because we have to be more inclusive.”
Asia has four automatic spots at the World Cup, with a fifth up for grabs in an inter-confederation playoff, and Infantino said that number could rise to at least six under an expanded format.
FIFA has struggled to find new sponsors since its crisis erupted and Asia’s financial muscle could see the region play a bigger role.
Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., South Korea’s two largest automakers and affiliates of the Hyundai conglomerate, have extended their partnership with FIFA until 2022.
China has also shown its ambition on the global football stage with Dalian Wanda Group, the country’s biggest commercial property developer, becoming the first Chinese top level sponsor of FIFA last month. A source close to the deal said the 15-year sponsorship agreement with Wanda would be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Infantino said the nature of football took the sport beyond borders to new frontiers and that the organisation could work as a vehicle to bring people together, though his suggestion for a goodwill match between the two Koreas fell somewhat flat.
In Bangkok yesterday, he was asked whether Thailand had a shot at hosting a World Cup. Infantino said it should try but that it was becoming “increasingly difficult to hold a World Cup”, adding that he saw more scope for co-hosting by more than one country.
Addressing the FIFA crisis, he added: “In FIFA we went through a difficult time. We have approved reforms, we’ll bring back transparency, we’ll bring back good governance, we’ll bring back compliance.”
FIFA chief hails Leicester City’s ‘fairytale’ campaign
The FIFA President also hailed Leicester City’s “fairytale” rise to the top of the Premier League as an example of football’s ability to delight with “beautiful stories”.
He said the Foxes’ improbable table-topping feats proves cash is not always king. “That’s why we all love football, it’s the magic of football. And fairytales like the fairytale of Leicester are exactly showing us that football is unpredictable,” he said. “Football brings us every year, everywhere in the world, these kind of beautiful stories.”
Leicester are one win away from securing the league title, defying 5000-1 odds.
The FIFA boss is on a charm offensive to restore the battered organisation’s reputation after it was engulfed last year by a massive corruption scandal. He said he was in favour of co-hosted World Cups, opening the door for smaller countries without massive infrastructure to hold the event.
Thai football has been mired in division and controversy after a cascade of scandals linked to deposed Football Association of Thailand chief Worawi Makudi. Worawi, who had dominated the game in Thailand for years, is suspended from football activities by a FIFA ethics panel.
His successor is Somyot Poompanmoung, the pugnacious multi-millionaire who led Thailand’s police force until his retirement last September. In a glowing endorsement of Somyot, Infantino said: “He’s known as a person of principles, of integrity.”
In the “new FIFA” he said there was zero tolerance for “wrongdoings that might have happened... I am convinced he (Somyot) is the right person to lead football in Thailand.”
Somyot has vowed to clean up the sport, allocate funds fairly, raise refereeing standards and boost the quality of the Thai game—he is also a close friend of Leicester owner Vichai. His predecessor Worawi for years faced down fraud and bribery allegations, as well as a petition by tens of thousands of football fans urging Thailand’s junta to kick him out of his job.
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