Expanded World Cup an absurd idea, says sponsorship guru

LONDON (Reuters) - The football World Cup finals’ expansion to feature 48 teams is an absurd plan which will only devalue football’s premier competition, says the man widely credited with creating the global cash cow the sport has become. Patrick Nally, who brokered FIFA’s first major sponsorship deal -- with Coca Cola -- ahead of the 1978 World Cup, says the sports body’s decision to inflate the size of the tournament from 32 teams will devalue it, and ultimately make it less attractive and less lucrative.

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“They have rushed through this 48-team plan thinking it is going to make them billions more,” Nally said in an interview. “I think it will make them billions less. To make this a 48-team event to pander to Asian countries... it is absurd.

“You need qualification... you need to keep the pinnacle what it should be, so we all know we are seeing the world’s best at a World Cup finals. “It is crazy to pour it all in at the top, thinking it makes it better. Every nation should have a chance to qualify, and if they are not good enough to qualify then that’s that.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced the expansion in Zurich on Monday, fulfilling a promise he had made during last year’s election campaign.

He said the move meant more nations would be able to participate, and “many more will have a chance to dream”. Infantino said football fever in a country that qualifies is the biggest promotion of the sport imaginable, but Nally believes a bigger tournament is a weaker one, and the lustre of the World Cup is in danger.

“Is it something with more status and more gravitas, or is it just a jolly everyone can go to?” asked the man often cited as the founding father of the sports business industry. “Do we want a tournament with the world’s best, or with unknown, non-descript players that won’t excite kids?”

Nally believes the World Cup could be revamped by FIFA improving competition and qualification at the Continental Confederation level, to help bring Asian, African and American standards to the level of Europe and South America. Simply inviting more to the party isn’t the answer, he says.

When Nally clinched that sponsorship deal for FIFA with Coca Cola in the 1970s -- a corporate sponsorship programme that endures to this day -- the World Cup was a 16-team affair. The tournament was expanded to 24 teams in 1982, and then to 32 in 1998. FIFA’s 211 member associations each hold one vote in the presidential election, and 135 of them have never played at a World Cup, so expansion of the tournament was always likely to appeal.

The new format, to be introduced in 2026, will feature a first round of 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in each qualifying for a round of 32. From then on, it would be a straightforward knockout contest. The hosts of the 2026 tournament will be decided in May 2020.

Russia will stage the 2018 finals and Qatar the 2022 tournament.

Editing by Rex Gowar