All the outrage fizzing out of Europe on the move to 48-team World Cup finals in 2026 would make the casual observer think it's the death of football.

British and European sportswriters have savaged Fifa boss Gianni Infantino's plans for 16 groups of three teams before the knockout phase (instead of eight groups of four). Most have penned sniffy opinion pieces bemoaning the lack of quality this will encourage. Making it easier for lesser teams to qualify for the finals leads to ordinary fare and blow-out games of little interest, they say.

This ignores recent lessons. Last year's 24-team European Championship was extended from 16 among similar criticism; its most memorable feature was the passage through the championship of little Iceland, culminating in their embarrassing 2-1 victory over England and showcasing the passion and inventiveness of the previously unknown Icelandic fans.

The English outrage over the revamped World Cup made me think of Princess Margaret, the Queen's younger sister, who once said: "We had to put a stop to the presentation of debutantes at Court - every tart in London was getting in." This from the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, bad-girl royal persuaded to abandon her true love and marry another, only for the marriage to descend into farce, multiple partners and divorce.
The point is those espousing nobility better live up to the ideals or their claims of propriety are unconvincing - a bit like England's international record since 1966.


Sure enough, some writers in Britain called the 48-team plan "the death of international football" - hilarious, seeing much international football outside the main tournament died years past at the hands of the clubs. This would have been recognised long ago but they are still making the corpses dance.

The Daily Mail's otherwise excellent Martin Samuels called Fifa's plans "ruinous" and offered Leicester's Premier League title last year as justification. Their fairytale win, he argued, was achieved because the big six clubs had goofed off; Leicester had made them honest and had since provoked a rise in standards.

This completely overlooks the fact exposure to top level football allowed Leicester to prosper. While their Premiership campaign is listing this season, they have reached the top 16 of the Champions League along with names like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich. It also ignores an unwritten law of sport: Want to improve? Play the best.

Samuels went on to say: "The weaker a tournament becomes, the more the football suffers. This summer's European Championship had the odd feelgood event but, largely, the matches were ordinary. Iceland's progress held a certain charm but you wouldn't want to watch them every week. Portugal won, so Cristiano Ronaldo got what he deserved but few will regard his team-mates as great champions."

What you are really hearing is a touch of tired-old-hack-itis and snobbery (not unlike Princess Margaret's) which comes from watching too much elite sport - with the facility for appreciating opportunities for others correspondingly dulled.

So, invoking the spirit of Iceland, Leicester and the delicious uncertainty of sport when unexposed talent is admitted to the rarefied air of top competition, Infantino's move (admittedly self-serving as it buys votes to shore up his reign) may prove beneficial.

Of far more interest than all the European snivelling is the 2026 venue - with the favourite North America, perhaps a joint venture between US, Canada and Mexico (as long as everyone can climb over Donald Trump's wall and watch football in a crowd of rapists).

The biggest reasonable criticism of a three-team group is collusion - as happened in 1982 when Germany and Austria played out an infamous tactical draw, preventing a promising Algerian team from proceeding to the knockouts. Penalty shoot-outs will fix that.