MOSCOW: As he sat down for his final press conference of the 2018 World Cup wearing a red pullover normally given to volunteers, Gianni Infantino couldn’t have hid his delight if he wanted to.
Russia had delivered one of the best-organised and most successful World Cups and even their staunchest critics would find it hard to deny that.
And if there were any who wanted to attempt, Infantino came armed with the numbers to prove his argument. One million travelling fans, three billion television viewers, with the final set to be the most viewed game in the history of sport. “I have been saying for a couple of years that this was going to be the best World Cup ever,” he said. “Today I can say it with even more conviction because I have lived it and you have lived it.
“The infrastructure, the stadiums, everything is beautiful and efficient. The level of expertise, the level of operational excellence is unprecedented. What the World Cup has changed is the perception of the world towards Russia. It has shown what may sometimes be said may not be what happens here.”
One of the few question marks regarding the tournament has been the Video Assistant Referee that made its World Cup debut here. But Infantino defended it and declared it a huge success.
“The results — and again we speak here about facts — are extremely clear and extremely positive,” he said.
“VAR is not changing football, it is cleaning football. Here, there were 447 checks and one review every 3.5 matches. Over 16 decisions were changed. Before VAR, 95 per cent of the decisions that referees took were already correct. Thanks to VAR, we have been able to increase that to 99.32. One of the effects of VAR has been that the offside goal is finished in football. Because you are either offside or you are not offside.”
And while Russia would have been grinning from ear to ear after Infantino’s comments, the hosts of the next World Cup — Qatar — would have been frowning. After FIFA decided to expand the 2026 World Cup to 48 teams, there were talks of extending that to the 2022 World Cup as well.
Given Qatar’s size and the fact that all its preparation so far had been keeping in mind 32 teams, this would complicate things for them. There were also suggestions that the masterminds behind this were Saudi Arabia and that it was a bid to force Qatar to spread out their World Cup over the entire middle-east.
This attempt appeared to have died down at the FIFA Congress just before the World Cup, with the South American nations aborting a resolution to expand the 2022 tournament. But on Friday, Infantino brought it up again, saying that a final decision was yet to be made.
“The WC in 2022 — whether it is 32 or 48 — it is something that will be discussed,” he said.
“Everybody is open-minded on this. We have contracts with Qatar. Of course, we would be happy to have a 32-team tournament. But if everybody comes on board, we can have a look at 48 teams.”
Infantino also let slip the dates for the 2022 tournament — November 21 to December 18. Once France or Croatia lift the trophy at the Luzhniki on Sunday, the countdown to Qatar can start.