By Brian Homewood
ZURICH (Reuters) - FIFA president Gianni Infantino says his plan to expand the World Cup soccer finals is less drastic than his critics suggest, and would create more excitement for fans, broadcasters and sponsors.
The Swiss-Italian was elected president of the sport's world governing body in February, having promised as part of his campaign to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 40. In October, however, he suggested that from 2026 the tournament could have 48 teams, although 16 of those would be eliminated after a single game.
The plan has attracted fierce criticism. Germany coach Joachim Loew expressed concern about a "watering-down of quality", while the chief executive of leading German side Borussia Dortmund described it as "complete insanity".
But Infantino told Reuters in an interview it was simply a case of holding a round of playoff matches before the tournament proper. In effect, he said he was proposing a 32-team tournament preceded by a knockout round which would be held in the same country as the tournament itself.
"Actually, it is 32 teams but with an additional playoff round where you can bring in teams from different confederations and make sure the best 32 qualify for the group stage," he said.
The qualifying competition for a World Cup ends the preceding November, but Infantino said his plan would keep the alive the dream of qualifying until June for an extra 16 teams, compared with the present system, and allow them a taste of the tournament's atmosphere.
"If we shift the last November date into June, then we move the whole perception of 16 more countries in the world.
"It is the World Cup fever you can create in a country from November until June, and this brings in kids who register in clubs, broadcasters who go to the local association, sponsors, the whole football movement in a country is really boosted."
The winners of the 16 initial playoff games would go through to join 16 teams already sure of their places thanks to superior results in the qualifying stage. The rest of the tournament would take place as usual, with eight groups of four.
In the interview, Infantino also said he wanted to bring greater transparency to the sport's murky multi-billion-dollar transfer system and supported the idea of introducing squad size limits to stop the 'hoarding' of players by rich clubs.
He said an alternative system for the World Cup could be to introduce a final round of two-leg intercontinental playoffs played home-and-away.
"That is also an option but if you stage a playoff outside the World Cup atmosphere, you have not really qualified for the World Cup; if you qualify for the World Cup, it's a much bigger event," he said.
A single match playoff would also give a better chance of upsets, he said. "In a one-off match anything can happen."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)