SEOUL/BANGKOK (Reuters) - 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 traveling to Thailand on Thursday, said his visit was aimed at rebuilding trust with corporate partners and presenting his vision of a “new FIFA”.
World soccer’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”.
“Soccer is not only Europe and South America. Soccer 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 soccer 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 soccer took the sport beyond borders to new frontiers and that the organization 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 on Thursday, 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 said: “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.”
Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by John O'Brien and Robin Pomeroy