MIAMI (Reuters) - FIFA presidential candidate Gianni Infantino’s plan for an expanded 40-team World Cup came under fire from two of his rivals as the campaign to secure the top job at the corruption-hit organization heated up on Thursday.
Four of the five candidates to replace Sepp Blatter in the Feb. 26 election in Zurich gave presentations to members of the CONCACAF confederation, which governs the sport in North and Central America and the Caribbean, at an airport hotel in Miami.
Normally such meetings take place behind closed doors but CONCACAF officials allowed the media into the room for a rare taste of how the FIFA candidates make their pitch to the electorate — the heads of national football federations.
The protocol in such occasions is usually for candidates to avoid public criticism of each other.
UEFA general secretary Infantino’s plan to create eight new spots in the World Cup was attacked by both Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and former FIFA deputy general secretary Jerome Champagne, however.
Salman gave a powerpoint presentation of his manifesto and when he discussed FIFA’s biggest tournament, the words on the screen read “Promises of more World Cup spots during an election period are unprofessional”.
The Bahraini said any changes should be well explained and gain broad support before being introduced.
Champagne was sharper in his condemnation of Infantino’s proposal.
“My program is not smoke and mirrors,” the Frenchman said. “They are facts and not the kind of projects that are being thrown around like organizing a World Cup with 40 teams when we know that is not the central issue for 150 federations around the world.
“We know that organizing a World Cup with 32 teams is already so costly and so difficult. We know also that the international calendar is so complicated,” he added.
Infantino defended his plan.
“Eight more countries would be in World Cup fever,” he said. “It would boost the competition and commercially it means more teams, more matches, more revenue”.
The Swiss’s proposal to massively increase the money FIFA gives to individual federations for development and other projects was also criticized by Salman.
Infantino says he will ensure that half of FIFA’s entire revenue will be distributed to federations with five million dollars over four years for each member association as well as $40 million over the same period for the regional confederations.
“Whenever there is an election we hear a lot of promises ... we have to be realistic in what we can achieve and what we can do,” said Salman, who said cash should be targeted at those who needed it most.
“Does Japan, China or Saudi Arabia need financial support? I don’t think so. When we look at countries around the world, you can look at countries like Germany, the U.K. or even the United States, I think they don’t need it as much as the smaller countries do.”
Infantino also hit back at those who suggested his plan to distribute more resources was simply an election tactic.
“I was criticized when I made these proposals, they said ‘Ah, you are trying to buy votes’,” he said.
“I am not buying anything. It is not my money, it is your money. FIFA’s money is your money, the national associations’ money.”
While the candidates mostly stuck to explaining their manifesto plans, they did engage in some more traditional politicking, tailoring their appeal to the CONCACAF audience.
Jordanian FA president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein said scandal-plagued CONCACAF, which has seen its last three presidents indicted as part of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation, should not feel it was to blame for FIFA’s crisis.
“Your confederation is not the cause of FIFA’s problems it is a victim of FIFA’s problems. The failure of leadership at the top of FIFA set the tone for the entire organization,” he said.
Ali said that FIFA’s recent decision to suspend payments to CONCACAF was a “collective punishment” and said he was “outraged” when he heard of the move.
Champagne told the delegates that “the media treats your region unfairly”, while Salman said “Asia and CONCACAF have so many similarities between us”.
There was no debate as the candidates each spoke without their opponents in the room.
South African businessman and politician Tokyo Sexwale, the fifth candidate, did not attend the meeting.
(This version of the story corrects attribution for quote in paragraph 24.)
Editing by Nick Mulvenney