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FIFA’s 5 options for a 2026 World Cup of 48, 40 or 32 teams

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GENEVA (AP) FIFA has detailed how it could expand the World Cup in a 64-page analysis of five options for the future of its signature tournament.

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The document, seen by the Associated Press, was sent this week to FIFA Council members who on Jan. 10 should decide the shape of the 2026 World Cup.

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Though retaining the 32-team format is on the table, FIFA and president Gianni Infantino are clearly committed to change.

Infantino believes a 48- or 40-team tournament would increase World Cup fervor in relatively new markets – many of whom voted for him February.

“The FIFA World Cup as a pull factor for development, offering a reward to increased investment and focus on football development locally, is significant,” the research document says.

More teams and more matches also mean higher commercial sales to help FIFA fund itself and its 211 member federations.

Here are some of FIFA’s arguments for and against the five options:

48 TEAMS – 16 GROUPS OF 3

The preferred option, announced by Infantino just this month.

The 16×3 format “offers the certainty of at least two matches per team, avoids any post-play-off let-down periods and, importantly, achieves all of this while retaining the authenticity of the current 32-team format by staying true to the traditional, purist football knockout format,” the document said.

Each of the 80 matches in 32 days has an exclusive time slot – a rise on the current 56 live slots, where the last round of games in each group kicks off at the same time to guard against collusion.

Purists, however, are unlikely to enjoy the idea of penalty shootouts to decide drawn group-stage games. That is to protect against teams colluding on a favorable result that would let both advance to the new Round of 32.

So, fewer “dead rubber” group-stage matches and extra knockout games.

“Direct elimination of the last 32 teams would create drama and this `life-or-death’ format should therefore have a positive impact on audiences,” FIFA suggests.

Audiences also get four daily matches in an intense first 16 days. The first rest day arrives only when the quarterfinals lineup is set.

Compared to $5.5 billion for the next World Cup in Russia, FIFA projects this format would earn the equivalent of $6.5 billion – the most lucrative option.

Organizing costs would also rise, from $2 billion to $2.3 billion, though at least $128 million of that is basic prize money to the 16 extra teams.

Hosts would still be required to provide a maximum of 12 stadiums, as Russia has chosen.

FIFA projects more revenue, happier commercial partners and more engaged fan bases worldwide.

“The most tangible and intangible value,” FIFA’s document said.

48 TEAMS – OPENING 32-TEAM PLAYOFF ROUND

Infantino’s big idea of three months ago to get to 48 teams has probably found too much opposition to succeed.

It also has 80 matches, plus a round of 32 of undoubted high drama- just not where teams, fans and broadcasters want it.

The opening playoff round – of 32 teams playing a “one-and-done” match to join 16 seeded teams – has been viewed as not part of the real World Cup.

FIFA points to “post playoff let-down” and seems against taking that risk.

“The 48-team (16×3) format with a 2-match guarantee per team makes it the most attractive option,” FIFA suggested.

The 4-day playoff round, plus three rest days ahead of a typical 32-teamm group stage would mean a 39-day tournament.

Teams and fans of some teams would either be making travel and ticket plans at short notice or leaving as others arrive for the main event

There is also uncertainty about how many teams from each continent would survive to the groups.

Even the promise of $6.32 billion revenue is likely not enough.

40 TEAMS – 10 GROUPS OF 4

The numbers don’t add up.

Fewer matches, at 76, and a lop-sided bracket where only six of the 10 group runners-up would advance to a Round of 32.

“Any expanded format would present some issues which need to be addressed regarding sporting balance,” FIFA said, with this flawed format in mind.

Unbeaten second-place teams in tough groups could be going home through no fault of their own, if their goal difference was inferior to runner-up from a weaker group.

Also, FIFA projects an increased profit of less than $200 million relative to the 2018 budget. The favored 16×3 format cashes in at $640 million increased profit.

40 TEAMS – 8 GROUPS OF FIVE

The flabbiest option.

The most matches, 88, but too few of them are meaningful.

In the 10,000 tournament simulations FIFA performed, it scored worst in terms of the pure quality of well-matched good teams playing each other.

“Both 48-team formats outperform the 40-team formats, with the 40-team (8×5) clearly the weakest format in this respect,” FIFA said.

Also, the eight-match program required to win, or even reach the semifinals, is a nonstarter.

It is unacceptable to European clubs to release their salaried players for a longer stint of national-team duty.

32 TEAMS

If not perfect, certainly a proven and popular success since it was introduced at the 1998 World Cup in France.

The 64-match bracket is perfect: Two teams advance from each group into a Round of 16.

“The format with the highest absolute quality (of play) would be achieved under the current format,” FIFA acknowledged.

But change has been promised to FIFA members in two separate votes last Feb. 26 in Zurich.

They elected a president who campaigned on offering more invitations to the World Cup party, and they approved anti-corruption FIFA reforms sweetened by the promise of more, and lucrative, World Cup places.

That reform panel which suggested that included Infantino and the now-FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani of Canada – a potential co-host in 2026 with the United States and Mexico.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Chelsea still pursuing Roma duo, and more

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Chelsea is looking to make a big transfer splash as it searches for potential replacements for Michy Batshuayi and David Luiz.

According to multiple reports, Chelsea is attempting a double signing from AS Roma, forward Edin Dzeko and midfielder Emerson Palmieri. The Brazilian left-back is rated by Roma at $30.5 million but he could join Chelsea on loan. However the interest in Dzeko is much newer, and it’s unclear whether Roma would allow Dzeko to leave, especially in the middle of the season.

[READ: MLS SuperDraft 2018 Live Tracker]

With Roma preparing to face Inter Milan this weekend, talks between the two clubs have been put on hold until next week.

Dzeko’s agent confirmed that Conte is interested in the Bosnia and Herzegovina international but stated Dzeko’s desire is to remain at Roma.

After failing to beat out Sergio Aguero in the starting lineup for Manchester City, it would be interesting to see Dzeko give the Premier League another go, although he’d likely play second-fiddle again, this time to Alvaro Morata.

Here are some more transfer rumors from around Europe and the Premier League:

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MLS SuperDraft 2018 Live Tracker

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For a few dozen players, hearing their name called up to the big stage will validate all the hard work and sacrifices they’ve made since they were children.

Starting at 11:00 a.m. when Los Angeles FC is on the clock at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, the 2018 MLS SuperDraft will be underway. Many of the top college prospects will soon find out whether they’ll be headed to the Pacific Northwest, New England, the Southeast, Southern California or anywhere in between.

[MORE: 2018 MLS Mock Draft]

This year’s draft class is loaded with attacking talent, from Generation Adidas trio Ema Twumasi (Wake Forest), Mason Toye (Indiana) and Francis Atuahene (Michigan) to Twumasi’s college teammate Jon Bakero.

But potential No. 1 overall pick is a three-time national champion, Thomas Hilliard-Arce, who could become the anchor of a backline for a decade.

Follow along below as we update the picks live as we hear them:

(more…)

Bayern signs Germany midfielder Goretzka from rival Schalke

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich signed Germany midfielder Leon Goretzka on Friday on a free transfer from Bundesliga rival Schalke effective from next season.

Bayern said the 22-year-old Goretzka signed a four-year deal from July 1 through June 2022.

Schalke, which Goretzka joined in 2013 from hometown club Bochum, said the player informed the club this week of his wish to join Bayern when his contract expired.

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“We think we did everything in the last months to convince Leon to stay with us,” Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel said. “In the end, it wasn’t enough.”

Schalke had long been engaged in trying to get Goretzka to extend his contract, but was aware of reported interest from Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool.

“We’re very happy that Leon Goretzka, a German international with big potential, has decided in favor of Bayern despite big-name international competitors. This way it’s ensured that Leon Goretzka remains in the Bundesliga,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.

Goretzka scored 19 goals and set up 13 more in 130 appearances for Schalke.

The club had previously expressed its displeasure with Bayern making public statements about its player after Goretzka was praised by sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and coach Jupp Heynckes.

Heidel said “we don’t need to hear every day from the Munich people how good our player is.”

Goretzka has six goals in 12 games for Germany.

Pele hospitalized overnight in Brazil

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The most famous soccer player in the world had a scare last night as he was hospitalized in Brazil for “severe exhaustion.”

Pele, 77, was set to travel to London this weekend to be honored by the Football Writers Association, though it looks like that trip has now been postponed.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Pele collapsed and was taken to a hospital in Brazil where he has undergone a series of tests which appear to point to severe exhaustion,” a FWA statement said. “He remains on fluids while doctors monitor his recovery.

“Thankfully, there is no suggestion of anything more serious than exhaustion.”

Here’s to hoping Pele makes a full recovery.

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