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If FIFA insists on expanding the World Cup, here is a better way to 48

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Plenty of criticism has been fired at Gianni Infantino’s suggestion of a 48-team World Cup, and rightly so.

While an increased field wouldn’t dramatically hurt the the tournament — several decent sides missed the last outing in Brazil — a poorly-implemented and high-volume expansion would hurt the dramatics of the world’s best tournament.

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Look no further than EURO 2016 for this, as many of the group stage games lacked flair thanks to teams knowing points here or there could be enough for one of four third-place berths (Northern Ireland advanced with a win and two losses, while tournament-winning Portugal went to the knockout rounds with three draws).

Infantino’s suggestion would be to have 16 seeded teams advance to the group stages, and have the remaining 32 teams battle to avoid a potential “one and done” tournament via a pre-group stage knockout round.

We see a way to expand the field without dealing in such a dramatic end for 16 teams’ World Cup dreams: knockout round byes for the top eight group winners.

This would allow an even more jam-packed World Cup schedule — *cough* broadcast revenues *cough* —  and also avoid most of the pesky final matches with no ramifications for an already-advanced team by offering a bye to the second round of the knockout rounds for the top eight sides.

[ MORE: World Cup qualifying roundup ]

The four remaining group winners get the four worst second-place finishers, while the other eight second-place sides draw each other for a second-round berth. This adds one more round of games.

How would this affect a field? Take the 2014 tournament.

AFC (4): Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea

CONCACAF (4): Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, USA

CAF (5): Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria

OFC (0): New Zealand lost playoff to Mexico

CONMEBOL (6): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay

UEFA (13): Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland

There are 211 associations in FIFA. They break down as such:

Africa: 54
Europe: 55
OFC: 11
AFC: 46

The easy additions would be throw in playoff losers New Zealand and Jordan. That’s 34 teams, and guarantees a slot for OFC.

Now Europe’s four playoff losers: Sweden, Ukraine, Romania, Iceland. That’s 38.

Africa’s five playoff losers: Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso. That’s 43.

CONCACAF’s remaining Hex teams: Panama and Jamaica. That’s 45.

Another CONMEBOL side: Venezuela (46), a second OFC side (New Caledonia 47), and sixth Asian side (Uzbekistan 48).

That would mean the final breakdown would be:

Africa: 10 of 54
Europe: 17 of 55
CONMEBOL: 6 of 10
CONCACAF: 6 of 35
OFC: 2 of 11
AFC: 6 of 46

There is also the option of an off-year tournament run at the same time or near the Confederations Cup that would take the next-best two sides from each confederation and put them in group play for the final slots. In 2014, that would’ve arguably been Uruguay, Venezuela, Romania, Iceland, Panama, Mexico, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.

Again, the system is not broken, but if FIFA demands an expansion as high as 48 teams — which is still less than a quarter of its members — there’s a better way than so many one-and-dones on the world’s biggest stage.

Transfer rumor roundup: Mari to Arsenal; Defoe makes permanent Rangers move

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s biggest transfer rumors, including those involving Premier League outfits.

[ MORE: Premier League January transfer needs ]

Arsenal are reportedly hours from adding a defender to Mikel Arteta‘s squad.

Flamengo’s Pablo Mari has reportedly arrived in London and set for a medical at Arsenal, Sky Sports reports. The 26-year-old Spaniard will join the North London side for the remainder of the season with an option to buy.

It won’t be Mari’s first time signing for a Premier League side, however.

In 2016, the center-back signed with Manchester City, but never featured for the defending champions, instead making appearances for Girona, NAC and Deportivo La Coruna on loan.

Jermaine Defoe is not returning to Bournemouth.

On Saturday, Rangers announced that Defoe signed a pre-contract to join Rangers on permanent basis in the summer.

The storied 37-year-old English striker has 20 goals in 57 appearances since joining the Scottish giants last January on a 18-month loan. Defoe’s new contract runs through the 2020-21 season, a one-year deal.

“It’s fantastic news,” Rangers manager Steven Gerrard told the club’s website. “It’s something we have been working on over the weeks and it is great to finally get that done and dusted.”

“He is an incredible professional with the way he goes about his work on and off the pitch – he is a credit to himself and his family. And also on the pitch, which is the main thing. He is still contributing heavily – he is a major part of this group, this team and this squad and hopefully together we can go and share some success as I think he deserves that.”

This season, Defoe has scored 16 goals in 28 games.

Crystal Palace are in talks to sign Belgium international Yannick Carrasco, according to Sky Sports.

Carrasco, 26, wants to leave Chinese Super League side Dalian Yifang and is currently training in Belgium, ahead of a return to European play.

Carrasco has scored 24 goals in 52 appearances since making a move to China from Atletico Madrid in February 2018.

Norwich City are actively pursuing Danel Sinani, according to the Daily Mail.

The 22-year-old Luxembourg winger is out of contract with Luxembourg side FC Dudelange this summer. If the parties involved can’t reach a deal this week,  the Canaries are reportedly ready to propose a pre-contract agreement.

Mourinho hints Spurs to sign Lo Celso permanently: ‘I think the boy is earning the decision’

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Tottenham Hotspur loanee Giovani Lo Celso is closer to permanently stay in North London than he is to return back to Sevilla.

[ MORE: Spurs, Saints draw and force 4-th round FA Cup replay ]

The 23-year-old Argentine, who arrived at Spurs from Real Betis last summer on a season-long loan, experienced a rocky start in the Premier League. Lo Celso – with only 44 minutes of English top-flight playing time under his belt – suffered a hip injury with Argentina, ruling him out two months in the fall.

Since, the attacking midfielder has worked his way up Jose Mourinho’s pecking order, featuring heavily in the Portuguese’s scheme over the past few months. Most recently, on Saturday, Lo Celso displayed his well-balanced virtues in Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with Southampton in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Following the match, Mourinho addressed questions on whether or not his club is going to sign the midfielder on a permanent contract. Praiseworthy of Lo Celso’s learning abilities, Mourinho hopes the midfielder will be a part of the club’s long-term plans.

“It’s not an obligation, it’s an option,” Mourinho said of Lo Celso, who is reportedly available at reduced price of $35 million. “I think the boy is earning the decision. He’s making an easy decision for the club to execute the option.”

“Incredible evolution since I arrived,” he added. “Barely played a game, I think he played against Red Star Belgrade, with me a little bit difficult to come in the first few weeks. But he understood what we wanted. Good learner, good kid and I think by himself he made the decision that the club is going to execute the option. That’s normal, he earned it.”

With Christian Eriksen on the verge of departing the London side, Mourinho and company will have additional funds to land Lo Celso this winter before his price spikes in the summer.

Everything points to the creative midfielder having a future in London, but will Spurs brass follow suit and make it official soon?

Netherlands forward Rob Rensenbrink dies at age 72

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Rob Rensenbrink, the forward who was centimeters away from delivering the Netherlands a World Cup title in 1978, has died at age 72, the Dutch football association said Saturday.

“We have heard with sadness of the death of football legend Rob Rensenbrink,” the association said in a tweet.

Rensenbrink played most of his club football in Belgium with Club Brugge and Anderlecht, where his weaving runs earned him the nickname “Snake Man.” He also played briefly for the Portland Timbers in the United States in 1980.

He was a regular for the Netherlands national team in its period of dominance in the 1970s.

He played 46 times and scored 14 goals for the Dutch team known for its slick, position-swapping “total football.”

But he will always be best remembered for the goal he didn’t quite score in the 1978 World Cup final.

With the scores tied at 1-1 between the Netherlands and host Argentina and the seconds ticking away in injury time of the final in Buenos Aires, Rensenbrink’s shot hit the post. The match went to extra time and Argentina scored twice to win 3-1.

It was the second straight World Cup final defeat for the Netherlands, which has appeared in three finals and lost them all.

Rensenbrink was diagnosed with a muscle disease in 2012 and died as a result of the illness, according to Dutch national broadcaster NOS.

Anderlecht said he died Friday night.

“Thanks for everything Robbie!” the Belgian club wrote on its website. “We will never forget you.”

Serie A roundup: Ilicic powers Atalanta in historic win over Torino (video)

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Atalanta’s historic and overpowering win over Torino highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Torino 0-7 Atalanta

Josip Ilicic scored a hat-trick, including a center-line strike, as Atalanta humiliated Torino 7-0 on Saturday, handing the hosts their worst home loss ever in Serie A play.

With only nine men on the field towards the end of the match for Turin-based side, Atalanta were able to capitalize, elevating their goal count to 57 goals in 21 games this season. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men, who are back in Champions League contention, lead the league in goals.

Robin Gosens and Duvan Zapata, who scored a minute before the break, added to Ilicic’s first of three. A three-goal advantage after the first 45 minutes foreshadowed what Torino was going to encounter in the second half: more goals.

Eight minutes into the final 45 minutes of Saturday’s bout at the Olimpico di Torino, Ilicic quick-fired two more past an exposed Salvatore Sirigu.

With less than 10 minutes to go, Luis Muriel took the field for the visitors. And just six minutes after his first foot on the natural surface, the Colombian striker had a brace to his name.

“All we can do is apologize,” Torino coach Walter Mazzarri said. “In so many years of my career I had never had such a game.”

In fourth place with 38 points, Atalanta look to increase their seven-goal performances this season to three as they host struggling Genoa in a weeks time. Torino, on the other hand, meet AC Milan on Tuesday in the quarterfinal’s of the Coppa Italia.


SPAL 1-3 Bologna

Fiorentina 0-0 Genoa