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S. Korea football chief welcomes FIFA's decision to expand World Cup

All Headlines 12:09 January 11, 2017

SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's football chief said Wednesday he welcomes FIFA's decision to increase the number of teams at the World Cup.

The Korea Football Association (KFA) President Chung Mong-gyu said in a statement that he welcomes the FIFA Council's unanimous decision on Tuesday to expand the men's World Cup to a 48-team competition in 2026. The top FIFA competition has featured 32 nations since 1998.

"We expect the FIFA Council's decision will help spread football fever around the world," said Chung, who is also the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president. "Asia, the most populated continent, is the future of world football. We hope more World Cup berths will be allocated to Asia."

FIFA has yet to finalize the number of World Cup slots per continent, but experts speculate Asia could be given seven to nine berths. Asia currently has 4.5 slots for the World Cup.

The world football governing body said there will be 16 groups of three teams at the newly expanded World Cup, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to the 32-team knockout stage.

There have been concerns that the expansion could damage the value of World Cup participation and decrease match quality at the competition, but Chung said he isn't worried.

"As we saw from the expanded Euro 2016, the level of play has increased for all teams, and so I don't see much of a problem," he said.

South Korean football experts expect FIFA's decision to expand the World Cup will increase the country's chances of qualifying for the competition, but on the flip side, it could make it more difficult to finish high on the main stage.

"I think it became a more difficult system for us to reach the round of 16," said Lee Yong-soo, the head of the KFA technical committee. "We'll have to prepare for the change and need to support youth players who aim to play at the 2026 World Cup."

Other pundits said that the expanded format will not make a big impact on the national team since South Korea are underdogs anyway when it comes to the global stage.

"Whether it is groups of four, or groups of three, we've always looked for second place to reach the knockout stage," said Kim Byung-ji, a retired goalkeeper who represented South Korea at the 1998 and the 2002 World Cups. "We have been the easy target of other teams in group stages, and I don't think the situation will change even under the new format."

Hahn June-hea, a football commentator for local broadcasting network KBS, said teams at the World Cup are likely to play more defensively since one loss would mean an early exit at the group stage. He said depending on seedings and group draws, South Korea actually could have a better chance of reaching the knockout stage.

"Now, you have to think about only one opponent, instead of two in the group stage," he said. "We'll probably meet a high-ranked team and South American or African teams at a decent level in the same group, but it's too early to say the changed format serves as disadvantage for us. We could end up with lower-seeded teams, so no one knows."

South Korea are currently looking for their ninth consecutive and 10th overall World Cup appearance by qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Taeguk Warriors made it to the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Outside home turf, the national team passed the group stage only once, reaching the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

kdon@yna.co.kr
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