TOKYO (Reuters) - FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams will be a catalyst to soccer’s growth in countries hovering on the fringe of the showpiece tournament, according to Japan Football Association (JFA) president Kozo Tashima.
Tashima is a member of the FIFA Council, which voted on Tuesday to add 16 more teams to its current 32 from the 2026 edition of the tournament.
Critics fear the expansion will lower the overall standard of the tournament but Tashima cited the example of Japan, which has taken part in the last five World Cups, and said it would be provide an impetus for soccer’s growth globally.
“Many teams in Asia are also close to being fully prepared to participate,” Tashima told Reuters on Thursday.
”Japan was the same when we first participated in 1998. We had a taste of what football was at a world level and was able to consistently participate in all five World Cups that followed. This contributed greatly to the development of Japanese football.
“I believe countries in Asia, Oceania, Europe, for example Iceland, and other small countries deserve the same chance.”
Kashima pointed to Iceland’s Euro 2016 victory over England to further his point.
“In the past, tournaments were more about Europe versus South America, but now, many other national teams have become stronger,” he said.
“We are now in a generation where even Iceland beat England. Our decision was based on the fact that team number expansion would be, without a doubt, a progress for football, globally.”
The other main talking point in Asian football is the money being splashed out by Chinese Super League clubs to lure top players from abroad.
Tashima thought it might ultimately help strengthen Japanese football.
“I think it is totally normal that players go to markets that deem them highly valuable,” he said.
“So when players go to China, the level of Chinese football goes up. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. All we have to do is develop teams that can counter their strength, and in that sense, this becomes a good stimulation for us.”
He advised China to follow Japan’s model.
“Japan did the same thing in the 90s when J-League was first formed. But the important thing was, we made sure we recognised that these players were good and made sure they truly contributed to Japanese football,” he added.
“It is important that China does the same.”
Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Nick Mulvenney