David Owen

We cannot say we were not warned. There it is, spread over three pages of then FIFA Presidential candidate Gianni Infantino’s lavish 50-page manifesto, under the heading "World Cup expanded to 40 teams".

In fact, the rebranded FIFA Council has gone even further by opening the door, during today's Zurich meeting, for a 48-team World Cup, starting in nine years’ time.

Every instinct in the portion of my brain marked "football"is screaming that this would not be desirable; that it would result in further dilution in the quality of a tournament which no longer represents the out-and-out pinnacle of footballing attainment; that it would take us another step away from the 1970s golden age that I think brought us the best World Cups, at least on the field of play, even if I would concede that this view is perhaps tinged by childhood nostalgia.

Nevertheless I would be willing to go along with it, to give it a whirl, if I felt it was being done for the right - ie sporting - reasons; to produce a better World Cup, with more exciting games and better football.

But, try as I might, I just don’t - and here’s why.

The one outcome that I think is all but certain is that FIFA will make more money out of a 48-team World Cup than a 32-team one.

Indeed, I see that my Twitter feed includes recent contributions from more than one respected football reporter supporting this contention, on the basis of official-looking projections.

Increased income is particularly important at the moment to FIFA, whose recent well-documented malheurs have had a marked impact on the bottom line: 2015 yielded a deficit of $122 million (£100 million/€115 million), compared with surpluses of $141 million (£116 million/€133 million) the previous year and $36 million (£30 million/€34 million) in 2011, the equivalent point in the previous four-year cycle.

Extra revenues from a super-sized 2026 World Cup would not help with the immediate turnaround task.

Gianni Infantino's expanded World Cup proposal has passed ©Getty Images
Gianni Infantino's expanded World Cup proposal has passed ©Getty Images

But the more positive financial outlook that they might contribute to could be a big help to Infantino if he finds himself campaigning in 2019 for a second stint as FIFA President - and, let’s face it, who doesn’t currently expect the 46-year-old to seek a second term?

Infantino, remember, has some serious spending pledges to live up to.

That glossy manifesto promised a minimum of $5 million (£4.1 million/€4.7 million) over four years per member-association for football development projects and $40 million (£33 million/€38 million) per Confederation.

It also underlined Infantino’s belief that FIFA "should easily" be able to earmark at least 50 per cent of its income for direct distribution to Member Associations.

While he subsequently swung into Wembley and explained that the 50 per cent figure was more of an aspirational goal, clearly the higher FIFA can drive realistic future revenue projections by 2019, the more he may be able to promise the electorate to spend on football development in their jurisdictions in a new campaign document, should he run again.

Agreement on a super-sized tournament might furnish the FIFA President with more electoral ammunition indeed, since he would presumably be able to point out that every Confederation - and Confederation Presidents can be extremely influential at election time - would have more teams at the 2026 World Cup than in 2018 or 2022.

As I have observed before, things - Executive Committees/Councils, World Cups, maybe Club World Cups - have a tendency to grow like Topsy at FIFA, partly because this enables difficult decisions to be finessed.

The much-ballyhooed governance reforms have done nothing that I can see to address this.

Forty-eight teams will have the chance to win the FIFA World Cup - claimed by Germany in 2014 - in 2026 ©Getty Images
Forty-eight teams will have the chance to win the FIFA World Cup - claimed by Germany in 2014 - in 2026 ©Getty Images

● On Friday (January 6) we said farewell to John Buckingham, an English jockey, in the Domesday Book village of Chipping Warden where he had lived for around 60 years.

Buckingham, who died just before Christmas aged 76, will be remembered for riding a racehorse called Foinavon to victory in the 1967 Grand National, in an upset so spectacular it has become a metaphor for an unexpected win in any sphere - Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City were Foinavon; so were politicians as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.

The turnout, nearly 600 by the vicar’s estimate, was so large we were jammed in tighter than economy class passengers on a transatlantic flight, albeit with an ancient wooden ceiling to admire perhaps 20-feet above our heads.

Parts of the building may date from the 13th century; yet in all these 800 years, I do not see how anyone, or anything, can have attracted more people to congregate there than Johnny Buckingham.

Equally comment-worthy: one at once began to sense that the main reason why most people had come had nothing to do with Foinavon.

Many, of course, were locals; but the majority, including some of the greats of the sport, were there, I am sure, chiefly owing to the respect they had conceived for Buckingham during his second career, as a valet.

This word may have hoity-toity, even courtly connotations, yet it is one of horseracing’s most gruelling and potentially thankless tasks.

A queue waiting to get in to John Buckingham's memorial service in Chipping Warden ©ITG
A queue waiting to get in to John Buckingham's memorial service in Chipping Warden ©ITG

The valet’s job basically is to ensure that jockeys go out for each race correctly attired and with all the equipment they need.

When everyone else is leaving the course, the valet is just getting stuck in to a mountain of mud-splattered laundry, with every prospect of a long drive home and a 5am alarm call to come.

Buckingham, who loved the camaraderie of the weighing-room and never in my experience had a seriously bad word to say about anyone, endured this regime for decades while maintaining a reputation, in the words of seven-times champion jockey John Francome, as a "great teller of jokes that in his mind were funny".

All of this got me thinking about sport, money and celebrity grieving - a phenomenon which, alas, we all had far too much cause to become acquainted with in 2016.

Now I wish race-riding had made Buckingham rich: given the battering to which all jump jockeys subject their bodies, they deserve to be among the best-remunerated of athletes, though few are.

But it didn’t: a meticulously-compiled riding log suggests Buckingham received £1,800 ($2,100/€2,000) for winning the Grand National, plus his £2.50 jockey's fee.

If riding had made his fortune, however, he would not have needed subsequently to toil through all those years as a valet - the years for which so many of those who made their way to rural Northamptonshire on Friday, plainly, will most fondly remember him.

Money has done a great deal for sport - and athletes - over the 49 years and nine months since John Buckingham’s day of days at Aintree.

But I still do not think it can buy the sort of love radiating last week from that packed country church in the heart of England.