World Cup expansion: enriching the game – or FIFA’s bureaucrats?

A disgruntled groan was the public reaction to the news that FIFA have followed UEFA by extending the number of teams in the finals – from 32 to 48. The public had largely the same reaction to the most recent European Championships, which saw the expansion from 16 to 24, the main critique pointing to the quality of the games throughout the finals.

For neutrals, many fixtures were lacking entertainment. So, can we expect the same from FIFA’s proposal? Let’s take a more in-depth look at how Gianni Infantino proposes this will go down.

First off: how does the format change? To include 16 extra teams, FIFA propose that instead of having eight groups of four, as the next two tournaments will have, there would be 16 groups of three. The top two would qualify for a round of 32 and from then on it would be straight knockout.

This increases the number of games from 64 to 80, but FIFA are adamant it would be easy to get it played in the same time-frame as the current tournament’s. But which of the 211 members of the worldwide association would profit most from this?

What’s currently on the table is that the 48 teams would comprise of 16 European teams, nine from Africa, eight from Asia, 12 from North America and South America, one from Oceania, the host nation and the last spot goes to the winner of a play-off between a North American team and an Asian team.

Numerically, Asian and African nations stand to gain the most from this, because their federations receive four extra spots. However, the Oceania Football Confederation will be quite pleased that they now have a guaranteed spot in every World Cup, rather than the current situation whereby their top team has to play a North American team in a play-off to qualify.

Criticism is widespread, which is reasonable considering the numerous issues that arise with such a big event. On a practical level, off the field and on the field, the increase from 32 to 48 teams makes it extremely difficult to find a suitable host country. Consider the fact that this change comes in for the 2026 World Cup. If the change was brought in for the 2022 World Cup, set to be held in Qatar, it would be nigh impossible to implement. This is a country that’s already struggling to build enough stadia and improve (or create) enough infrastructure to cater for 32 teams, the players’ families, the fans, the media and the millions of visitors that pop up at every international sporting event.

Add another 16 teams, you also add the associated accompaniment. A country, or partnership of countries, as small as Qatar can surely never hold a World Cup again. The original reason for moving the tournament to Qatar was to spread the finals throughout the globe, especially to smaller nations. Suddenly, that’s been seemingly abandoned, because any country with no traditional history of hosting major events wouldn’t have the sheer amount of stadia or infrastructure to cope with the following for such an event.

Given the difficulty and controversy surrounding Brazil preparing for the 2014 World Cup and Qatar preparing for the 2022 World Cup, it’s hard to see any developing nation getting behind a hosting bid because of the attached necessary construction and disruption.

However, on the field this will change much too. The flaw that most jump to is that the quality would be dulled, with many pointing to Euro 2016 as evidence. The fact that all teams had a realistic chance going through to the knockout rounds because of the extra places meant that the most adopted attitude was “try not to lose” rather than “try to win”. Proof of this was eventual winners Portugal going through to the knockout stage by drawing all their games in the group stage.

A similar situation would be very easy to envisage in the 2026 World Cup and the subsequent tournaments, while an earlier round of knockout games would increase the stakes. For non-neutrals that’ll undoubtedly heighten intensity at an earlier stage, but for neutrals it could well mean that they’ll be watching games wherein teams are trying to prevent their exit from the competition. Television companies will have a tough time selling a round of 32 games between Hungary and Paraguay (with all due respect to these national teams).

While the domineering feeling towards this change is that it’s down to the extra income FIFA will make from expansion, it will indeed cause a surge in interest in soccer in countries that will now have a better chance of qualifying for a finals. It decreases the elite value that the tournament holds, it makes it extremely difficult to find a country capable of hosting it and it might lead to a lot of holding on to 0-0 draws and 1-0 wins, but if it helps Ireland qualify then it can surely be allowed a skeptical trial.

-By Mark Lynch

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