It has been a bad few years for FIFA. Embroiled in rumors of corruption throughout the organization for years, it was 2015 when it all came out and several people associated with FIFA were indicted on a huge range of charges. Nevertheless, soccer is the world’s most popular sport and its governing body is now desperately trying to shake this reputation.
To attempt to do so they have decided to expand the number of teams wearing their famous World Cup kits to 48 for the big tournament. Whether this is a good idea depends on who you ask – for some it’s a forward-thinking move that embraces change while to others it’s motivated by greed that abandons common sense. Let’s have an in-depth look at why FIFA is expanding the World Cup to 48 teams and whether this is going to be good or bad for the tournament, the teams and the fans.
How it happened
New FIFA president Gianni Infantino needed a move to distance himself from the previous Sapp Blatter-led administration. That move is to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48. It is something that he has been in favor of for a long time and it was one of the proposals that he ran his campaign for FIFA presidency on. So Infantino can’t be accused of springing this idea on FIFA out of the blue. The move was relatively unopposed – it seems that most people now at the top of FIFA think it’s a fantastic idea.
How will it work?
The World Cup will only bring in 48 teams from the 2026 tournament so there is still time to debate exactly how the format should work out. However at the moment it seems that the most likely scenario will see the 48 teams start the tournament in 16 groups of three. The two top teams from each group will advance to a 32 team knockout stage. Functionally this will mean a much shorter group stage and a larger knockout phase than in the current tournaments.
The news has been met with a highly mixed reaction as some believe that expansion is inevitable or even preferable, while others are certain that the larger tournament will lead to a lower quality of soccer at the World Cup and the only people likely to win will be those at FIFA. Let’s have a look at some of the positives and negatives of the expansion.
It’s worth pointing out that expansion of the World Cup is not a new idea. Up until 1978 there were only 16 teams in the tournament – it then expanded to 24 in 1982 and then to 32 in 1998. By that schedule we are a little overdue for an expansion of teams. So it’s not like FIFA is messing with the sacred make-up of the tournament. The number of countries in the world has grown so it’s only natural that the World Cup needs more spaces.
Equally, this can be seen as a move by FIFA to be more inclusive. Additional teams in the tournament gives the chance for more countries to feel proud of their team in the World Cup. While Europe and South America have traditionally dominated the tournament, it would be good to see teams from the other continents get more of an opportunity to compete. This even gives the opportunity for more underdog success.
It may also be the case that with more teams in the World Cup, the wealth that the tournament generates can be more fairly spread around.
There’s no doubt that bringing in additional teams means you run the risk of diluting the quality of the tournament. Some have considered the expansion of the Euro tournament as to have had a negative effect on the quality of the games.
There are many who can’t see beyond the concept that this is a politically-driven money grab that has very little to do with what is best for the World Cup. The governing body wants to milk more money from their tournament and additional teams is a great way to do it. President Infantino has stated that the expansion could bring an extra $1 billion in revenue.
One of the parts of the proposal that has been most difficult for fans to accept is the prospect of a much shorter group stage. With three team groups the majority of the tournament will be a knockout competition. But the group stage has always been a key part of the World Cup, and many fear that something would be lost.