Yesterday Gianni Infantino announced that the majority of national federations are supporting the idea of a 48 team World Cup and with the final vote set to take place next month it looks like the tournament is set to be expanded by 50 percent.
It’s not an idea which is supported by the European nations and although I don’t have any say on the way the game is run I can’t say that I’m a fan of it either. But in this instance it seems as if the European associations are going to be out voted.
If and when that is the case then from 2026 onwards we are going to be set for an ever bigger pinnacle of global football. But does more teams being invited to the party mean the tournament will be better off? In my opinion I’d say no and now I will tell you why.
Firstly there is the simply numerical issue of having 48 teams. I’m a Data Analyst by trade (yes this is not what I do for a living) but without getting all mathematical for a tournament to work it needs a number divisible by the power of 2 to work properly.
In layman’s terms that means this or any other tournament needs to be either 8,16 or 32 teams for it to work. Therefore you could say that right now we are at the optimum number of teams for the World Cup to be a successful tournament and not a bloated mess.
The next issue that an expansion to 48 teams throws up is how do you work the group stages. FIFA President Infantino has gone on record by saying that he envisages a scenario where we would see 16 groups of 3 in the group stages instead of the current 8 groups of 4.
It’s not the doubling of the groups which is the issue but the fact the group stage now becomes a lop sided process. We’ve had 3 team groups before and in 1982 we saw it function at it’s absolute worst. If you fancy a history lesson then this link will tell you all you need to know
If you haven’t clicked the link basically what a three team group stage will create is the scenario where the two teams who play in the final group game will know the exact result that they require to make sure that they both advance to the next round.
Thankfully that is not a scenario that we see anymore thanks to not only 4 team groups but both kick offs being scheduled at the same time in the final group games. Yes teams may be able to adapt late on in a game but they don’t go into the game knowing that ‘x’ result will be enough at the expense of the third side in the group.
The next problem that an expanded World Cup brings is that with just two group games it cuts the length of guaranteed participation by 33% so although more teams will feature in the tournament one third of those will be going home a lot sooner.
It also means that the big teams will be even further protected in a bid to get to the knockout section of the tournament, a section that will now include one extra game with the first knockout game being in the Round of 32 which would mimic the present Europa League setup.
Then you had to wonder where these extra 16 teams will come from to make up the rest of the teams in the competition, I think it’s fair to say that it’s not going to be made up by a bulk of European representation. That then poses the question of whether or not the quality of the tournament is then diluted.
The whole principle of the World Cup is that it’s the absolute pinnacle of the global game. If you start letting more Nations reach that pinnacle then the principle itself becomes diluted. It’s the equivalent of having a VIP Guestlist and putting everyone on that guestlist subsequently the value of being a VIP becomes worthless.
That’s not to say that reaching the World Cup becomes worthless, FIFA will still have you believe that it’s the greatest prize that you can win although whether that comment stands true with the might of club football and the Champions League in particular remains to be seen.
Ultimately what this all boils down to is the fact that Infantino is aiming to make good on his promise that got him the role of president in the first place. His key statement was that he aimed to increase the World Cup to 40 teams should he be voted in, an idea that won huge favour with the non-European nations.
But once you’ve gone past 32 teams then Infantino obviously thinks ‘why not go further?’. In fairness 48 teams arguably works a bit better than 40 teams as otherwise you’d be looking at 8 groups of 5 with a very bloated group stage.
Not only that but increasing the amount of teams from the original plan from 40 to 48 makes it an even more attractive proposition when put to the vote and arguably has more of a chance when getting approved when it goes to a vote next month.
And that is understandably so, with such a huge makeup of teams from Europe in any final 32 the rest of the world now wants to tip the scales back in their favour. But do they have the right to ask for more slots at the World Cup finals
It’s a delicate question but when you look at the FIFA rankings as maligned as they are there are 21 nations from Europe out of the current top 32. Which in itself shows why UEFA is such a powerhouse in terms of global football and this is reflected in the amount of World Cup slots it receives.
We’ve already seen the European Championship’s enlarged to 24 teams a decision that did not quite win everyone over after the action in France this Summer. With so few teams leaving after the group stage it created a safety first approach to the football on offer.
Like it’s global cousin you could argue that the tournament was better pre-expansion with 16 being the perfect tournament size for the European Championships. No dead wood, no safety first football just each team with an all out approach for positive results.
Yes of course if you are a fan of Wales or Iceland then obviously it was a tournament that you are never going to forget but they were arguably the two highlights of a not so memorable competition. It was great on a personal level as I got to watch Switzerland v Poland but I don’t think it will necessarily be remembered as one of the classic European Championships.
And the key thing to remember is if and most probably when expansion to the World Cup does take place then there is absolutely no chance that the tournament will contract in size. Perhaps it’s a pride thing as FIFA would never admit the error of their ways or perhaps it’s the fact that more and more teams want to be part of the gravy train but once it goes to 48 teams it will never go any lower.
Football is not immune to change and nor should it be but when it comes to the actual integral part of the game, that being the competition then some things are just better left alone. Unfortunately it looks like the biggest party this beautiful game throws every four years is about to lose some of it’s sparkle.