The FIFA council meets in January to discuss World Cup expansion. New FIFA president Gianni Infantino presented a proposal yesterday to expand the tournament to 48 teams. His format would see 16 teams qualify for the group stage automatically. The other 32 would still make the “World Cup” but play in an additional knockout playoff round to gain entry.
While it meets a political necessity, Infantino’s plan risks ruining the world’s greatest and most popular sports tournament.
Small nations hold the power in FIFA. Building internal consensus, to get elected FIFA president, requires placating them. Sepp Blatter made sops to his “Oceania 11.” Infantino promised to expand the World Cup.
His plan is a compromise between political expediency and recognizing that the 32-team group stage, 16-team knockout stage is the clean, ideal format for the World Cup.
Expanding the group stage itself to 40 or 48 teams would be unwieldy. One option, as used in the Euros, is a wonky format of 4-team groups where third-place teams make it. As at the Euros, the net effect is it incentivizes teams to play for dour draws.
Another option would be to keep the present eight groups and add a fifth team to each. The top two would advance to the 16-team knockout tournament. That works competitively. But, it expands the group stage from 48 to 64 matches. It would add another week to an already lengthy tournament. It would risk over saturation and test the threshold of even the sport’s most avid fans.
Play-in games serve no competitive purpose. The World Cup already has a play-in system. Even the smallest country has to be eliminated on the field. There are already play-offs to reach the World Cup group stage. This is letting more teams say they reached the World Cup. Infantino acknowledged this by asserting the World Cup is “more than a competition. It’s a social event.”
Having 32 teams play-off would be a logistical nightmare. It would be a nightmare for federations to plan for camp facilities they may get to use. It would be a nightmare for media outlets covering the tournament. It also would be a nightmare for attending fans.
The present World Cup draw gives fans months to plan trips around their national team’s schedule. How many USMNT fans are traveling to the World Cup when the team could get eliminated in a one-off playoff before the true tournament even begins?
FIFA federations should have their finger on that pulse at least. Those fans are the customers for their rampant ticket scalping and travel package scams.
Infantino’s proposal is still at the proposal stage. One hopes it is an opening gambit, intended to be walked back toward more sensible expansion, such as playing eight play-in games instead of 16.