Gianni Infantino won the FIFA presidential election to replace Sepp Blatter. One of his campaign promises was to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 40 teams.
Expanding to 40 teams creates a wonky, problematic format. It would mean either eight five-team groups or 10 four-team groups with third-place teams advancing. The former is unwieldy. The latter incentivizes teams to play for draws.
The discussion has “advanced” to 48-team plans. The initial offering with 16 teams qualifying automatically and 32 teams playing off for entry would be a logistical nightmare and redundant since teams already play their way in.
Now, FIFA’s “research” is putting forward another 48-team plan. The field would feature 16 three-team groups to limit the field to 32 teams. The remainder would play a 32 team knockout round. FIFA believes the format will be optimal for broadcasters and sponsors and generate $6.5 billion.
FIFA’s new plan has some virtues. 32 teams will still play at least three matches. It only adds an additional 16 matches to incorporate 16 more nations. More knockout rounds would equal more entertainment. As we saw with the expanded Euro 2016, an “Iceland” or a “Wales” happening is more probable.
The trouble is this format comes with a major competitive flaw in the group stages: collusion. Two of the three teams in the group would play in the final match. Team A and Team C would know the precise result that would eliminate Team B. Much of the group stage could end up being worthless as teams conspire in the final match to advance.
For fans, the optimal route would be FIFA keep the World Cup pat at 32 teams. It is inclusive while providing a fair, balanced, and entertaining format. Sadly, that does not seem to be an option.