FIFA did the inevitable, expanding the World Cup to 48 teams beginning in 2026. With time to reflect, the idea remains dreadful. If there’s a positive for fans, this tournament taking place in ten years means there is a stable, quasi-peaceful world still extant to hold it.
There were rational reasons for FIFA to do this. Gianni Infantino won the FIFA presidency promising to expand the World Cup. It was pandering to smaller nations for votes. But, that’s how legitimate business at FIFA happens. One nation, one vote democracy is not entirely odious.
FIFA’s stated mission is to grow soccer. Eight of the 16 new slots will go to Asia and Africa. Both federations could benefit from development and infrastructure. The former is perhaps soccer’s biggest growth market. This increases the odds of, say, China getting to the World Cup.
If FIFA’s true mission is to expand the World Cup TV revenue, this does that as well. Going to 48 teams, per FIFA’s estimate, would bring in an extra $1 billion in revenue.
FIFA did resolve the conundrum about expansion without bloating the tournament. Only 16 matches were added to accommodate the 16 new teams. Like the present tournament, 32 teams will play at least three matches. The competition will take the same number of days.
There is zero competitive justification for adding teams. The World Cup is really a broader event where 200-plus teams are eliminated. Under the present format, we already have 22 teams playing two-match playoffs to enter the 32-team stage of the World Cup. This format is just taking that process and moving it under the “World Cup” banner. Of course, those playoffs are entertaining.
The major issue is it will just make the group stage dire viewing. Any group system where more than half the teams advance incentivizes excruciating draws. Euro 2016’s expansion resulted in a paltry 1.92 goals per match during the group stage.
A three-team group sets up a stand-alone third match between two of the three teams. Both teams will know the precise result needed to advance. What happens when a 0-0 draw would send both teams through?
That’s before we get to the dilution of the tournament pool. The present 32-team model cannot produce 32 teams with a legitimate chance to compete. Expanding adds 16 teams, mostly from less developed confederations. Germany playing Oman and Panama before lining up a Round of 32 meeting with feisty New Zealand is not prime entertainment.
While the later knockout stages would still be compelling, FIFA is forcing consumers to wade through a morass to get there. What was the world’s most popular sporting event is set to become a burden, which can’t be good.
FIFA had its reasons for moving to 48 countries, but it is taking consumer interest for granted.