Apparently not convinced that hosting the 2018 World Cup in Russia or 2022 in the summer in Qatar will fatally wound the greatest sporting event in history, FIFA has announced that it is expanding the World Cup to 48 teams for 2026. The new format will be 16 groups of 3 teams (current format = 8 groups of 4) with the Top 2 in each group advancing. The tournament will still fit within the 1-month timeline used presently with the winner (and loser) playing 7 games total.
I hate this move because it will significantly erode the quality of play and diminish both World Cup Qualification and the group stage. I think the logistics of this are incomprehensible to balance travel schedules and rest periods for 48 teams. Now you have to also find enough space in host countries (comparatively few countries now could host as a solo bid) for teams to train, lodge, travel, etc. plus accommodating fans from an extra 16 countries. As the writers below note, this is done to try and squeeze more revenue from FIFA’s cash cow to help secure (“buy”) votes for the next round of FIFA elections. You want to expand the game, support women’s soccer and youth development. But this is solely about FIFA lining its own pockets. I’ll believe that FIFA is using this as seed money to grow the world’s already most popular sport by far, when I see it in a rigorous independent financial audit of FIFA and its member nations.
Below is a summary from actually intelligent sports writers describing the changes.
Wahl is definitely against it on balance. He does note it will be easier to the point of impossible for the USMNT not to qualify and should be easier to advance given that 2/3 in each group will survive. However, the big negatives for him are weakening the overall quality of matches and qualification. Wahl then gets to the real reason for the expansion:
If you’re FIFA, which has money concerns in the wake of the U.S.-investigated FIFA scandal, you’ll make more money off TV rights (more games!) and sponsorships. And if you’re Gianni Infantino, the recently elected FIFA president, you’ll increase your chances of being reelected, since so many more countries will have an opportunity to reach the World Cup. Each of those countries has a vote in the FIFA election. This is patronage politics straight out of the Sepp Blatter handbook, and it goes along with the massive increase in annual money grants that Infantino promised and got passed for each FIFA nation.
The optimistic perspective is offered here by Marcotti. He argues that this might in some sense help FIFA get its fiscal house in order:
FIFA’s mandate is to grow the game, and giving money back to the member associations is probably more desirable than having it sit and accumulate in a Swiss bank account.
Sure, we’ve all heard about mismanagement and corruption and FIFA development funds being wasted or used to enrich friends and relatives. But if Infantino delivers on his promises of more accountability and transparency, effectively telling FAs “you can have this money but you need to account for every last penny and you need to put contracts out to public tender and you must allow for oversight and audits,” then this is far from a tragedy. In fact, it might actually give some of the less responsible FAs the opportunity to grow up and not be run like somebody’s personal bank account.
Marcotti doesn’t agree that expanding the field will automatically lower the quality. He cites anecdotes from previous World Cups and UCL are a counter. Marcotti says that “wrose teams don’t necessarily engender worse games.” He is also insistent that a revamped FIFA rankings could resolve deadlocks and that having the Top 2 teams (I guess determined by revamped rankings) play each other last to avoid match fixing.
You would have far fewer dead rubbers (provided the top seeds play first). You would have another round of knockout games, which tend to be more tense because the stakes are higher. Most of all, you would turn the game’s global showcase into a truly global event, offering a greater shot to countries who would otherwise only watch it on TV.
Rosenblatt suggests now qualificatino will be virtually automatic for the USMNT and Mexico given the expanded format will almost certainly include extra slots for CONCACAF. In addition, he echoes what Wahl wrote about the ease of advancement.
On top of that, things get a bit easier at the World Cup for the two teams. They’ll enter groups where two of three teams advance, instead of two of four. And because the World Cup is bigger, there will be some weaker teams in it and they could have a vastly inferior team than them in their group. Their chances of advancement to the knockout stages will be higher than ever.
However, Rosenblatt then notes a possibility (I’m not sure how plausible) that would be something of a nightmare scenario for the USMNT. Namely, that North and South American federations would be merged for World Cup Qualification. And instead of battling the likes of Mexico, Jamaica, T&T, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, the USMNT would have those foes plus Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia. At present, South America occupies 3/4 top slots in the FIFA rankings.
There is one way this all gets flipped upside down, though — if CONCACAF and CONMEBOL qualifying is merged into one. There have been suggestions that FIFA may ask the two confederations to hold qualifying together. This move would be consistent with the closer relationship that the two have had of late, as evidenced by Copa America Centenario, which brought the two together in a mega tournament. It would also help alleviate some of the concerns that qualifying would be be too easy in both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL
Another rain cloud on the expansion. The Yahoo writer notes the format problems including the obvious potential for collusion and diluting the quality of play. He notes the likelihood of the extra round doing little but waste everyone’s time.
Still, with so few teams eliminated, the stakes in the group stage will be diminished. One win would all but certainly see you through. Then, the knowledge that you need to get through four elimination games to reach the final hardly invites adventurous soccer. Instead, pragmatism and opportunism will thrive even more than it already does in the knockout stages, when even the most attack-minded teams tend to grow protective – and understandably so.
And of course, the Yahoo writer cuts right to the heart of the matter. FIFA has only one bottom line.
Like most anything FIFA does, whether under Infantino or his notorious predecessors Sepp Blatter and Joao Havelange, the inescapable conclusion is that this is about money. Money and votes. FIFA has proudly declared that this expansion will increase its revenues from the World Cup by $1 billion or so, two-thirds of which will be profit. FIFA was already making more than $4 billion from the 2014 World Cup.
And giving more World Cup berths to underrepresented confederations like the African and Asian ones is a classic Blatterian ploy to secure their votes in the next presidential election. To be fair, if that accomplishes more involvement from two massive continents that combine for just nine guaranteed places in the current 32-team arrangement, that’s not such a bad thing on the whole.