FIFA president Gianni Infantino has kept his election pledge from last February to look at ways to expand the World Cup to 48 teams, with the earliest being touted as 2026 and set to be discussed and voted on January 9 and 10 at a FIFA Council meeting in Zurich, Switzerland. The European Club Association (ECA), itself criticized recently over recent changes to the Champions League has said it was against any expansion.
I’ve been pondering upon this suggestion and feel the present format played over a month with 64 matches comprising eight groups of four playing round-robin followed by the Round of 16 knockout stage is the ideal and correct number in the fray.
Presently each of the six confederations are allocated the following numbers of entrants to the finals, Europe (13), South America (4.5), Africa (5), Asia (4.5), North/Central America/Caribbean (3.5) and Oceania (0.5) along with the host nation. It was understandable that the Finals were increased from 16 when 107 nations entered in 1978 and to 24 teams for the 1982 edition, due to the amount of ‘new countries’ and expanded membership of FIFA and then again to 32 from 1998 with 174 entrants, but 48 is too many!!
FIFA currently has 211 members and may feel that a 48 team competition is justified, but I feel that it will just lower the quality of competition as was seen in the 2016 European Championships which featured 24 teams out of the 54 members which belong to UEFA. It seems a bit crazy that almost half of the Federation members are involved in competition and what is the point of a qualifying tournament in the first place? Then when you have the finals, four of the best third placed teams then qualify for the knockout, as was the case of Portugal who drew all three matches then went on to win the Cup.
This in my view is nothing short of nonsense and should have stayed as a 16-team tournament as in previous editions with the top two in each group advancing to the knockout stage and the rest going home, end of. The FIFA Council is considering four possible formats for the World Cup at the meeting next month. First is to keep the current 32-team format with eight groups of four following by a knockout contest, this I think is the best format. A second option would be for a 40-team tournament with either eight groups of five or 10 groups of four.
This is not a great idea in my opinion as eight groups of five means a minimum of 80 qualifying games then the knockout which means 96 matches being played up from 64 in the present format and obviously would extend the tournament by at least another two weeks in an all-ready crowded club and international schedule.
The 10 groups of four is even more ludicrous, as it starts with 60 qualifying games, then how many advance to the knockout stage, group winners, runners-up or even third place? And will be longer than a month anyhow and also more matches than at present..
A third choice is for a 48-team tournament consisting of a preliminary round of 16 knockout ties with the winners joining 16 more teams in a 32-team group stage. Again this means 64 matches before you reach the knockout stage and again a longer tournament.
Does FIFA actually consider the fans or are they just interested in raking in the monetary benefits? Imagine travelling halfway around the world to see your team knocked out after one match- Not a smart idea.
The fourth proposal, currently favoured by Infantino, is for 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three, which though I’m not in favour of could be feasible and logistically would conclude with 64 matches, starting with 48 group matches and why not just have the 16 group winners advancing to the knockout stage? Interestingly though, how would you allocate the additional 16 places?
It would be nonsense if for example the South America Confederation which has 10 members suddenly had say seven or eight entrants and certainly Oceania should have at least one automatic entrant. The only advantage for a 48-team competition I see would be a smaller qualifying competition and less matches. I await with bated breath as I know many other do, as we await to see what will be decided next month in Zurich!