Earlier this week, FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino announced his plan to increase the amount of teams participating in the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. Most people hear this and probably are thrilled, especially after we were treated to an expanded Euro 2016, which went swimmingly, right?
Yes, the European Championship is organized by UEFA, not FIFA, meaning they are responsible for the Portugal conundrum; a team that failed to perform in the group stages, finished third in their group, and eventually went on to win the cup because of the new tournament format. However, this doesn’t mean that FIFA will make an expanded World Cup all sunshine and daisies.
The positives of an expanded tournament:
- The money making machine keeps on rolling: More games means more television coverage, which in turn leads to more advertising space to be bought. For both FIFA and the tournament sponsors, this means more cash… a lot more cash. Whether you think this is a positive or not is up to you, but to the executives and sponsors involved, it certainly is. How surprising to think that FIFA would make a decision mainly driven by money…
- More soccer to be viewed: Obviously, an expanded tournament means more games, and those that follow the World Cup religiously will undoubtedly love the idea of this. Why settle for a month of laying on the couch, watching games, and drinking beer when you could do it even longer?
- More countries involved: This is probably the biggest benefit of the expansion that I can see. With more teams in the tournament, more nations will have the chance to be involved. That means that countries that may never have seen their national side step on the pitch for a World Cup game will have a team to get behind. Take the example of Iceland in Euro 2016. It was a brilliant David vs. Goliath story to behold, with every game the vikings played meaning another Goliath to slay. This would certainly increase the notion of soccer as the world’s game.
- A fairer distribution of involvement: Following up on point number three, with an expanded field of countries involved, there can be a more even distribution of births into the tournament. Currently, Europe and South America dominate the World Cup scene. Yes, this is because they have higher ranked countries than any other continent, but as a result, it is tougher for African, Asian, and North American teams to enter the tournament and harder for them to win. The expansion would mean a more equal distribution of spots per continent in the tournament.
The negatives that may result from a World Cup expansion:
- Dilution of the tournament: One concern is that with more countries involved, the play won’t be as competitive, particularly in the early stages of the tournament. We would see greater mismatches, and probably an increase in blowout games in the group stages. My fear is that similar to the format of the NBA, the early parts of the tournament will be so diluted that fans won’t tune in intently until the latter stages of the cup, when all the “minnows” have been knocked out. On the other hand, we could see more thrilling stories like that of Wales and Iceland at the European Championships.
- Time: The World Cup already takes up so much of my time. During that enthralling month, I typically give up all hope of getting work done, fail to keep my relationships solid, and struggle to eat a reasonable diet. My life typically consists of watching soccer, playing soccer, feeding, and sleep for 30+ days. I am perfectly happy with this. In fact, it is the best month of my life every four years, but to expand this would be detrimental to my personal health, and I’m sure I speak for a host of other fans out there when I say this.
- The format: This isn’t the biggest issue I have with the expanded tournament, but it certainly does merit discussion. Infantino describes the format of the expanded World Cup as being similar to that of the Champions League, where 16 teams would be granted an automatic seed in the group stages, and 32 other would have to battle through a playoff system to earn a spot. Infantino stated that this could be the week before the group stages begin. It all sounds great, except for the fact that the 32 teams that fight for a place in the tournament then are going to be behind the 16 seeded teams when it comes to fitness, as these international matches can be quite tiring for players. It seems that this format almost is beneficial to the bigger nations, rather than allowing more opportunity to smaller countries.
There are plenty of positives and negatives associated with an expanded World Cup format. To Infantino’s credit, the concept is well thought out and stands to still be a great event no matter what. However, it is definitely concerning that there seems to be such a desire to change all of the traditions associated with world soccer in recent times. From the expansion of the Euros, to the recent voting of the new Champions League format, to cries for video technology in the game, it seems that those that run the sport aren’t content with the game that we have all loved for years.
In my humble opinion, an expanded World Cup might open up opportunities for smaller nations to get walloped by the established powerhouses, and it might make FIFA and the sponsors of the tournament miles wealthier, but it also may alienate some of the current fans of the tournament, and it may take something away from what has always been a magical month every four years.
Change can be great in sports, and it is usually for the better. But some things are better left unchanged, and to me, this is one of those times.