This is a supplemental article detailing the additional expansion proposals FIFA is considering for the World Cup. To read the original article and learn why the 48-team plan gathering “enthusiastic support” is full of problems, click here.
Gianni Infantino’s proposal to expand the World Cup to a 48-team tournament featuring 16 groups of three beginning in 2026 is just one of many ideas that have been floated around to increase the number of teams in the World Cup. In fact, Infantino himself has previously suggested multiple other formats growing international soccer’s greatest competition to 40 or 48 nations. Unfortunately, all of the plans have substantial issues which would make their implementation impractical.
Making the leap from 32 to 48 nations in the World Cup is drastic. However, perhaps both sides could compromise in the middle with a 40-team tournament? Unlikely. In these concepts, the 40 qualifying nations would either be drawn into eight groups of five or ten groups of four. Either way, obvious problems arise.
With eight five-team groups, scheduling would be a nightmare. For starters, since round-robin play means each team would play four group games, each group would require 10 fixtures, meaning a total of 80 group stage matches would be played. (For the record, the top two teams from each group would advance). Group stages under the current format are comprised of 48 total matches. Additionally, since there are an odd number of teams in each group, one team would receive a bye for each round of matches, making five rounds necessary to play four games.
Currently, the group stage is played over the course of 15 days. However, if two groups played each day, the new group stages would take 20 days to complete. Infantino has stated the importance of keeping the tournament at 32 days to allow players to return to their clubs without impacting the club calendar.
Additionally, having an odd number of teams in each group leads to the same issues with teams having advantages with rest and travel that I detailed in the original article.
A format involving ten groups of four teams isn’t much better. The major upside here is that the tournament could still be played on the same schedule. With two groups playing each day, the 60 group stage matches could be completed in 15 days. However, the problems are less to do with scheduling and instead center around which teams would advance to the knockout rounds.
40 teams enter the group stages, but only 16 make it out alive. With 10 groups, that means the top two nations can’t make it out of every group. The likely fix is to advance the winner of each group, plus the top six second-place teams, first those with the most group points, and then using standard tiebreakers. However, this is clearly unfair as some groups are easier than others, and the second place team of a “Group of Death” shouldn’t have to afraid of being eliminated in place of a team in an easier group. Taking some second-place teams but not others is simply ridiculous.
That leaves us with Infantino’s previous concept, the 48-team tournament where 16 teams get byes into the group stages while the other 32 compete in a single-leg playoff to fill the remaining 16 spots. This idea has been met with disapproval largely because it eliminates one-third of the field after just one game. The World Cup happens just every four years and requires years of qualifying. For all the work required to play the tournament, being forced to play through essentially another round of qualifying just to make the main field is almost farcical.
However, I also take issue with another aspect of this plan: the 16 byes given to teams to forego this “playoff” round. In general, I am opposed to byes in tournaments, although I understand the NFL and MLB’s use of byes as rewards for the best regular season records and to incentivize teams taking every regular season game seriously, even when a playoff berth has already been clinched. All World Cup byes would do is allow certain teams to play fewer games en route to the World Cup title.
How would the teams receiving byes be determined? Would it be the teams who performed the best during qualifying? If so, by what metric? What about the top 16 nations in the field by their FIFA World Ranking? Random draw? Regardless of the method, byes don’t give all teams a level playing field, something that should be a must in the World Cup.
The current, 32-team format is clearly the best option for the World Cup going forward. Structurally, it makes the most sense. 32 is a power of two, making things simple and easy to understand. The top two teams from each group advance, and then enter a single-elimination knockout stage. Another strength is the pacing- every game means something, but one poor group stage performance doesn’t doom a team. There are enough teams to allow for plenty of great matches and surprises, but not too many that the overall quality of play is diminished. I understand the desire to allow more nations to compete, but you have to earn your spot in the World Cup.
Despite all the issues surrounding World Cup expansion, it’s likelier than not to occur. However, as I hope I’ve proven, bigger isn’t always better. And when a 48-team field eventually is adopted, how long will it take until FIFA wants 64?