This week, international soccer governing body FIFA held a meeting of national federations where FIFA president Gianni Infantino gave his official approval of a proposal to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams beginning with the 2026 World Cup. The new format, which Infantino claimed received enthusiastic backing from attending nations, will be officially voted on at the FIFA council meeting in January and involves the 48 teams divided into 16 groups of three, of which the top two teams will advance. From this point, the remaining 32 teams will advance through a traditional knockout stage until just one is left standing.
Infantino praises the plan’s ability to allow 16 additional countries around the world to experience and participate in the World Cup while leaving the length of the tournament unchanged at 32 days and still requiring the eventual champions to play seven matches. However, one must question the real incentives behind the change because while an enlarged field would almost certainly lead to greater global excitement and revenue, the new World Cup would be a structural disaster.
Perhaps the most obvious consequence of expansion in any tournament is a dilution of the quality of teams in the field. By adding 16 nations which otherwise wouldn’t have qualified, the average team would be much weaker, leading to less intriguing matchups and poorer play on the pitch.
Since each group is comprised of just three teams, many groups would likely contain a team clearly inferior to the other two. This takes away from the thrill of seeing which nations will advance to the knockout rounds as the outcomes might seem predictable. This issue could potentially result in lower viewership of group stage matches.
Even if people do decide to watch the group stages, there is a great potential that the final game of a group might be meaningless. A three-team group requires three matches to be played: A vs. B, A vs. C, and B vs. C. Let’s say, for example, that in the first two group games, team A loses to both B and C. In this scenario, by the time B and C play each other, they are both guaranteed to advance. This could lead to the teams resting their best players, placing a higher emphasis on staying healthy and fit for their round of 32 matches than winning the current game.
Potentially worse are the scenarios that could incentivize match fixing. What would happen if instead of losing the first two fixtures, team A drew 1-1 against both B and C? Team A would be left with two points, while B and C would each have just one entering the match with each other. Should one team win the game, the other would be eliminated from the tournament. To ensure both squads advance, they could agree to draw 2-2, leaving all three teams with two points, but giving B and C the edge in terms of goals scored for the tiebreaker.
Obviously, it is extremely undesirable to have any potential situation which could undermine the integrity of the game. To combat this, Infantino is also considering eliminating draws from the group stage by sending all matches tied at the end of regulation to penalty kicks. While this would certainly eliminate the issue of match fixing and also greatly reduce the odds of all teams finishing equal on points, goals scored, and goals allowed, it also takes something away from the nature of the game, and only answers one of the many problems of groups of three.
Having each team play only two games can also become a major problem because one poor performance could result in powerhouse nations being left out of the knockout phase. Whereas in a traditional four-team group a team can sustain a loss and still have the opportunity to recover, the new format would essentially force teams into a must-win situation for their second game. A system where every nation plays only two group games simply does not give teams enough time to distinguish themselves and earn the right to advance.
Fewer matches mean greater variance, and a higher likelihood of teams to advance against odds. While upsets are a part of sports, the World Cup is intended to determine the best soccer team in the world, and a three-team group greatly jeopardizes that mission. Everyone loves an underdog story, but people watch the World Cup for the powerhouse matches that occur later in the tournament.
I understand the sentiment that maybe a team doesn’t deserve to advance if they lose in the group stages. Here’s the issue, however: in a three-team group, games are not played under equal circumstances. With 16 groups of three, group stage scheduling would likely work like this: on day one, groups A-D play a match. On day two, groups E-H play a match, followed by groups I-L on day three, and groups M-P on day four. The cycle then restarts on day five.
There are two major problems with this. First, for the second and third matches of a group, one team has a significant rest advantage. Let’s look at the schedule for a group A with teams X, Y, and Z. On day one of the tournament, X plays Y. No major problems there. However, on day five, when X plays Z, Z has the benefit of not having played yet, while X may not be fully fit on three days’ rest. When Y plays Z on day nine, Y gets the advantage of seven days rest compared to just three for team Z.
Going hand in hand with the rest advantage is the travel advantage. Teams with shorter rest periods also have to travel to the location of their next match, become acclimated to the new pitch and environment, and rid themselves of any jet lag much quicker than their opponents. This effect may vary depending on the host nation of the tournament but could have a noticeable impact should the World Cup be played in a large country such as the United States.
If Infantino’s goal is simply to engage more nations in the World Cup by expanding the field (and reap the monetary benefits associated), a 48-team field makes sense. However, if you want to be practical and run the best tournament with structure and quality of play in mind, the solution is simple: keeps things the way they are. It seems unlikely, but we can hope the federations come to their senses and act for the good of the game.
Expansion of the 32-team field first adopted for the 1998 World Cup has been a hot-button issue as of late, with the latest proposal being just one of several ideas for a larger World Cup. To read my critiques of other 40 and 48-team concepts, and why the current format is ideal, click here.