Here are some descriptors that come to mind when thinking about the current format of the World Cup, the greatest sporting event on the planet: perfect, simple, just-the-right-size, well-designed, riveting. Here are some words that will soon come to be associated with the World Cup after greedy-ass FIFA fucks the tournament up by making it huge and filled with bad teams: ruined, stupid, bloated, boring.
You might have tried to block this from your mind, but the World Cup is changing. What is now a svelte 32-team tournament teeming with amazing players, good-to-great teams, and exciting match-ups from the first day to the last, will, starting with the 2026 edition, become a 48-team snoozer with a wacky format and some genuinely terrible teams. (And though others on site have erroneously stated that this might not be a terrible thing, I can officially clarify now that this indeed is very bad.)
FIFA has already approved new president Gianni Infantino’s dumb idea to increase the number of competing countries from 32 to 48, and is now in the process of working out the logistics. That’s how we come to today’s FIFA proposal for just how they plan on breaking down those 48 teams:
Look at this shit. Way more spots for loser confederations like Africa, Asia, and CONCACAF, and only marginal gains for Europe and South America, where all the good teams are from, and where quality teams currently fail to qualify as is. Here’s a rough idea of what we would be in store for if the 2018 World Cup had this format:
To a certain extent, we get what FIFA is trying to do. (Putting aside any bribery-related incentives, of course.) They want to spread soccer success to every corner of the world, improving the game in places where the sport is underfunded. One way of achieving this goal is by opening up the kitty to the smaller nations by giving them easier access to the big show. This isn’t necessarily a bad goal to have.
What is bad is the mechanism they’ve chosen. The reason the World Cup is such a massive event is because of its exclusivity. It only comes once every four years, involves only the best nations around the globe, and is extremely hard to advance because the competition is so stiff. Taking that lean 32-team format and ballooning it to 48, with the bulk of those new editions consisting of garbage teams, runs the risk of killing the golden goose.
The first round of the World Cup won’t be must-see-TV in the way it is now, because soccer fans won’t be all that invested in watching Spain annihilate Burkina Faso—and these sorts of mismatches will result in annihilation. Not only that, but the 48-team structure as currently proposed will be made up of 16 groups of three teams, with the top two in the group advancing to a 32-team knockout round. Who wants to watch a shitty opening round packed with either blowouts or boring draws as two sorry teams conspire not to lose in order to protect their chances of advancing, and where two-thirds of the group stage contestants end up making the next round anyway?
Then, when you get to the round of 32 knockout stage, the chances of a fluke result dooming a good and fun team become a lot higher than they would’ve been had that same team had three games to find their grove if the tournament started with the current 32-team group stage format. Nothing about this adds anything to the entertainment value or integrity of the tournament as the crowner of the best national team.
(And don’t use the “Durr, but Wales and Iceland made the expanded Euros so fun last summer!” argument. Yes, Wales and Iceland were fun stories to follow. They also were both legitimately good teams that deserved to be there on merit and would’ve qualified for the Euros even in the old, condensed format. Those are the kinds of teams you want in international tournaments, quality small teams that make it to the finals because they’re actually good and thus might make something happen, not a team of nobodies who got there on charity.)
Of even larger concern to FIFA than its benevolent sport-spreading justification is, naturally, its economic interest. These changes will give countries with booming populations and bad soccer teams—China, India, various sub-Saharan African ones, etc.—easier access to the tournament. The math there is clear: Get those teams into the tournament, captivate the interest of those billions of eyeballs, and rake in even more TV and advertising money.
None of which actually helps the sport itself. What FIFA should be focused on is protecting the World Cup as a spectacle. Right now it is the world’s favorite sporting event. Most people watching the games don’t have a particular dog in the fight, but they still watch because the quality of play and the passion of the players is so high. If the World Cup becomes easy for all but the tiniest of nations to qualify for and the event becomes bogged down with a bunch of preliminary matches pitting teams with a chasm-like difference in quality, much of what makes the tournament so special will be lost.
This format will only lessen the incentives for improvement on everyone but the most marginal countries. For instance, right now CONMEBOL has the best qualification process because it is so cutthroat. With four matches remaining, there are only six points separating Colombia in second place from Paraguay in eighth in the table. Between those seven teams you have many of the world’s best players, teams that manage to overachieve because of their shared dedication, effort, and/or tactical sophistication, any one of them would be a welcome addition to the World Cup with a legitimate shot of at least making it out of the group.
In contrast, look at the current CONCACAF qualification set-up. The USMNT was in the midst of a mini-crisis just a couple weeks ago after only picking up zero points from their first two games in the current stage of qualification. They went on to smash up a bad Honduras team, then squeaked out a draw against a bad Panama team, and with just four points from two games, they completely reversed their fortunes and are once again virtual locks to make the World Cup.
Part of why the U.S. has never become as good as soccer as it could be is because the team doesn’t have to try all that hard to qualify for the World Cup. And with almost double the qualification spots in the new proposed confederation allotment, the USMNT will have an even more relaxed path to the World Cup. These same dynamics will play out elsewhere around the world, and the greatest motivator in international soccer—qualify—will be a shell of its current self.
If FIFA insists on changing what doesn’t need to be changed, there’s a smarter way to do it. Keep the number of World Cup teams at 32, break down the various continental confederations into even smaller sub-confederations that pit a couple traditional powers against a few medium-to-small national teams, and allocate World Cup spots based on those sub-confederation levels. This way, with a reduced margin of error, the good teams would still have to stay sharp to earn their spots in the tournament. And the bad teams, which would now have to run a gauntlet featuring fewer big boys, would find it easier to take enough points to sneak in as long as they’re good enough to do so. On both sides, you’d wind up with a World Cup full of teams that have proven their quality through actual competition, and it’d be more representative of the globe as a whole than in the current format.
Instead, the way FIFA is actually going about things only makes it easier for the big countries (except for those in South America, who would probably get screwed more than anyone in this scenario) to lazily qualify, makes the early rounds of the World Cup more boring and more predictable, and could very well sap significant intrigue from the best sporting event ever. FIFA will learn that more can sometimes lead to less.