On Wednesday, FIFA approved the expansion of the 2023 Women’s World Cup from 24 teams to 32, ignoring concerns about match quality and financial investment in an attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of women’s soccer. It’s a very FIFA move, as no entity is better at taking a good idea and ruining it than the world soccer governing body.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup was a success on and off the field, featuring quality games and riveting storylines. Even so, there were legitimate concerns over the quality of play in the group stages, which featured several games between wildly mismatched opponents. Putting 24 countries in the tournament, in a sport where there simply aren’t 24 truly competitive national teams, was already too many. FIFA being FIFA, it was no shock when the governing body looked at the 13-0 USWNT drubbing of Thailand and said “give me more.”
An expansion to 32 teams will presumably bring in some good teams that were left out this time around, particularly from Europe. Belgium, Switzerland, and Denmark, for instance, are all solid sides whose presence was missed in France this summer. And there’s no denying that having the World Cup as a potential destination should drive investment in countries that previously might have thought they had no chance of qualifying under the 24-team format. On paper, this is good.
Even better would be FIFA following through with president Gianni Infantino’s claim that expanding the field will result in doubling the prize money from €30 million this year to €60 million in 2023. FIFA also says it plans to invest over €1 billion in the women’s game over the next four-year cycle. These too are good things. Money makes the soccer world go round, and increasing investment in women’s soccer would go a long way towards increasing both the quality of play and the quality of life for players.
Expanding to 32 teams is overkill, though, at least this soon. It’s understandable that FIFA would want to get more fanbases and teams involved in its biggest women’s tournament (especially to guzzle even more TV rights money), but because of its own minimal investment in the game to date, 24 to 32 too big a leap. The Women’s World Cup only expanded from 16 teams to 24 back in 2015, and while that has allowed for some fun underdog stories, like Cameroon reaching the knockout stage in both of the last two World Cups, there is still a chasm between the dozen or so legitimately good teams and the scores of vastly inferior ones.
This past World Cup was proof of this, and not just in that historic USWNT beatdown of Thailand. You could see it in Jamaica getting trounced by Australia and Italy, France throttling South Korea, Germany punking South Africa, and even England beating Cameroon 3-0 in a round of 16 match that devolved into a disaster. Too many women’s soccer programs are still in their nascent stages of development, and it’s not that fun to watch those babies go up against highly trained grownups, beyond novelties in scorelines. Adding more teams will only make it worse.
All of that is before you get to the bidding process to choose the next tournament’s host—a process that is already under a time crunch. Canada and France, the hosts of the last two Women’s World Cups, both had over four years to prepare for their tournaments. The country that wins hosting rights for 2023 will have just over three years. Plus, altering the format this late in the game means all the countries that had already expressed interest in bidding for the 24-team format will now have to rework those plans with 32 teams in mind.
Over-expansion of this kind is not only unwise, it’s also unnecessary. The 24-team World Cup already offers the mid- and lower-tier nations the financial and sporting incentives to spur investment and create an exciting, mostly competitive headlining tournament. The smart thing would’ve been for FIFA to keep the World Cup at that size for a few more cycles to let the sport grow into it. That way, in eight or 12 or however many years, women’s soccer will have built up enough competent, well-funded national programs to make the 24-team format truly competitive from top to bottom.
At that point, when there are no teams getting whomped by huge scorelines in a single match, it would make sense to open the field up further. To accelerate that process, FIFA could easily funnel more of its existing riches into the women’s game. FIFA doesn’t need an expanded World Cup to invest more in the game than it currently does, and money is the only real way to systematically improve the sport.
But instead of doing what’s in the game’s best interest, FIFA has yet again prioritized its own short-term financial gains. If you squint hard enough, you can even make out one piece of encouraging news implied in the dumb decision to expand this tournament: FIFA is starting to treat women’s soccer with the same shameless avarice as it does the men’s game.