The docket at the FIFA governing council’s meeting tomorrow morning in Zurich includes the following items: “Approval of the Media and Marketing Regulations for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017”; “Monitoring Committee Israel-Palestine”; as well as “Format of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”
New FIFA czar Gianni Infantino is behind a plan to expand the World Cup field from 32 to 48 teams (as well as a more modest plan to add eight more teams), and according to the Wall Street Journal and the AP, the 48-nation plan is likely to get approved. The most likely outcome is a new 16-group structure where two of the three teams in every group advance to a 32-team knockout round.
The cynic would note that FIFA stands to make $1 billion more by adding 50 percent more teams, and that much-lauded benefits like “more money for far-slung federations” and “infrastructural support for emerging nations” usually end up in the hands of FIFA cronies. Hosting a World Cup will also be much more of a burden now, which could narrow the list of potential host nations. Infantino is also probably supporting the expansion for political reasons, since guaranteeing more spots for Asian and African teams will make a more favorable candidate to a huge voting bloc.
Stodgy powerhouses like Germany and England (okay England is not a powerhouse) have argued that the expansion would dilute the quality of play. That’s a legitimate worry, but the most fun part of a large tournament (like, say, last summer’s expanded Euros) are the teams that make Cindarella runs (such as Iceland or Wales at those Euros). The European Club Association is against the plan, but their main objection (that a bigger World Cup field places more demands on players) isn’t exactly a valid one, since finalists would still only have to play seven games. The only difference is that earlier games could now be against nations like Kenya, Finland, Jordan, or any of the other 135 nations that have never qualified for the World Cup.
To be clear, expanding the field is almost certainly a brazen money grab by FIFA higher-ups and if it cost them $1 billion instead of earning them $1 billion to have “more passion, more happiness, more enthusiasm,” then they absolutely would not do it. They claim they are only going to consider the “sporting reasons” behind expansion, which seems like obvious bullshit when one considers the potential introduction of penalty kick tiebreakers into the group stage.
That said, it will be fun as shit when a debutante team like Uganda or Panama inevitably takes down an establishment powerhouse. For all the very clear reasons why a 48-team World Cup is a bad idea, making the tournament more like March Madness seems like it will make the World Cup more fun. Penalty kicks might make group stage games very dumb (not to mention more easily bought and sold), but also, there will be a ton more of them and the best stages of major soccer tournaments are the early stages, where chaos reigns.