In increasing the size of the World Cup to 48 teams, FIFA may have made all the right moves for all the wrong reasons.
If nations such as Denmark, Ivory Coast, South Korea and Paraguay all qualified for the World Cup in 2018 in Russia, it is fairly unlikely that a significant, distraught chunk of the football world would be taking to Twitter to declare the end of days for the beautiful game.
— Michael Ballack (@Ballack) January 10, 2017
But that was the rather hysterical reaction on Tuesday on the inter-web as FIFA announced that the World Cup from 2026 onwards would be expanded from its current format of 32 teams to 48. “Football is more than Europe and South America; football is global,” declared FIFA president Gianni Infantino after the meeting of all 211 members to vote in the change.
From 2026, the World Cup will consist of 16 groups of three teams, that will whittle the entries down to a knock-out round of 32. The same amount of games will be played by the finalists as now – 7, and the tournament will last the same amount of days – 32, which took some wind out of the sails of the European Club Association which complained that the tournament would over stress already knackered players.
— footballplanet.com (@footballplanetc) December 16, 2016
Of course, it would be naive to suggest that the decision to expand the entry gates was motivated by anything other than money with a revenue increase of $1 billion expected, with $5 million going to each of FIFA’s members.
And of course, the expansion of the World Cup finals to nearly a quarter of the organisation won’t do any harm to Infantino’s re-election chances, but there are some very positive ends to justify the faintly dubious means.
1) The move reflects the reality of a game that is increasing in quality across the world, year-by-year, as seen by Wales reaching the semifinals of the 2016 European Championships. Indeed, Colombia are currently sitting outside of the South American qualification spots for Russia and few would feel that a James Rodriguez in a decade’s time should miss out.
2) Whilst the World Cup has witnessed some of the greats of the game taking part such as Pele and Diego Maradona to Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, some big talents both in small countries have missed out – Ryan Giggs, George Best and George Weah to name but three. An expansion could allow global stars from more modest means to strut their stuff on the biggest stage.
— Scottish FA (@ScottishFA) January 10, 2017
3) Football is supposed to be fun. Let the hand-wringers across the world worry about nonsensical notions of the dilution of their sport fret whilst supporters who could only dream of going to the World Cup have their wishes fulfilled.
Life is all about trying to cram in as many experiences as humanely possible before leaving this mortal coil. Thousands of fans from 48 nations, gathering in one place could be a truly life-affirming experience. For once, FIFA might have made the right move for probably all the wrong reasons.