A Football Faculty View: The 48-team World Cup expansion is a good thing
It’s completely understandable to take a cynical view of anything that FIFA does these days. Even since the FBI’s 2015 revolution which finally toppled the reign of Sepp Blatter, the sense of deep rooted corruption, endemic from a period of time in which exploitative footballing bureaucrats could literally do anything they wanted, is still hard to look past.
Of course, the headline figure of an increased £800m in projected revenues by allowing more games, more teams, and (ultimately) more ‘customers’ to attend has been the only aspect of detail that many people have considered. Some have even argued that Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, has used this to show the world that his administration has the pedigree to keep the good times rolling in Switzerland (with the usual razzle-dazzle and decadence of FIFA galas, et al) while purporting to a new image of transparency and ethics.
But that shouldn’t take away from the merits of the decision. And that’s the key; there are a lot of positives to expanding the sport’s flagship event.
It’s ironic that FIFA is often labelled as an archaic, corrupt and broken organisation, capable of only regressive reform and stubborn self interest (such as a failure to embrace video technology years ago), when the decision to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 is truly progressive.
The World Cup should be what it is; for the World. Having the same 32 teams dominate their qualification groups is boring. The best and most enthralling tournaments in the past have been defined by the ‘underdog’, or a run palpable to Bradford’s Football League Cup run in 2013 (also; think South Korea in 2002, Greece at the Euros in 2004, Costa Rica in 2014). Providing it is not your team that falls foul of a giant killing, an underdog run is a wonderful sub-plot to the best tournaments.
But there’s more. FIFA has even listened to the world around them, with teams still playing the same number of games (7 if they get to the final). Players will incur no additional burnout, and sponsors receive no more exposure on the shirts of their chosen nation. If you were to really turn your cynical eye at FIFA with the money argument, then excessive game expansion would be a valid line of argument. Inviting 16 more teams to the tournament will only increase tournament games from 64 to 80. And by the way, you don’t have to watch all of them.
Three team groups with penalty shoot outs will eliminate the plethora of obsolete ‘wooden spoon fixtures’ that occur in every 4-game group at every world cup, and each confederation will have more representatives. Granted, while it always livens up qualification in the intermittent years to see an England or Holland not qualify, it will significantly improve prospects for countries that would benefit far more than those that qualify regularly.
Under current proposals, Asia will now have 8.5 representatives as opposed to 5; South America are up to 6 from 4.5, ConCacaf (North America) will have 6.5 rather than 3.5. Oceania will have one place rather than 0.5. Have you even heard of a player from Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnamn before? Probably not; imagine the appetite for the game it will fuel if qualification becomes more viable emerging countries. And rationalise the sense of excitement you feel when it’s a World Cup Year and your team is in it. Why should that feeling be limited to 32 of 200 countries?
‘FIFA’s idea is to develop football in the whole world,’ Infantino said when the idea surfaced in October. ‘The World Cup is the biggest event there is. It’s more than a competition, it’s a social event… We have to shape the World Cup of the 21st century … many more countries will have the chance to dream’.
As much as football truly should be about on pitch matters, a World Cup is one of the few events where a global audience can unite. For six weeks host cities should become melting pots of differing cultures, identities and ethnicities. The Olympics is arguably the greatest sporting competition in the world because of its inclusivity. Football should embrace that ideal further if it wants to be viewed with Olympic parity.
And even if the naysayers are frustrated with the tournament opening itself to ‘lesser quality’ (which isn’t a bad thing anyway), the pool of teams likely to benefit from expansion are hardly lightweights on the global sphere. Serbia, Denmark, Sweden, Ivory Coast and the Czech Republic are examples of nations currently between 32-48 in FIFA’s current rankings.
It’s time for Euro-centrics to see a larger picture. Football wasn’t always a global game, but now it is. It’s ultimately hypocritical to criticise FIFA for perpetually enriching themselves, and to then dismiss one of their most groundbreaking reforms.
A World Cup is for the World. It’s high time emerging footballing nations have a chance to compete. 2026 may end up being tangled up in political problems (like everything FIFA organises), but for now from a theoretical point of view, this really is one of the best things football’s global organisation has done in years.