It’s very easy to resist change, especially in football. Partly, this is because we over-sentimentalise the sport in the form it took when it won our heart; we’re blinded to its imperfections because they’re natural to us.
Sometimes we should be forced to ask ourselves if it’s the specific change that we fear or the notion of change itself. And, equally, sometimes we should answer back that, if it’s FIFA doing the changing, our fears may well be justified. The decision to expand the World Cup to include 48 teams from 2026 is precisely one of those times.
The impact of UEFA expanding the European Championship last year should have been taken as a warning by the game’s governing body, but it’s entirely unsurprising that it was received in exactly the opposite way. Granted, the qualifying stage brought the unexpected bonus of energising nations that had rarely made it to finals previously, such as Iceland and Wales, but the tournament itself was a damp squib.
It took a draining 36 group-stage matches to reduce 24 teams to 16, with one of those advancing being eventual winners Portugal, who didn’t need to win a single game in order to progress. On the flip side, it made record profits. And in a straight choice between good sport and big profits, was there ever any doubt where FIFA’s loyalties would lie?
It’s not that expansion is wrong as a concept. In 1998, the World Cup’s move from 24 teams to 32 brought a clear increase in excitement for exactly the same reasons that going from 16 teams to 24 brought a decrease at Euro 2016. It’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it. It’s all about the format.
This new, bucket-sized World Cup will feature 16 groups of three with two qualifying for the knockout stage, meaning that we’ll endure an exhausting 48 games to eliminate 16 teams. That’s a lot of low-risk games, in which two 0-0 draws can be enough to qualify for the next stage. In other words, a lot of running around to achieve very little.
FIFA has raised the prospect of putting a penalty shootout on the end of every group stage drawn game, like some kind of global Checkatrade Trophy, but when you begin to consider ideas like that, you do wonder if it’s worth having a group stage at all.
If results must be distinct and there is nothing to be gained in playing for a draw, why not just have a great big knockout competition to start with? Has enough time really be spent considering other options for the group stage, or are we advancing straight to FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s preferred option?
It’s a shame, because the 32-team knockout stage is actually a really good idea. It means we move from 15 to 31 all-or-nothing games where there’s no safety net for elite sides like Germany and a puncher’s chance for perennial failures like, well, England. The only problem for the those watching is that, after 48 cautious qualifiers — one after the other — you might be so footballed-out by then that you’re in need of a break.
Less is generally more in football; that’s why we have one-off finals rather than five-match series to determine our cup winners. Excitement is derived from risk and there are far fewer of those in a sprawling group stage where the quality has been diluted and there is larger margin for error.
That’s why the current system works. As England discovered in 2014, in a group where only two of four teams qualify, you have to be on your toes from the start. Lose your first game and you go into the second knowing that another defeat will almost certainly send you home.
The last World Cup also had a 48-match group stage, but it meant that 32 nations were reduced to 16. It was long, but it had a decisive effect on the field. It made sporting sense. This does not.
This expansion will make more money and new, influential friends. If Infantino, whose presidential candidacy included a pledge to increase the World Cup’s size, can offer more nations more chance to qualify, he’ll lock in political support across the confederations.
There are far fewer successful nations than there are successful ones. With a three-term limit now imposed on the FIFA presidency, Infantino could oversee the 2026 World Cup and use the tournament to firm up his legacy.
FIFA exists for the whole world, not just the glamorous bits. And making money is not necessarily a bad thing, given the good it can do when it’s properly distributed. But this is FIFA, so scepticism is understandable.
(Up until recently, remember, one of the organisation’s leading lights was so well rewarded that he rented a penthouse suite just for his cats. FIFA’s record on wealth redistribution leaves something to be desired.)
And so FIFA will grow richer and Infantino’s position will be secure for years to come. Smaller nations will do well too, taking their chance to make their mark on the world stage. And the viewers, in the stadiums and on the sofas, will enjoy more knife-edge knockout games than ever before.
But that group stage … don’t let anyone try to convince you that there are any positives in that group stage. That interminable dirge will be the price we pay, partly to benefit the global game, but mostly to benefit FIFA itself.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.