And there it is. The 48-team World Cup.
Cue the outrage. Cue the anger. Cue the sneers.
Because, if it comes from FIFA, it has to be bad. Or self-serving. Or corrupt.
In this case, the objection appears to be driven by two things. One is that this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. FIFA boss Gianni Infantino promised to expand the World Cup in exchange for votes from middling nations who want to feed at the trough. He did it to get elected, not for the good of the sport, kind of like politicians who (depending on your political stripe) either cut taxes or increase welfare benefits so they can gain support.
And, of course, Infantino also promised that he would increase FIFA’s payments to each member association, which is also a move designed to gain votes, according to the cynics.
To do that, however, he needs to grow the pie, and because more than 85 percent of FIFA’s revenues come from the men’s World Cup, the only way to do that is to squeeze more cash out of the biggest sporting event in the universe. The easiest way to do it is by expanding it.
The first argument can be thrown at anybody running for elected office. Would it be better if Infantino had promised more World Cup slots and then, once elected, had run out of the room shouting “Ha-ha! Psych! Fooled you guys”? Probably not. He ran on a platform; people voted on that basis; and he’s implementing it.
As for the decision being a financial choice, I’m not sure that’s automatically a bad thing. FIFA’s mandate is to grow the game, and giving money back to the member associations is probably more desirable than having it sit and accumulate in a Swiss bank account.
Sure, we’ve all heard about mismanagement and corruption and FIFA development funds being wasted or used to enrich friends and relatives. But if Infantino delivers on his promises of more accountability and transparency, effectively telling FAs “you can have this money but you need to account for every last penny and you need to put contracts out to public tender and you must allow for oversight and audits,” then this is far from a tragedy. In fact, it might actually give some of the less responsible FAs the opportunity to grow up and not be run like somebody’s personal bank account.
On to the other big complaint: that a 48-team World Cup will dilute the quality of the competition. I’ll say it straight away. There is no rational counterargument because it’s a subjective point to make. But simply pointing to the expanded Euro 2016 as evidence that more teams equals a poor tournament won’t cut it.
First of all, because some — including yours truly — enjoyed the tournament.
Second, because it’s one tournament. Sample size and all that. Pick and choose your moments and you can prove just about anything, even that Cristiano Ronaldo is technically awful.
Third, because two-thirds of the teams at the World Cup won’t be European sides. They might be better, they might be worse, but what we do know for sure is most of the teams in the expanded World Cup won’t be the ones we saw at the Euros. It’s apples and oranges.
Fourth, if it was a bad tournament, who’s to say that was down to having 24 teams and not, say, chance or fatigue after the most fixture-packed club season in recent history?
Of course, having the top 48 sides in the world means the average side will be worse than if you have the top 32. By that logic, a 16-team World Cup would be even better. Maybe even an eight-team World Cup.
But worse teams don’t necessarily engender worse games. Better teams doesn’t equal better games (ahem, remember last year’s Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Manchester City? Not exactly a two-legged humdinger, was it?).
What matters is that games will be competitive and we don’t have blowouts like this one. But, in fact, recent tournaments — not just World Cups, but regional competitions, too — have seen the number of one-sided blowouts diminish significantly. Indeed, the one notable blowout from the last World Cup was this one and the team getting stomped happened to be Brazil, who are only the most successful nation in World Cup history.
People raise the issue of a “bloated” World Cup, but we’re talking about 80 games versus 64. The semifinalists will end up playing seven games, just as before. FIFA say they’ll wrap up the whole thing in 32 days, just as they did with 32 teams in 2014. They insist they can do it with 10 or 12 venues, which would be no different from 2014.
If FIFA can keep those last two pledges, you can’t really complain about white elephants and overspending, either. What will be more problematic is finding a host nation that can provide 48 acceptable training bases. If 2026 is in the United States — as many expect — that won’t be a problem. Elsewhere, it could be.
But, again, there are solutions. A training camp, more than a stadium, offers the opportunity for legacy and some of the extra revenue could be used to provide some to hosts who don’t have enough of them (they’re also considerably cheaper than 40,000-seat stadiums). Or, depending on the host nation, you could have teams based in neighbouring countries flying in for games. That would have the added benefit of spreading some of the World Cup around to smaller nations who won’t ever get to host one.
The most valid reason not to do an expanded World Cup has to do with the format. A three-team group lends itself to all sort of chicanery. You want an obvious example? Let’s imagine a group with Klingons, Vulcans and Romulans. Klingons beat Vulcans 1-0. Vulcans draw with Romulans 0-0. Then, in the third game, Klingons fix a draw with Romulans and it finishes nil-nil, allowing both teams to advance.
Yes, that’s a risk. It would stink to high heaven. Sure, we’ve had situations like this in past tournaments, such as Germany vs. Austria in 1982 or Denmark vs. Sweden in 2004. These were games where there was a mutually beneficial result to the detriment of one of the other teams. There’s no evidence that anything untoward happened, but it left a bad taste and a cloud of suspicion.
Or you can have a situation in which all three games end in identical draws, in which case how do you decide who advances?
Both situations could arise with the current format, too, but it’s less likely. But there are ways around it. The penalty shootout after a draw solution would have been one, albeit a foolish one.
A better option is to minimize the risks by having the top seeds play the first two games. In most cases — you would hope — they’ll win one of the first two, which means the third game will have something at stake for both teams. The other is to eliminate goal difference as a tiebreaker and, instead, if teams finish level on points, determine who goes through based on FIFA ranking. Probably a revamped FIFA ranking — let’s put the eggheads to work — but nonetheless the point would be that if you want to advance, you need to win games.
Incidentally, a revamped FIFA ranking would also help with another potential complaint: that World Cup qualifying, already rendered largely irrelevant in many confederations, would become even less meaningful than it is now. If countries were playing for their seeds — and the seeds were more valuable — perhaps we’d see a bit more oomph in the qualifying process.
Again, another big if, but if FIFA do this or something like it, the format can work and limit the stitch-ups.
We’ve been through the negatives. The positives ought to be obvious. You would have far fewer dead rubbers (provided the top seeds play first). You would have another round of knockout games, which tend to be more tense because the stakes are higher. Most of all, you would turn the game’s global showcase into a truly global event, offering a greater shot to countries who would otherwise only watch it on TV.