#FCdebate: Is a 48-team World Cup a good idea or a bad idea?

The ESPN FC crew critique Gianni Infantino’s proposal for a World Cup with 16 groups of three teams.
Steve Nicol feels a 48-team World Cup wouldn’t do any good, and instead further dilute the competition.
The FIFA President lays out why a 48-team World Cup will not exhaust teams or players any more than the current format.
The ESPN FC crew aren’t too happy with the FIFA president’s suggestion of penalties in World Cup group stage games.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino admits that he likes the idea of expanding the World Cup finals to include 48 countries.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino wants to expand the World Cup to 48 teams. Good idea or bad idea? ESPN FC’s Nick Miller and James Tyler debate.

James Tyler: Now, Nick. I write to you about an exciting opportunity recently proposed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino: A glorious proposal for an expanded World Cup format, which leaves room for a ton more games, more teams and a host of thrilling permutations.

Fiji vs. Uruguay! Scotland vs. Estonia! Canada vs. Tajikistan! These matches might not thrill at first but they’re also unlikely to happen even with 48 teams in the mix. What matters more is the potential this idea represents for countries outside the elite, from the medium-sized Baltic nations to the island archipelagos of the Indian Ocean.

Football is a glorious game. It can be played anywhere, by anyone. And while I have some issues with the three-team groups — that’s just stupid — the concept of a bigger World Cup allows for a lot more of what makes the tournament great fun to begin with.

After seeing the heroics of Wales and Iceland at newly-expanded Euro 2016, two countries that arguably would have featured at a 48-team World Cup in 2014, why wouldn’t we want more such opportunities to be amazed?

Nick Miller: You present a romantic case and my cold, frozen heart almost melts. The idea of more people being able to experience the joy of a World Cup is lovely but this is like handing out medals for participation.

It’s an elite competition and if you add more teams, you dilute its quality. There are 211 countries in FIFA and this will let in nearly a quarter of them. Not exactly the best of the best. Plus, how do you incorporate 48 teams? Sixteen three-team groups? Twelve groups of four? An extra group stage? It’s a mess.

JT: OK, how’s this? We use 12 four-team groups, in which everyone plays each other once. The top two from each is automatically into the knockouts (down to 24), with the eight best third-place teams also advancing (now back up to 32).

Seeding would give the eight first-placed teams with the best records a match against third-place opposition, with the remaining four group winners, as well as the 12 second-place teams, drawn together. Then it’s a simple win-and-you’re-in knockout format from there: round of 32, round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal, final.

A bigger World Cup could deliver Albania snatching a historic victory, Iceland beating England or Wales reaching a semifinal. And those will always stick out more than the lop-sided performances.

Gianni Infantino’s decision to expand the World Cup could dilute quality… or increase drama. Or both.

NM: Let’s say we’ve got 48 teams in four-team groups, so playing three games each in the first round. That’s 72 games before anyone is even knocked out. There were only 64 games in the entire tournament in 2014 World Cup. The first tournament in 1930 only had 18. If the second round has 32 teams in it, we’ll have 104 games in the whole tournament!

That does sound rather exciting but then again, so does a gigantic bar of chocolate before you start eating it. Then you’re sitting there an hour later, foil around your feet, belly hurting, chocolate around your face, shame overwhelming you and only the inability to move preventing you from running to the toilet to be sick.

In other words, less is more.

JT: It’s a lot, but we happily gorge on anything from 46-65 games each year from the club teams we love, without even entertaining national teams. And we’ve somehow grown to begrudgingly accept a convoluted and utterly boring qualifying process.

The entirety of Europe gets whittled down to England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and a few others while CONCACAF does something called a “hex,” which comes after two prior qualifying rounds, before finally letting its nations rest. And don’t even get me started on CONMEBOL, with its 10-team mini-league that stretches over two years, from which fully half (if you win the playoff against Oceania, which could be a glorified friendly depending on the opponent) qualify anyway?

Why not streamline qualifying to account for the larger tournament and give these poor lads some time off during the year? Maybe then the extra games in June and July would be a bit fresher-legged and less cautious. A big summer tournament would be stressful, sure, but we both know it will eventually be accepted just like everything else FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League force upon us.

NM: The theory about streamlining qualification is fine, but you can be damn sure the people who control these things won’t let the time stand idle. Like the debate about a winter break in England: in all likelihood any free dates will just be filled with friendlies.

In England, the gluttons for tedium that are the football-watching public merrily go along to whatever is put on at Wembley, so take a couple of games that do matter away from them and they’ll squeeze in some that do not.

And those friendlies will need to be big matches to make the money, so we’ll just get England vs. France or Brazil vs. Argentina every year, making those games less special. They should be events, not space-fillers.

More countries in the tournament could make for more memorable upsets. Is that enough to expand?

JT: I’d like to step back a second to your point about the World Cup being an “elite competition.” As seen in the Champions League, arguably the closest real equivalent, “elite” can mean many things but one thing it might describe is the amount of money spent by the clubs that get the furthest. Or the teams that traditionally hoard the most resources.

Even then, there’s never a guarantee that the “elite” team will win. Pep Guardiola-managed clubs failed several times, Paris Saint-Germain can’t come close and so on. There are plenty of great teams that perish early in the competition due to a difficult draw, key injury and so on.

Look at the World Cup and you find the same kinds of stresses, only magnified. Some squads are naturally deeper in terms of talent and will never have to work as hard to forge ahead. Yet, in the crucible of high-stakes competition, they either shine or they crumple.

Tournament play should reward the best team right then and there, not the ones normally in the mix and not necessarily the ones who sleepwalked through a pointless qualifying round, either. (Ask England how their perfect run to Euro 2016 worked out.)

Having a deeper blend of Goliaths and Davids offers greater drama. Spain and Argentina shouldn’t be afraid of having an extra nation-state or Caribbean foe in the World Cup; they should welcome it. And we should too.

NM: International competition isn’t subject to the same monetary forces as domestic, where finances mean some clubs can become all-powerful and win the league every year. There are some countries more successful than others, but the World Cup has only been retained once, 54 years ago. The natural fluctuations of generational talent and institutional competence means there’s plenty of natural variation.

Perhaps there should be different teams in the World Cup, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more teams, bloating the tournament in the interests of being inclusive.

The format isn’t perfect — if you really want to spice things up then get rid of all seeding — but the idea of a 48-team World Cup comes down to fixing a problem that isn’t there. It’s a good size as it is.

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