New FIFA president Gianni Infantino made expanding the World Cup from its current 32 teams part of his election platform. The cynic within most of us saw it as a naked attempt to pander to countries (particularly outside Europe) who have long been demanding more places at the world’s biggest sporting event. And, probably, to some degree they were right.
Now, after talking up a 40-team World Cup, he’s going even further, suggesting a 48-nation tournament.
More pandering? Yes and no.
Crazy as it sounds, the suggestion he made on Monday, which will be among those debated by FIFA next January, actually makes more sense than the 40-team World Cup mooted during his campaign. That’s because, a 40-team World Cup was just that — forty teams in the group stage, each playing a minimum of three games. Group winners and the six-best second placed sides would advance. All of this would have added up to more. More games: 76 instead of the current 64. More days: from 30 up to at least 35. More venues: 12 at a minimum, whereas now you can get away with 10.
The other “more” people care about — more revenue for FIFA’s coffers, which then gets redistributed to participating nations — likely would be that much more, albeit not enough to off-set the added costs and inconvenience. Not to mention that, with such a format, meaningless group games are pretty much guaranteed. (And that’s before you get into the argument of quality supposedly being diluted. It’s not a view I share — I liked the 24 team Euros for example — but many feel that way.)
A 48-team World Cup, as outlined by Infantino, wouldn’t actually be a 48-team World Cup. It would still be a 32-team World Cup, but with what’s effectively a play-in round.
Under the proposed plan, the top 16 seeds would enter the group stage as normal. The other 32 would square off, mano a mano, in individual matches — winner-take-all contests for a spot in the World Cup proper. You would still have more games (72 in total) but you could probably get away with the same number of venues.
It would be a longer competition, at least another five or six days, but the real big bonus here is that you would get more meaningful matches. Each of those 16 play-in games would matter and as such, would make for compelling viewing: certainly more so than an expanded group stage in which teams worry about results elsewhere and try to snatch a draw.
Effectively, rather than a group stage followed by a knockout stage, you’d go knockout-group-knockout. It would certainly turn the first week of the tournament into must-see TV.
Of course, it would also be brutal and cruel. And it could mean that a country would battle for two years to qualify for the World Cup, maybe even winning every single match along the way, and then see their tournament last just 90 minutes.
When you consider the number of matches that are lost due to individual error, refereeing error or sheer dumb bad luck, there would be plenty of heartbreak. At least now, with the group stage, if you lose a game you still have a shot at qualifying. In fact, we’ve had world champions who lost their opening match as recently as 2010, when future World Cup winner Spain fell to Switzerland.
There are also logistical issues. Will Venezuela or New Zealand, for example, fly all the way to Qatar 2022, play one game and think: “Well guys, that was disappointing, but we tried our best and at least we can say we qualified for the World Cup!” Probably not.
There’s a commercial angle to this, too, one that might make Infantino’s plan less palatable to the marketing men.
Sponsors and broadcasters pay huge money to be associated with World Cup sides. Right now, they’re guaranteed at least three games, which means they get some 10 days of exposure, plus the build-up. With a 48-team World Cup play-in format, only 16 teams would have a guaranteed three matches.
Is a sponsor or broadcaster going to cut a big cheque for what could end up being a few days’ build-up and 90 minutes of football? I’m not sure, though I suppose it’s possible that the do-or-die round of play-in games would add so much hype, excitement and ratings that would offset this.
As World Cup expansion proposals go, this one is less horrible than some of the others. It ought to at least be considered, perhaps with a few tweaks. Like, maybe, expanding the 40 teams and having eight play-in games for that fourth seed slot.
It’s not just about whatever promises Infantino may or may not have made to get elected. The number of FIFA nations has grown to a point where you can see the argument to have more included. This is one possible solution and it’s certainly better than a 40-team monstrosity. There are no doubt others, too.
You just hope Infantino’s suggestion was just that: something to spur debate and find a viable solution rather than some edict from above.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.