In December 2016 the Fifa Council decided to expand its flagship World Cup competition to include 48 participants from 2026 onwards.
The move was the brainchild of Fifa president Gianni Infantino, whose proposal to expand the competition to 40 teams was part of his manifesto when he was elected earlier in the same year.
The idea means almost a quarter of Fifa’s 211 national members qualifying for its flagship tournament. While countries that rarely qualify for major tournaments will no doubt be enthused by the possibility, there are those who are concerned about the increased demands on host nations and the dilution of the competition’s strong brand.
SportBusiness International spoke to three experts within fields that could be affected by a change to the number of teams participating in the World Cup.
Maybe – Adrian Bevington, former English FA director of communications & Club England managing director
Fifa are actually proposing a knockout tie after the qualifying campaign for the 32 countries that are not among the top 16 qualifiers.
For those highest-seeded nations who normally qualify for finals tournaments, this should have no actual impact – other than provide an additional safety net if they don’t qualify automatically.
This is Fifa’s way of making the World Cup more attainable for nations that never or very rarely qualify, while importantly increasing commercial and broadcast revenues. It gives those nations a fighting chance of making the tournament group stages and feel invited to the greatest football show on Earth.
There, of course, is a significant political angle, with Gianni Infantino looking to represent the 211 global nations he is accountable to and not just the elite. However, while adopting this approach, Infantino does not want to water down the quality of the tournament proper. The group stages will remain the same – 32 teams. If the best teams and players perform to their Fifa rankings, they will not play any additional games.
Knockout football played to the death at neutral World Cup venues should provide innovative exciting drama. Fans and broadcasters will love it.
Some say why make 32 nations travel around the world for one fixture which they could lose and yet have to plan and pay for the whole tournament? After being involved in preparing teams for five World Cups, I can advise most will already be planning and booking for the tournament way in advance of qualification. Fifa must plan to ensure a more coordinated team approach to offset costs for those that lose in this knockout round.
They must ensure this does not elongate the tournament. These games should be played while others are preparing and playing warm-up matches.
It’s easy to say this is a bad idea, look for problems and oppose change. I say this could prove exhilarating to younger millennial supporters and invigorate the World Cup for a new generation of fans – who after all are the future.
Yes – Leandro Shara, president, Matchvision
There is no doubt that football is growing everywhere and that after seven 32-team editions (including 2018 and 2022), it is more than reasonable to believe that adding more teams, by itself, won’t damage the quality of the tournament. For me, the question should not be if, but how.
This is a mathematical problem – how to increase one parameter (number of teams) without changing drastically the other parameters that define the competition: duration, matches per team and total number of matches. Fifa does not present a mathematical solution for this problem and instead is analysing formats that all have severe flaws in them, such as having eight groups of five teams, increasing duration and total matches of the first round by 67 per cent (80 matches only in the first round!).
MatchVision has designed an innovative and flexible ‘POTs System’, without groups or play-offs in the first stage, which keeps the other parameters, regardless of number of teams selected. Under that system, the World Cup could have 36 teams playing three matches in the first stage and the 16 best teams would qualify for the next stage in the most simple and fair system – a general standing. This tournament can be held in just 32 days (as today) and in the same number of stadiums as today, keeping rest days for teams (and stadiums) as they are.
This mathematical solution would make the tournament more competitive, increase the tournament value and reduce its costs. For instance, under that format teams would travel only once in the first stage, as opposed to twice with the current format of groups. Another important benefit is that as all teams compete against each other, fans care about every match and not just their groups, and additionally there is no need to play the third match-day simultaneously, so broadcasters get more live-time and sponsors’ exposure would increase.
Growing the World Cup is a great idea, but it must be done right.
No – Don Schumacher, executive director, National Association of Sports Commissions
The world does not need to see more teams of average ability! No matter how much Fifa might expand, some will still complain. So, absolutely no expansion!
If a team cannot break into the field of 32, it would doubtless go home after a couple of games anyway. In the meantime, the organisers must spend more money and time providing extra accommodation, transportation, meals, additional practice facilities (all of which must match gamefield quality) and even more VIP entertainment.
We can add to the list: more venue capacity for more games (ask South Korea, Japan or South Africa if they have enough stadia), tens of thousands of additional tickets to sell for less-than-exciting match-ups and all of the extra media to house, feed and transport, not to mention more world-class officials to work the games.
To argue otherwise, for example, would permit this year’s US men’s team to have made it through the backdoor to the Rio Olympics…where they would lose and come home, but only after the expenditure of millions of dollars. It is like giving kids participation trophies for showing up. The trouble is event organisers should not be continually expected to cover expenses for teams that are looking for a paid holiday.
In the USA we have diluted the quality of college football bowl games played over the Christmas holiday to the point where teams that cannot win half of their games are allowed to play. Please! No expansion!
The Fifa World Cup is an international institution that should accept only the few. The qualification process is rigorous by design…if you win, you go; if you do not, you go home. This is a system anyone can understand.
The system is not broken and does not need repair unless you want fewer teams…which is a matter we could discuss.
Uefa precedent shows Fifa the value of an expanded World Cup
For an example of the commercial benefits of an expanded tournament, the global federation could look to the precedent set by Uefa. The European confederation expanded its flagship national tournament, the European Championship, from 16 to 24 teams for Euro 2016.
In this video, recorded after the tournament in October 2016, Uefa marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein talks about the benefits of the expanded competition, how the organisation used the tournament anthem to harvest fan data, and reflects on the ways the Champions League influences the format of the event.