Commentary

A 48-team World Cup? Dumb, dumb, dumb

It was once said that Sepp Blatter was good for 50 ideas every morning before breakfast and 51 of them were bad. But Gianni Infantino, Blatter's successor as FIFA president, is quickly giving him a run for his money.

Infantino's latest idea: expand the World Cup to 48 teams, beginning in 2026. In his presidential campaign, he had been the most vocal proponent of expansion -- more teams per confederation is a big winner at the ballot box -- but only to 40 teams. Now he has come out in favor of 48 teams.

At a university talk in Bogota, Colombia, on Monday, Infantino outlined his plan:

"The World Cup is very well organized in its system of competition with 32 countries, groups and classifications for the second round, quarterfinals, semifinals and final. So the idea is to be 16 seeded countries and a first phase of 32 countries, with a direct elimination game to advance and continue the normal World Cup with 32, but 48 teams go to the party."

Does the World Cup need to to expanded?

As Infantino mentions, 32 teams is a perfect number of teams to organize a competition -- it breaks down nicely from 32 in the group stage to 16 for the second round and then down to two for the final.

FIFA has organized a 32-team World Cup, going back to the 1998 finals in France. Then-FIFA president Joao Havelange expanded the tournament from 16 teams in 1974, the year he took power, to 24 in 1982 and 32 in 1998, the year he stepped down.

During Blatter's reign, which covered five tournaments, the World Cup stayed at 32 teams. If a 32-team World Cup was good enough for Blatter, who shouldn't it be good enough for Infantino?

Expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to any number except 64 leads to the problem of how to get down to a convenient number -- 16 or 32 -- for the knockout stage.

When the World Cup was expanded to 24 teams in 1982, FIFA added a second group stage with 12 teams (three per group) and then moved to the semifinals with four group winners. In 1986, 1990 and 1994, FIFA went straight to knockout play with 16 teams -- the top two teams in each group, plus the top four third-place teams.

A 48-team World Cup with 12 groups of four teams could be drawn up to send the two top teams into a second group stage with eight groups of three and then eight group winners in the quarterfinals. One downside to that format would be it would add two more dates -- in effect another week -- to the tournament and teams would have one bye -- wasted down time -- in the second group stage.

Do we want an expanded World Cup? A 24-team European Championship -- adopted for the first time this summer in France -- is evidence enough that expansion isn't worth it. Sure, it produced some great feel-good stories -- Iceland and Wales, to name two -- but that wasn't enough for us to have to put up with a slew of extra bad teams and extra bad group games.

An expanded World Cup also diminishes the importance of qualifying. Would the Hexagonal be the same if five teams qualified instead of 3.5? How exciting would the 10-team South America tournament be if seven teams qualified instead of 4.5?

An expanded World Cup is bad enough, but worse is Infantino's idea of a play-in game to get from 48 to 32 teams.

What does it say about FIFA's commitment to soccer fans that supporters of 32 teams would head off to the World Cup not knowing if their team would be around for one game or four games minimum? How many fans would go? Partners like television and commercial sponsors would be in the same boat, not knowing if their commitments would be for one game or four games minimum.

If a 32-team World Cup was good enough for Mr. Bad Ideas, it should be good enough for Infantino.
7 comments about "A 48-team World Cup? Dumb, dumb, dumb".
  1. Wooden Ships, October 4, 2016 at 9:45 p.m.

    FIFA's a mess.

  2. Paul Schearf, October 5, 2016 at 9:40 a.m.

    The more I think about it, the more I like it. It would make the tournament more exciting for more fans because more countries would be included. It would make those first 16 one-off games incredibly meaningful and interesting because they're single-elimination. Lots of drama there. It would make qualification games more interesting because they top teams would be competing for those seeded spots. They won't just want to qualify. They'll want to win one of the top qualification spots to avoid that single-elimination game in the World Cup. So, for the USA, for example. We wouldn't feel so comfortable in the Hex because 4 out of 6 will qualify. We'd really want to win it in order to be guaranteed one of those top 16 seeded spots.

    I think the top 16 teams is a good cut line as well. The top 16 teams are really the only ones with a reasonable chance of winning the World Cup. The rest of us are just happy to be there and praying for a miracle. So, it's nice to guarantee those top 16 teams spots in the group stage and to look forward to the full tournament. They deserve it.

  3. ROBERT BOND, October 5, 2016 at 4:03 p.m.

    just let everyone play.....

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, October 5, 2016 at 6:52 p.m.

    Garbage idea. No need to expand at all but this proposal is truly inane. 2/3 of the countries involved will start the tournament knowing they may only have one game? Dumb.

  5. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, October 5, 2016 at 6:54 p.m.

    If expansion is really necessary, go to 64 with 16 groups and only have the group winners advance. Much more exciting format.

    These 16 "knockout" games they are talking about may sound exciting but have you watched the knockout competitions of major tournaments lately. It'll just be more poor sides like Northern Ireland making zero effort to do anything and just praying for penalties. Who needs to see that?

  6. I w Nowozeniuk, October 5, 2016 at 10:38 p.m.

    FIFA has been derelict in its duties to get the game into the 21st Century. Starting from the laws of the game to the the World Cups, common sense changes need to be implemented; whether it be in technology or speeding up the game. One thing for sure, a 3 week break from post season to World Cup competition is not long enough. Too many players are fatigued to perform at top level.

  7. Kent James, October 6, 2016 at 10:27 a.m.

    Instead of expansion of the field, I think FIFA should organize a "small nations WC", and let the bottom portion (25-33%?) of nations (smallest either demographically, or by number of registered soccer players) have their own world cup (perhaps in the year prior to the WC). The winner (top 2?) teams in that, would get to enter the main draw (or have a play-in game against the last qualifier to get in the main draw). That would also eliminate all the blowouts in the regular qualifiers, and give the small nations something to play for where they have a chance to win.

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