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.
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?
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.