That expanding the World Cup by 16 teams to 48 is a financially driven, politically motivated move by the FIFA bosses raises our hackles. But the problem isn't about allowing "lesser" teams to the party.
Yes, the European Championship, after expanding from 16 to 24 teams in 2016, was a dismal tournament with a goals per game average of 2.12. But the key problem was that the new format enabled four of the six groups' third-place teams to reach the knockout stage, which rewarded cautious, play-for-a-tie soccer.
Some have argued that expanding the World Cup will bring lesser quality teams to the biggest showcase and we’ll have to sit through some dreary games. Does anybody remember the 2014 World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina? It doesn’t get much worse than that.
It’s also been proposed that we’ll have blowouts when minnows are allowed in. The biggest blowout at the last World Cup was Germany-Brazil.
And speaking of blowouts, too many goals is the last thing we need to worry about at a World Cup, where a three-goal game has become a rarity. That underdogs will play defensive soccer and make it even more anemic neglects the fact that the world powers don’t exactly light it up. We’ve gotten four goals in the last three finals, all of which went to overtime, so that’s a World Cup final goal every hour and a half.
If the last World Cup allowed another 16 teams in, they would have been, based on who came up short in qualifying and the probable allocation per confederation in 2026: Sweden, Ukraine, Greece; Venezuela; Panama, Jamaica, Guatemala; Jordan, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Oman; Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso; New Zealand.
Half of them had qualified for World Cups before.
When the World Cup expanded from 16 to 24 and from 24 to 32 there was also talk of dilution of quality. But over the years and decades, countries around the world improve, and are likely to continue doing so in the next decade.
World Cup Field
1930 13 teams
1934-1978 16 teams
1982-1994 24 teams
1998-2022 32 teams
2026 48 teams
Note: 1938 was played with 15 teams after Austria pulled out. 1950 played with 13 teams after India, Scotland and Turkey withdrew.
Among the concerns about making the World Cup so big is it would limit the nations that could host to countries like the USA, or require co-hosting.
Expanding to 48 teams was inspired by money -- an estimated extra $636 million in net revenues for scandal-ridden FIFA trying to get back into good graces with its sponsors -- and politics -- future votes for FIFA President Gianni Infantino from member nations that will have a better chance of joining the show.
But Infantino has a case when he says: “The game has changed. Football has now become a truly global game. Everyone is happy about investment in Europe, but what about helping outside Europe? They need to be open.”
And he points out that tournament’s length won’t change: 32 days. And the finalists will still only play seven games.
The format -- 16 groups of three teams from which two will advance to a 32-team knockout stage – means we could have teams playing shootouts to break ties in the first round. But the dramatic knockout games get underway sooner.
A negative of the expansion would be taking drama out of the qualifying phase. But European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is already extremely predictable.
Would could happen, with the expansion, is a shortening of the qualifying play that has become more drawn out over the years. In fact, while European clubs complain about how taxing national team play is on their players, it’s actually qualifying play that’s more of a burden than the World Cup.
If Concacaf gets an extra three or four spots as expected for 2026, that’s not undeserving because at the 2014 World Cup three of four Concacaf teams reached the second round while less than half of the UEFA qualifiers reached the knockout stage. If Concacaf had three extra spots this time around, qualifying would already be over.
With a shorter qualifying campaign, MLS wouldn’t be disrupted as much and Americans playing abroad would be less burdened by long trips and extra games. And because the USA is one of the few countries able to host a 48-team World Cup, this expansion could turn out fine for American soccer.
As for how the expansion will affect the entertainment value of the World Cup, I'm thinking back to that Argentina-Netherlands semifinal and the France-Germany quarterfinal from 2014 -- and I figure some newcomers couldn't do much worse.