Commentary

Will a 48-team World Cup really hurt the quality of play?

By Mike Woitalla

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.

20 comments about "Will a 48-team World Cup really hurt the quality of play? ".
  1. Randy Vogt, January 11, 2017 at 6:18 a.m.

    I hate the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams. With expanding the knockout rounds to 32 teams, we will have teams parking the bus against better opponents, hoping to advance in the shootout.

  2. R v Mcgrath, January 11, 2017 at 7:27 a.m.

    Come on, guys. It's all about the $$$$.
    Who's going to be watching here if the USA doesn't make the World Cup? With 48 teams, it's a lot more like likely the USA gets in; thus big TV money and big ad money. Up the audience; up the $$$.

  3. Wooden Ships, January 11, 2017 at 7:30 a.m.

    Having roughly a quarter of nations that field national teams, just seems to lessen the specialness of the Cup. Lets let everyone be in it.

  4. frank schoon, January 11, 2017 at 9:10 a.m.

    The last WC'14 was a joke, barely watched about4 or 5 games. Only one decent team Germany, Brazil was a joke. I've seen quality of play going down each WC. There were 3 WC that were great 58,70,74, 82 and after that it was mediocre. Next thing the'll do is to invite good pub teams to play at the WC.

  5. ROBERT BOND replied, January 11, 2017 at 9:51 a.m.

    frank, fifa still rating Argentina #1 even tho' they are having probs getting #1 in South America, so 48 might get teams in that would have been overlooked-and they were also good in the Cup.......also, players on the bench, the young guns that played on our Olympic runner up like Sule and Gnabrey will get more experience....

  6. frank schoon replied, January 11, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.

    Robert, there will always be cute players ,here and there in the world, that is a given but I'm looking at the whole ball of wax and soccer ,the game itself,to me has gone down in quality tremendously. I'm probably a little older than you are but I remember watching soccer, let us say for example in the 60's, 50's or in the 70's one thing you will notice that from that era it was difficult to see what the player will do next with the ball which 180 degree opposite of today where upon I can close my eyes and virtually tell you what's going to happen next! I don't have room to explain and go into the technical/tactical qualifications here ,but thank God that Johan Cruyff was around to have influenced the game and made it interesting. Just look at the influence the "Dream Team" of the early 90's and Barcelona in the last 10 years brought the world of soccer ;for without that soccer would have become one boring escapade.

  7. Richard T. Lynch, January 11, 2017 at 9:18 a.m.

    Read another article somewhere (sorry can't recall source) that alluded to belief at FIFA that WC was not necessarily about ONLY the top quality teams. That figures when the majority of members are from Africa, Asia, Oceania. Like the Olympics, it is turning into a participation event. "Let's let everyone play." Ugh. Don't like it but that's what I think is happening.

  8. Fire Paul Gardner Now, January 11, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.

    "Sweden, Ukraine, Greece; Venezuela; Panama, Jamaica, Guatemala; Jordan, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Oman; Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso; New Zealand" Does anyone think the world cup really suffered because any of these teams were absent? I sure don't. Other than having Zlatan there I don't think any of these teams were missed.

  9. :: SilverRey :: replied, January 11, 2017 at 12:50 p.m.

    I can think of one person who would have liked to see the new format in 2014 - Bob Bradley.

  10. Adam Tondowsky, January 11, 2017 at 12:47 p.m.

    With respect, this is a rather pathetic article.

    1."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."

    You can always find one or two examples to then claim something like 'this is already happening.' But, the questions are: to what degree did they already occur, and, more importantly, are, in this case, blowouts and poor quality games likely to increase?

    I think clearly the answer to both is yes and yes, and probably quite significantly in the first stage of the World Cup tournament.

  11. Adam Tondowsky, January 11, 2017 at 12:48 p.m.

    2."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."

    Again, that's not normally the case for the European qualifying and it has tended not to be the case for the other regional qualifying.

  12. Adam Tondowsky, January 11, 2017 at 12:48 p.m.

    3."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."

    This overlooks the law of diminishing returns. There is a pretty much fixed number of nations and 48 of them in the World Cup gets pretty close to the total number of nations that can play soccer at a decent level consistently.

  13. :: SilverRey :: replied, January 11, 2017 at 1:06 p.m.

    You are overlooking the impact of new national leagues in the last two decades. In addition to MLS here in the US which has considerably raised the awareness of soccer in this country, countries like India, China, Australia, Japan, etc. have all seen a boost in player quality over the recent years.

    Populations grow, leagues grow, player quality grows. I don't think you will see a dilution of quality in future World Cups.

  14. Adam Tondowsky, January 11, 2017 at 12:49 p.m.

    4."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."

    Fits with my last point, many of these 33-48 future qualifying nations play very inconsistently. So, their present form really can't be judged on having been in occasional prior World Cup tournaments.

  15. Adam Tondowsky replied, January 11, 2017 at 12:55 p.m.

    Just to clarify:
    33-48 refers to the additional number of qualifying nations, not that I expect FIFA will increase the World Cup by an additional 33-48 countries (it will take them longer to do that!)

    By 'inconsistent play' I'm not referring to inconsistent play from game to game, but over the four year World Cup cycle. Jamaica, for instance,was very good at, I believe, the 1998 World Cup, but hasn't been all that great most of the time since then.

    Again, yes some of the 32 nations that presently qualify for the World Cup are also inconsistent from one four year cycle to the next, but the number of very inconsistent nations will increase dramatically, and the problem is that nations that aren't playing very well in the present four year cycle will now make the World Cup.

    Given the law of diminishing returns, I think it will be many years, if ever, before all 48 nations that qualify for these future World Cups will be playing well in the cycle prior to the tournament.

  16. Kent James, January 11, 2017 at 1:24 p.m.

    One important point Mike failed to point out, is that the teams eliminated will now only have played two games. One of the things I like about the qualifying round is that if your team makes it, it gets at least 3 games to prove itself. I guess you can argue that it eliminates the weakest teams first, but if you only have two games to determine who the weakest teams are, I'm not sure the results will be that accurate.

  17. Kent James, January 11, 2017 at 1:33 p.m.

    I think FIFA should have a Small Nations World Cup (yes, it needs a better name). Let the bottom 25% (33%?) of the nations (by player registration? FIFA ranking?) play for a separate WC (with a 16 team final tournament?). Then all those nations without a prayer to win the real WC get a chance. It also reduces the qualifying time (that is hard on the players). The finalists of this tournament get a spot in the regular finals (which remains a 32 team tournament). Small nations who wanted to compete in the regular WC could do so, if they've ever proven to be able to compete at that level before (made it to the WC finals tournament, like the Dutch). In fact, that could be a criteria for entrance (never having made it to the finals, or not making it for 3 in a row, or something like that if size doesn't work so well). Just an idea....

  18. Adam Tondowsky, January 11, 2017 at 1:46 p.m.

    SilverRey, Australia and Japan already routinely qualify for World Cup tournaments. I agree that getting China to routinely qualify for World Cup tournaments in likely the #1 reason for the expansion in the number of teams. The worldwide number of people on the planet is expected to peak soon, so that's not likely to be the case. That also fits in with my point that the number of nations are, more or less, fixed. So to should be the number of people alive at any given time. (Somewhere between 8-9 billion people.)

  19. Ric Fonseca, January 11, 2017 at 3:45 p.m.

    One way to find out if this higher number of participating teams is feasible, is to go ahead and try it as change, a very important part of life, is inevitable. So let's just see que pasa!!!

  20. uffe gustafsson, January 11, 2017 at 6:28 p.m.

    Let me remind you of the last euro.
    Two teams that you never would expect to move on and made it so much fun to watch.
    Iceland and wales. Yes two tiny nations that gave the big countries a run for their money.
    Don't discount small nations.
    Is that not what this is all about or you can have only 2 teams play for the glory Germany and Spain. Like the first option better.

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