News broke today that, while not particularly surprising, still represents a sea change in international football.
Agence France reported earlier today that Gianni Infantino will start pushing for a 48-team World Cup starting at next month’s FIFA Council meeting in Zurich.
Under the proposed format changes, the tournament would kick off with a round robin group stage featuring 16 groups, each with three teams competing. Teams would be guaranteed two group stage games (currently it’s three), with the top two from each group advancing to the knockout stages in a new Round of 32. If approved, the format change would take effect with the 2026 World Cup.
There’s a lot to unpack with this news, and more than a few key details which have yet to be sorted out. Let’s run through some pros and cons of the 48-team proposal:
This is pretty obvious. Even in its current 32-team format, the World Cup is something of an exclusive club, and for the vast majority of countries the barrier of entry is prohibitively high. More open slots means a lower barrier of entry for teams on the qualification bubble, which means more people can dream of their country being represented.
Of course, there’s the argument that lowering the barrier of entry means lowering the quality of play. While the expanded field might help out an otherwise strong European or South American side that just had a bad run of form during qualifiers, invariably it would open the door to teams that don’t “deserve” to be there. There’s another argument that the chances of a strong team suffering an upset in an early round increases, but this doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny— the maximum number of possible games played for a particular team remains unchanged at seven (with one fewer group stage fixture and one more knockout tie), and the current smaller format couldn’t save the then-defending champions Spain from getting bounced out of the group stages in 2014.
While the two countries’ respective football programs still has a ways to go before they can be truly competitive on the international stage, they’ll get there sooner than many people realize. Particularly with the flood of investment in the Chinese game. The expanded WC format could be the leg-up these two countries need to finally make their debutante appearances.
I’m reticent to call it “pandering” given that the two countries in question account for more than a third of the world’s population by themselves. But the proposal can definitely be seen as an attempt to change the rules to benefit a seemingly narrow constituency. Even if you think the move makes sense on those grounds, for an organization that’s desperate to slough off its image as an engine of corruption and financial graft and rebrand itself as a model of accountability and good governance, the optics aren’t exactly great.
More countries competing means more fans interested in the World Cup, which means more people interested in football. Increased engagement with the sport leads to more than a few positive side effects, from investments in infrastructure to better health outcomes to progressive social reforms. This isn’t just about broadcast ratings and merchandise sales; if you believe in football as a vehicle for the advancement of civic and humanitarian causes— and I do— then growing the sport is more than just a financial enterprise.
The last three World Cups have been marred by corruption scandals and it’s hard to see that situation getting better once the field is expanded to include more countries. If FIFA is serious about expanding the World Cup and rehabilitating their damaged reputation, they’ll need to include some genuine, enforceable reforms with their proposed format changes.
If you’re ever having a bad day and need something to make you laugh, just remember that FIFA is technically a non-profit organization. It doesn’t take a particularly bitter and cynical mind to see the expanded World Cup as a naked grab for more money. The 2014 World Cup filled FIFA’s coffers to the tune of $4 billion, which, for an appetite as insatiable as FIFA’s, is but a hearty appetizer compared to what they’re eyeing for Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. The largest stakeholders in international football, from sporting executives to corporate sponsors to greedy autocrats, stand to make a lot of money over the next decade.
On the other hand, there’s a quote from an episode of The West Wing (which is, in the interests of disclosure, one of my favorite television shows) that may be germane here: “Chinese political prisoners are going to be sewing soccer balls with their teeth whether we sell them cheeseburgers or not. So let’s sell them cheeseburgers.” Which is to say: political corruption, corporate greed, and repressive regimes all carry on just fine with or without the World Cup, and these problems would still exist in the world even if FIFA folded today. But football changes lives for the better. You can challenge the efficacy of the sport in said capacity, you can call it a minor externality, you can say the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. But corporate elites and autocrats are going to make a lot of money no matter what. If the power of football to improve quality of life and advance the cause of human rights can be expanded to more countries every cycle, it may just be worth it.