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More is not always merrier: the 48-team World Cup is a deeply flawed concept

1:35 PM EST 12/7/16
Gianni Infantino in Nigeria
This is one campaign promise the FIFA boss should not have kept - expanding the tournament to this degree will have a drastic impact on organisation and quality


At least FIFA president Gianni Infantino can honestly say, unlike most politicians, that he fulfils the promises made during election campaigns. The Swiss head of the international football governing body vowed to expand the World Cup to 48 teams as he succeeded the disgraced Sepp Blatter, and that now seems a formality with Wednesday's apparent confirmation of his latest proposal

The problem is, however, that the idea of engrossing the ranks of qualifiers to an unwieldy number just short of the half-century is a flawed concept in theory, and in practice likely to devalue what is currently one of the world's most prestigious, lucrative single sporting events. 

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Details are still scarce over exactly how Infantino proposes to implement these changes. AFP  reports that Infantino wants the new format in place for the 2026 competition, but there is no mention of where exactly the 16 new qualifiers would come from. The agency also states teams would be organised in 16 groups of three, with the knockout stages beginning either with a last 32 (meaning the top two sides from each group would qualify) or a last 16 bringing together solely group winners. 

If FIFA plumps for the former, an incredibly invasive seeding system will be required to guard against a massive cull of top teams at that all-or-nothing first stage. If it is the latter, the first round will essentially become a meaningless formality for the 20 best teams on the planet, with those same sides invited to the new party most likely making a swift exit after two games. 

Or perhaps, with the system used in rugby's International Sevens circuit in mind, those finishing top of each group would go on to the last 16, while runners-up enter a parallel Plate competition and the bottom sides fight for the Bowl. It is obviously ludicrous, but no more so than attempting to shoehorn into the World Cup a number of teams that have no business at the party to begin with. 

It is true, of course, that such criticisms have accompanied football's premier tournament with every expansion. Brazilian Joao Havelange was the first to tinker with the format, bringing in eight new teams in 1982 to take the total up to 24. His motives were clear: having won election in great part due to his ability to court developing football nations in Asia and Africa over the conservative, Euro-centric attitudes of Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, the former Olympic swimmer saw the need to make the World Cup a global spectacle. 

From just one qualifier each in 1978, the Asian and African confederations increased their share to three in Spain four years later, while Central American challengers El Salvador and Honduras along with New Zealand also appeared. The change undoubtedly made for a more inclusive spectacle, and without the expansion the boom in African football typified by the exploits of Cameroon in Italia 90, Nigeria four years later and Senegal in taking down holders France in 2002 would never have been possible. 

But Infantino's proposal balloons the competitions out of all proportion, with the most likely outcome a sharp decrease in quality. An ominous warning was already noticeable over the summer, when for the first time the European Championships ditched its traditional 16-team format in favour of welcoming eight new participants to France. 

With all but two third-placed teams guaranteed entry into the knockout phase, the structure rewarded dour, safety-first football. Portugal failed to win a single game during their arduous first round, and in seven clashes prevailed just once in 90 minutes on their way to a first title.

It made for painful viewing at times, and despite the fairytale story provided by the likes of Iceland and Wales few could deny that there was a categorical drop off in quality compared to previous tournaments. A similar ennui has descended over the European qualifying process, in part due to the immense number of teams (52 included in the race for Russia 2018) that allows for mismatch after mismatch on the international calendar and the only tension arising from club managers fretting over their stars picking up an injury. 

If this expansion takes place all of these issues will remains, and will indeed only get worse.

If it isn't broke, don't fix it, the old maxim exhorts. Sending 32 teams to the World Cup finals is far from perfect, but it is a fair compromise between inclusion and quality that has worked acceptably since France 1998. Infantino's plan, however, threatens to bloat the World Cup to the point of collapse, a decision that could threaten its position at the pinnacle of the sporting calendar.