World Cup expansion will only dilute the world’s most popular competition

World Cup expansion will only dilute the worlds most popular competition

On January 10, FIFA unanimously approved a measure to expand the world’s most popular sporting event, the World Cup, from 32 to 48 teams, beginning with the 2026 edition. This will be the first change in the amount of World Cup participants since the 1994, when 32 countries featured for the first time. This move is obviously designed to suck even more money out of the World Cup, without regard for the product on the field.

The first flaw with the new World Cup lies within the format itself. Rather than the eight, four-team groups that have been used since 1994, the 48-team tournament will include 16 groups of three. After the round robin group stage, the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout bracket. This formula contains a number of problems. First, these groups are unlikely to be competitive. With only two games for each team to play and a two-thirds chance of advancing, elite teams will find it easier to advance without fielding their best team, especially against the inferior competition of the 16 added teams. Lesser teams will often only need a point or two to advance, meaning they can sit back and play for ties in order to come in second place. Next, because of the odd number of teams in each group, one team will have a bye for each set of games. If team A plays team B, and then team B plays team C, then team B will be disadvantaged against team C because they will have just played team A while team C rested. Team C would then encounter the same difficulty against team A. Also, in that final group game between A and C, it is possible for both teams to fix the game in order to advance and eliminate B, who will have already played all of their games. The three-team groups make a level playing field impossible.

The more obvious issue of the expansion is the quality of teams that will now be able to play in the World Cup. In the 20 World Cups that have been played to date, only eight different countries have managed to win a title. The soccer development gap between the elite countries and everyone else ensures that fewer than ten countries actually have potential World Cup-winning squads at any given time. For most countries in the 48-team World Cup, second place in the dull group stage and a round of 32 elimination are the best that can be hoped for. With the eight groups of the current World Cup format, each group usually has a balance of elite, competitive and less competitive teams. But now, about half of the groups will be mediocre or worse in quality. Imagine a decent but not title-contending team, like the USA, fighting with, say, Slovakia and Egypt for two knockout round spots. Not exactly high-flying World Cup competition.

Finally, the lower bar for World Cup worthiness will dilute the qualification process. Teams that are regularly the best in their continent, such as the major European powers, the USA and Mexico, will have virtually no chance of missing the World Cup ever again. It is true that more smaller teams will have something to play for, but the best countries will end up drifting through both qualifying and the watered-down group stage until they really start to be challenged. The new, 48-team World Cup will certainly mean more money for FIFA and its member countries, but the championship product fans have loved for decades will finally have gone too far into the realm of commercial spectacle.

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