If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – it’s not exactly a motto that FIFA abide by.
From 1982 to 1994, the World Cup finals consisted of 24 qualified nations pitted against each other in six groups of four teams.
The 1998 World Cup in France saw the tournament increased to include 32 finalists for the first time. That format has been relatively successful. It meant a more straightforward 8×4 setup in the group stages with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the last sixteen. Simple, yes? Working well, yes? Let’s change it again.
FIFA decided that from the 2026 World Cup finals, there will be 48 entrants allowed. Stranger still, they have actually discussed the possibility of bringing the change forward in time for Qatar 2022. Yes, we could be looking at a 48-team tournament for the next finals.
To be fair, the group stage does sound like it would be an exciting change from the norm. FIFA’s plan is 16 groups of three teams with only the bottom team in each group eliminated at that stage. From the 48 teams, 32 nations would progress to the first knockout round and the competition would move on from there.
FIFA clearly wants to keep as many nations involved for as long as possible. From a purely cynical viewpoint, this is about money. What a boost to the host nation’s economy to have so many more thousands of fans hanging around in their country for an extra week while their country is involved.
It’s great for tourism, yes. It’s also great for FIFA’s coffers thanks to the hundreds of thousands of extra match tickets to be sold. Currently, with a 32-team competition, there are 64 matches played at every World Cup tournament. An increase to 48 teams will see 80 matches taking place.
There are some football positives, of course. Nations who never dreamed they would be able to qualify for a major tournament can now realistically aim for one of those extra 16 spaces that are available. This will lead to the beautiful game becoming even more well known around the globe.
The main problem is with the standard of the competition itself, however. Those other nations who may qualify – it’s not a case of them raising levels, as it were. The competition’s levels will have been lowered to meet them instead.
There will be many no-contest fixtures in that first group stage between top tier teams and those who scraped into the extra 16 available places. Or is that view too pessimistic? After all, where is the joy in a major tournament if there is no opportunity for giant-killing? Think of South Korea’s amazing 2-0 win over defending champions Germany in Russia last summer, Cameroon’s defeat of Argentina in the opening fixture of Italia ‘90, Senegal’s victory against France in the 2002 curtain-raiser. Football, and sport in general needs the underdog. It needs the David versus Goliath stories.
With a 48-team tournament, there will certainly be plenty of scope for upsets. By the time the competition reaches the last 16, however, it will consist of most of the top nations we would expect. Any ‘smaller’ country still battling on at that stage will no doubt be deserving of their place.
There will be more games, more goals and more drama for us all to consume. However, the question FIFA will be keen to see the answer to is if the group stages can engage audiences in the way it always has. Or does the inclusion of 16 weaker nations mean viewers simply won’t be bitten by the World Cup bug until the knockout rounds? I don’t think that will be the case.
As a football fan, waiting for a major tournament to come around every two years, whether it’s a European Championship or the World Cup finals, means that you are often chomping at the bit by the time the first fixture kicks off. It often doesn’t matter what teams are involved. You’re just swept up in the tournament ‘fever’.
FIFA will be banking on this. Luckily for them, the passion and enthusiasm of football fans is something they can bank on.
So, buckle up. Because if FIFA and Qatar decide that the capacity is there to host 48 teams and their hundreds of thousands of travelling supporters then we’ll be looking at the 48-team setup at Qatar 2022. Change is coming.