It seems that the FIFA World Cup will be growing in size in the near future. The FIFA council got together early on January 10, in Zurich, Germany, and decided to expand the size of the tournament from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026. The vote was unanimous as the federation looks to include more countries in its world competition.
The World Cup will be as follows: it will feature 16 groups containing three teams, and the top two teams in each group will advance into a 32-team knock-out stage that will eventually lead to a World champion. The number of games in a tournament will rise from a total of 64 games to 80.
FIFA’s announcement was quickly met with plenty of harsh criticism towards the decision. Many have emphasized that 48 teams is way too many and that 32 is the most ideal number for providing the highest quality of play. According to numerous sources such as the Globe and Mail, the “absolute quality” of play in a soccer team, by definition high-ranked teams playing each other most often, is with 32 teams; FIFA found that number citing 10,000 tournament simulations they made to reach that conclusion. So for FIFA to deviate from that ideal number has perplexed many.
There was plenty of reaction from fans on social media as well, as they share the sentiment that the quality of the tournament will drop with so many teams.
Germany was perhaps the country that was most upset with FIFA’s decision, as according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, there was widespread disapproval around the country. The German Football Association’s President Reinhard Grindel had also expressed his disappointment.
“My big worry is that the football will be different, that the attractiveness of the game will suffer. We all like to see wide-open games. My fear is that now we will see more teams taking a defensive approach.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino was the overseer of the expansion plan, and he responded to his many critics. According to the Independent, he told critics that they should be more progressive in their thinking.
It’s not the 20th century any more. It’s the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America. Football is global. The football fever you have in a country that qualifies for the World Cup is the most powerful tool you can have, in those nine months before qualifying and the finals.
Infantino also responded directly to the Germans, who he felt were complaining because the new format may threaten them as defending World Cup champions.
Even if you organize a World Cup with two teams, one of the two teams would be Germany. They are the world champions, a top team, which qualifies regularly, who win regularly. It’s obvious that whatever format you have, Germany will be there. But for many other countries, it’s a chance to qualify. It is a chance to participate in a big event.
He also gave a jab at England, joking that the 48-team format would help them get into the 2026 finals.
Those in favor of the expansion would point to the fact that with the involvement of more nations, there would be additional opportunities to grow the sport worldwide. According to reports shared by multiple sources including the CBC, the addition of extra teams will result in increased revenue for FIFA. The federation’s research suggests that an expanded tournament would bring in an additional $1 billion over projections of the current format.
Critics could easily highlight that point as proof that the federation only made this decision to make more money rather than boost the sport’s entertainment value. Fans of the game will likely find little value in watching small soccer nations that are so under-leveled compared to stronger markets that a lopsided result is all but a guarantee. As mentioned, FIFA has already conducted their research on the ideal number of teams for “absolute quality,” so believing that this was all for the money could be a very sound conclusion. Only time will tell if people will warm up to the idea or not.
[Featured Image by Jamie Squire/Getty Images]