15 January 2017
After all the years of squabbling among the confederations for World Cup places, FIFA took the obvious answer to a surprising conclusion. While the World Cup was ripe for an increase in World Cup teams, to go from 32 teams now to 48 teams for 2026 was a drastic leap. The one caveat is the last increase was in 1998 when 32 teams participated, up from 24 in 1994. The World Cup probably should be 40 teams already, and by 2026 it will be 28 years since the last change. The format will be 16 groups of 3 teams with the top 2 progressing to the knockout phase, which adds a round of 32 to its schedule. While the number of matches overall in the tournament increases from 64 to 80, the maximum number of matches per team remains at seven.
1) More teams
This is the clear reason for expansion. Regions like Africa and Asia desperately wanted more places, and with the huge amount of money in Asia these days, it means more money for FIFA. Expect both regions to get an extra 4 spots, so Africa’s 5 becomes 9 and Asia’s 4.5 becomes 8 or 9. Oceania is certain to finally get the spot that a full member confederation deserves. They have a spot at every other FIFA tournament and the World Cup should be no exception.
2) More dreams
Teams that once had no hope to qualify now finally can dream about it. Oceania is a classic example, with the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti now only required to get past New Zealand, while in Asia the likes of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan can expect to regularly challenge for a World Cup spot. More than that, it will be nice to see these new teams at the World Cup. Look at the intrigue and excitement the likes of Iceland and Wales created in Euro 2016 when it expanded from 16 to 24 teams, or when Tahiti was Oceania’s representative at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
3) More excitement
The format means there’s one less group game and one more knockout game. While teams could often grind their way through the group phase with defensive tactics, now they need to tackly the group head on. Not so much to qualify, as 2 out of three is statistically an easier task, it’s for seeding purposes so to avoid stronger teams in the early rounds of knockout phase. There’ll also be far fewer, if any, dead matches. With 4-team groups, teams could often be qualified with one match remaining.
4) More representative of the world
Football is not a European and South American sport anymore. If they won’t cede spots to the likes of Asia and Africa to make the World Cup a fairer representation, then the number of teams must increase. Current speculation is Europe with have 16 spots (up from 13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (.5) and 1 for the host. The only inter-continental playoff will be Asia vs Concacaf.
1) Too many teams
Nearly a quarter of FIFA’s members will now qualify, which dilutes the basic challenge in the first place. Where’s the prestige in qualifying? Also, after two years and many qualifying games, your reward is only two games at the World Cup, not three as currently. That aspect seems an imbalance at least. In percentages terms, the number teams qualifying still quite low, particularly compared to other sports. Under a quarter of teams at football’s World Cup, compared to often 100% of Test level nations at cricket’s and all of tier 1 and most of tier 2 at rugby’s.
2) Less dreams
Sure, while the minnows are now guppies, guppies like Australia become piranhas. So much of the joy when qualifying for 2006 was that it was the first such qualification in 32 years. That mountain to conquer is already a hill in Asia, and the hill will become rubble with the extra four spots allocated. Being perennial World Cup qualifiers is not ideal for a developing nation like Australia. We need the kick up the backside occasionally, much like our youth program is now receiving after recent debacles of multiple failed qualifying campaigns at youth and Olympic level. With the move into Asia I was already prepared to accept missing one World Cup out of every 3, or even missing two in a row if the sport was in malaise. Most top European countries occasionally miss major tournaments, and if it’s ok for them to bomb out at times it should be good enough for us.
3) No 4-team group
Even with the increase of teams over the years, one time honoured staple remained: groups of 4 teams. The change to 3-team groups means each team plays only 2 matches and the odd number of teams means the final games of a group can’t be played simultaneously. This means teams can play for certain results to help others progress. While this ethical problem is quite rare in practice and still possible in a 4-team group, FIFA were always so adamant in preventing it… until now. Tied groups will also become a problem. FIFA are talking about penalty shootouts to split drawn games. That would be a disaster as weaker teams will play for draws. Goal difference and other tie-breaking mechanisms must still be used. In the worst case scenario, maybe 30 minute playoffs are introduced.
4) The squabble for spots will continue
Everyone will be happy in the short term with the extra spots. After that, watch the squabbling resume. South America are so greedy they will probably want all their countries represented. Already if you consider they will get at least 1.5 extra spots, that’s 6 out of 10 teams going. Ridiculous. As mentioned in these pages many times, spots should be based on past performances, with confederations streamlined to facilitate this. That means the Americas should be one confederation and Oceania should merge with Asia. That leaves roughly four regions of 50 teams. To each goes 8 direct spots with 1 to the host. The remaining 15 spots are allocated by previous World Cup performances over the past 3 Cups. If Asia/Oceania get 6 teams among the top 15 best performed teams, that’s six spots to them. Typically they get zero or one, so they’ll sit on 8 or 9, while Europe with usually 8 teams through will get 16 spots in total.
My personal preference is four 40 teams over 10 groups. So you still keep the 4-team group and, more importantly, make each match extra important because only 6 of the 10 second placed teams progress to the knockout phase.