The confirmation by FIFA that it is to restructure the World Cup to accommodate 48 teams has been met with a largely negative response, especially across Europe. The most prominent arguments being as follows; that a 48 team world cup is bloated and will diminish overall quality. That it will be impossible for a tournament this size to be held reasonably in any one country and in any case it’s simply part of a cynical exercise on the part of FIFA to rake in more money. There have been some arguments put forward as well that the proposed three team group stages will be unworkable and might need the introduction of penalty shoot-outs to avoid arranged draws like the infamous West Germany v Austria game at the 1982 World Cup.
The most prominent criticism seems to be simply that people don’t like change and the current 32 team format is widely popular. But how fair are the criticisms about the bloated nature of the tournament and the expected drop in overall quality? Does a 48 team tournament devalue it through a cheapening of the qualification process? That if it isn’t hard to get there is it really worth being there? First let’s look at qualifying history over time and what other options have been explored.
The first World Cup was an invitational tournament held in Uruguay, all the games took place in capital city Montevideo with 10 of the 18 overall matches taking place in the Estadio Centenario. While certainly handy for getting around this is obviously not something that anyone expects us to return to. The first post war World Cup in 1950 could have been Ireland’s first ever appearance after a number of withdrawals by other teams. Scotland had been one of the teams to withdraw as they had only finished second behind England in the Home Nations Championship (a defacto qualifying group), they had pledged to only attend if they won the tournament even though second guaranteed qualification. The FAI turned down the offer due to the expected cost of travelling to Brazil. The peculiar layout of the 1950 tournament meant that hosts Brazil only needed to draw against Uruguay to win the tournament as there was no straight knock-out format. If a three team group stage is being cited as one of the major drawbacks of an expanded tournament then it would still be considered superior to these previous formats. No one is suggesting that these previous formats and haphazard qualification routes would be preferable but those who site history and tradition tend to refer to the period in their own lifetimes.
Regarding the 3-team groups and the introduction of automatic penalty shoot-outs for draws was something that did exist previously in leagues like the NASL and the early years of the MLS. While certainly a break with tradition they would reduce the amount of dead-rubber games and reduce the risk of a repeat of West Germany v Austria ’82 or dare I say a Republic of Ireland v Netherlands 1990 game.
The first World Cup of my lifetime was in 1982. This was the first World Cup to use the 24 team format that would remain in place until 1998. At the time of qualifying for Spain ’82 there were 109 members of FIFA competing for those 24 places. For a number of reasons, not least the collapse of the Soviet Union into its individual constituent nations in the early 1990’s by 1998 the number of FIFA members had risen to 174, an increase of almost 60%. At present FIFA has 211 member associations, meaning it now has more members than even the United Nations.
Understandably as membership has grown so have the numbers of teams participating in qualifying and the World Cup proper. This poses the question as to what is the purpose of the World Cup? I’d propose two answers.
First, To determine which national team is the best in the world. Second to provide a genuine opportunity for the most global of team sports to be represented at one competition and to raise the levels of quality and competitiveness around the world.
The World Cup has only ever been won by teams from either Europe or South America, they have well established and highly competitive football leagues and advanced infrastructure, however few pundits would suggest that the World Cup should be open only to teams from these Confederations. A weighting is applied so that 13 teams qualified from UEFA and 6 (including Brazil as hosts) qualified from CONMEBOL for the last World Cup. We can see this as an attempt to genuinely have the best teams while also being representative enough by including sufficient teams from other confederations to truly be a World Cup. Within FIFA of course this is also tied to networks of power. While qualification may be weighted to feature the strongest teams the votes of all associations are equal, something that many, though not all FIFA Presidents have appreciated. Access to the World Cup and the prestige and wealth on offer have swung elections in the past, as was the case in 1974 when the incumbent FIFA President, the Englishman Stanley Rous lost to João Havelange. The Brazilian Havelange had toured over 80 nations during his campaign, occasionally accompanied by Pelé, and promised greater access to an expanded World Cup. At the time African teams had only one place available at the 16 team tournament, Asian and Oceania teams had to compete for a single place. In purely sporting terms the the performances of nations from outside of Europe and South America at the 74 World Cup had been poor to say the least. Zaire had lost all three games, including one match 9-0 to Yugoslavia, Haiti likewise had lost all three games including a 7-0 hammering to Poland, only Australia managed to gain a single point, a scoreless draw with Chile.
On the basis of their performances at the tournament there seemed little argument that the representation of teams from Africa, Asia, North America etc. should be expanded, however Havelange saw that football could grow in each continent by allowing a realistic opportunity for teams outside of Europe and South America to get elite level competitive experience against the world’s best. His promises of an expanded World Cup were understandably well received, especially in Africa. For decades many of Africa’s best players ended up representing European teams, many players from Algeria representing France, stars from Angola and Mozambique representing Portugal. By the 1970’s with most African nations newly independent from colonial rule there was a feeling that African football gave a sense of pride to a nation on a world stage, in FIFA throughout the 1960s these newly independent African nations began to seek membership of FIFA. By 1974 the CAF was the second largest confederation in terms of members, and crucially votes.
Havelange by expanding the world cup to 24 teams in 1982 and bringing in massive new commercial sponsorship to supplement the expansion of the tournament was delivering for whole continents who rarely had the chance to sit at football’s top table. While many, many corruption allegations would later emerge about Havelange he came offering change compared to a man like the eurocentric Stanley Rous who, for example, had strongly opposed any bans on South Africa competing in international football due to their refusal to integrate their football teams and the brutal system of apartheid much to the opposition of other African FAs.
By the end of the 1982 World Cup Africa’s two qualified nations had impressed, the quality a significant improvement on the showing of Zaire in 1974. Cameroon went home unbeaten, after three draws they were unlucky not to make it out of a tough group with goals scored was all that separated them from eventual champions Italy. As previously mentioned only the infamous West Germany v Austria match, where each side knew a 1-0 win for the Germans would see both nations through, prevented the Algerians from advancing.
As with African teams from the 1980s onward it has to be acknowledged that an expanded World Cup can give smaller nations or those from confederations beyond Europe and South America a chance to develop and improve in competitive environments, the best teams will still qualify and the dominant nations will likely continue to win for the foreseeable future but an expanded World Cup will be truly global and be more representative of a larger and growing FIFA membership. To paraphrase Charles Stewart Parnell no man should have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation. FIFA’s remit in theory is to grow the game of football globally, in expanding the World Cup and allowing more nations experience high-level competitive football they are simply following this course, by not expanding the tournament in line with an expanding membership would they not be fixing the boundaries a little too tightly?
The tournament itself will still take the same amount of time to complete and the winners will still play seven games in total. The elite clubs of the world will therefore not really be any more affected than they are now by the change in terms of duration or fatigue though they may loose more players to international tournaments as more nations now qualify. However more tournament places could eliminate a certain number of play-offs thus reducing the overall amount of qualification games.
It seems that a tri-nation bid for the 2026 World Cup from Mexico, USA and Canada is already among the hosting favourites, they certainly would have the facilities to host 48 teams. But considering the expanded size there is no reason why say a single nation like England not host such a tournament. The Premier League boasts 20 modern stadia that could be suitable, add in Wembley and other grounds from outside the top flight (St. James Park, Villa Park etc.) and this could certainly meet the criteria without much additional investment in stadium infrastructure. If not, then the re-emergence of joint-bidding for the tournament means that the expanded competition could still be accommodated while two or more nations share the burden of hosting the games. The World Cup in Japan/South Korea were successful from a fan point of view and led to fewer “white elephant” stadiums than subsequent single-host World Cups that took place in South Africa or Brazil.
Finally, the other great complaint is that this is a cynical exercise from FIFA to curry favour and increase revenue. Well of course it is. Few would be naive enough to believe an expanded World Cup is purely for some idealised “good of the game”. Due to the deluge of scandals in recent years it is hard to view FIFA as anything other than a corrupt plutocracy, but the greatest test of its new leadership will be if the expected increased windfall of a bigger tournament finds its way back to the associations and into funding for new facilities, coaches and youth tournaments and not siphoned off into the back pockets of dodgy administrators.