For now, at least, it looks as though FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s dream of a 48-team World Cup in 2022 is on the back burner.
Infantino had been very enthusiastic about the idea of expanding the tournament by an extra 50% from its current structure of 32 for the Qatar finals in four years’ time – but it seems that his enthusiasm is not shared by many of the FIFA council members.
big #FIFA news: seems like the #Council blocked the 48 teams #WorldCup in #Qatar, most of Council members against it. So 2022 still with 32 teams, another defeat for #Infantino it looks like @ZDFsport @ZDF
— Markus Harm (@MarkusHarm) June 10, 2018
With a 48-team tournament still agenda for 2026 (and bidders USA-Mexico and Morocco working under that assumption), Infantino had pushed to bring that format forward four years and introduce it in Qatar.
The argument against the expansion from the FIFA council – in this instance at least – seems to stem from concerns over the stadia and facilities that Qatar will be providing. As it is, the rich nation have effectively been creating and building to meet the needs of a 32-team tournament, and adding 16 more to that equation would just lead to chaos. (Not to mention the prospect of trying to fit an extra 16 matches into an already problematic – and wildly unpopular – November/December 2022 schedule.)
That being said, the reaction to this news from the outside isn’t one of anguish, or even disappointment. In fact, it was more relief than anything else. relief that the status quo is being maintained. Granted, Qatar is the most widely decried and controversial host nation in the competition’s history (and with good reason) but there is more to it than that.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the World Cup was made up of 16 teams every four years (back in the days when everything was in sepia and cigarettes were considered part of a balanced breakfast). In 1982, that was expanded to 24, and then in 1998 to the current structure.
To many, that number is the sweet spot. Eight groups of four, a last 16, quarter-finals, semis, final. Easy to understand and follow, and gloriously symmetrical. A four-week tournament also lasts just long enough before fatigue begins to set in – a prospect that is increased by trying to factor in an extra 16 matches.
That said, the proposed format is not without merit. To have 16 groups of three would at least men less “dead rubber” group games with virtually every match having something on the line before entering into a 32-nation knockout structure. FIFA believe that this would enhance the excitement of the group stages – and are so committed to the idea of every game needing to end with a winner that one proposal involved a penalty shootout for drawn fixtures.
As a smaller nation, and one that tends to struggle in qualifying for World Cups, the likes of Ireland would theoretically welcome expansion because it heightens their chances of reaching the finals on a more regular basis. The reality, though, wouldn’t be quite as positive. Under the proposed structure, Europe would receive 16 places – an increase from 13. How that would affect the qualifying groups is unclear, but it would be unlikely to have much of an effect on Ireland’s chances of qualifying more often either way – certainly not on a par with the eight-team expansion of the European Championships.
It is the smaller confederations, however, who would benefit most from the expansion. Africa’s allocation would almost double from 5 to 9 (a welcome boost for a group of nations that currently has more members than UEFA but with a fraction of the World Cup spots), Asia would be given at least four more spots from 4.5 to 8.5, while the hotly-contested South American qualification campaign would end with six of the ten nations heading to the finals (as opposed to the current structure of four and one play-off).
In that sense, in terms of making the tournament a more global affair, that has to be considered a positive. The horribly under-represented African and Asian confederations would finally get something approaching a fair deal – especially in comparison to the number of UEFA countries in the finals.
Arguments regarding the ‘diluting’ of the competition are valid to a certain degree – for example, Tunisia v Panama will not be a match to set the pulses racing – but the idea of the World Cup is to be as global as possible. If this is the only way of including more nations outside of the stranglehold of UEFA then so be it – the only other alternative would be to reduce the number of European countries and that would be a non-starter.
Ultimately, we fear change right up until the moment it happens. The World Cup is still on course to expand to 48 teams in 2026 – and while there are murmurings of discontent about it now, by the time it comes around we’ll wonder why we had a problem with it in the first place.