First published 08/12/2016
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has announced his support for the World Cup to expand to 48 teams, from 32 currently, in 2026. This has led to controversy with many publications pointing out the possibility of a decrease in quality, more dead rubbers and collusion between the two teams at the top of the 16 groups. But what could the World Cup look like in 2016? I have taken a look.
For the qualification I extrapolated the current ratios of federations to the larger tournament size. The numbers from each were as follows: Europe (UEFA) 18, Africa (CAF) 8, Asia and South America 6 (AFC and CONMEBOL), North America 5 (CONCACAF) and OFC one (Oceania). This leaves space for 3 play-offs and one host. The most likely host is the USA so I have used them. To decide who got each of the spots I simply used team’s current FIFA ranking – despite how useless they are it’s the best I can do.
Several well known sides didn’t even manage to make this expanded version of the World Cup. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland missed out from the Home Nations and from elsewhere Austria, Paraguay, Sweden and Morocco didn’t make it.
The play-offs were as follows:
Ukraine beat Ghana, Ecuador beat Tahiti and UAE beat Jamaica.
This led to the completed group stages looking like this.
The first thing that has to be said about it is the expanded format has done its job in introducing new countries to the tournament. Five of the qualified teams would be making their debut (Burkina Faso, Curacao, Uzbekistan, Panama, Iceland) and the Democratic Republic of Congo would have made it for the first time since the country changed it’s name from Zaire. This would undoubtedly provide the competition with a fresh look and Iceland proved at EURO 2016 what impact a new side can have.
It should also be mentioned that despite the dilution of the big teams there are still some high quality and historically interesting games in these group stages. England v Mexico evokes 1966, Uruguay v Netherlands looks promising and Poland v Italy brings together two teams who seem quite evenly matched. With two out of three teams going through there is essentially no chance of a group of death though Group A looks hard to predict and Group G has huge hipster potential.
The new teams have also been rewarded with some pretty big matches. Burkina Faso face 1998 champions France and Panama and Iceland are drawn in the same group along side 2010 champions Spain. This would only help promote the sport in these countries but there is obviously the fear that they would get absolutely battered.
But these groups also highlight the flaws in the format. Though there are several good looking matches there are nowhere near enough for a ridiculous 48 match Group Stage. For every Poland v Italy, there is a Costa Rica v UAE, Peru v Curacao and Ecuador v Uzbekistan. I am unsure as to whether the global audience’s attention would be kept throughout the lengthy process to eliminate the 16 teams.
As they are groups of 3 it means all group matches will be played at a different time. This means by the time the high quality matches are played both teams could already be though and the game becomes a non-event. In Group D both Poland and Italy are significantly stronger sides than Haiti and if they play last they could easily already be through and the game is pointless. The same England’s Group L where New Zealand look outclassed and Group N where Saudi Arabia could struggle.
Several groups also look like they have high potential for collusion. In Group P Argentina are the stand out side by a mile and would likely beat both sides. However, if they were playing in the final match they could easily rest several players and play out a draw allowing Senegal or Japan to go through in second place. The same situation could happen in Portugal’s Group C or Germany’s Group H.
I have also modeled the rest of the tournament to see how it would compare. From the Round of 16 the tournament would likely be very similar to now as the format would remain. The newly created Round of 32 is where we see the real difference. With 48 matches of the mammoth monstrosity of a tournament already played many fans will be waiting for the knockout stage. On the whole the quality would seemingly be OK but there are very few matches that would get fans excited. Colombia v Netherlands and Brazil v Mexico look like possible stand-outs but there would also be games like England v Iran, and Poland v Cote d’Ivoire as well as horrible mismatches like Germany v Peru, Argentina v Costa Rica and Spain v Hungary. The tournaments real quality doesn’t really show till the next round .
The whole list of the knockout stage games can be found here.
Having looked at the potential of the format I am underwhelmed and scared of the direction football is going in. There seems little justification to increase the size of the tournament by 16 teams as the 16 extra matches that would be played wouldn’t be of significant quality and 48 matches in the Group Stages seems ridiculous and boring. I still think the expanded EUROs is a bad idea and the heads of football need to realise that bigger isn’t always better. If you dilute the quality of your product too much people will just stop caring about it.