World Cup remains flawed despite recent changes
It was only following the departure of Sepp Blatter from FIFA that changes to the World Cup were seriously being considered, and now they have been enforced for 2026 onwards.
Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino used a new format for the international competition as the backbone of his campaign for FIFA Presidency, however the exact modifications were uncertain until January when they were voted in.
The options included a 40-team World Cup with a similar format to the European Championship in 2016, or eight groups of five teams, or the change that was eventually chosen: 48 teams, with a group stage of 16 groups of three teams to take place before a knock-out stage for the qualified 32.
It will mean the number of matches in total rises to 80 although the winner will still only play seven games and the winner will be crowned after 32 days of play.
This isn’t the first major change to the World Cup format since its debut in 1930.
Back then, only 13 teams took part, with three more being added into the mix in 1934 and remaining the same until 1982, with the exception of 1938. The 1982 World Cup in Spain saw the number of participating countries rise to 24, before an extra eight were added in 1998 making the tournament what it is today.
The qualifying process in each competition changed every now and then, but as a general rule it was just the winner of each group going through before the top two advanced from 1954 onwards.
Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 will keep the current format before the new changes are put in place in 2026, but it remains to be seen whether the impact will be positive or negative.
Well, from FIFA’s point of view, it is difficult to see a downside. The elephant in the room whenever a law is discussed is always the financial aspect, and this change will see profits rise by more than €450 million, according to the organisation’s own research.
Provided there is no controversy surrounding where the money actually goes, this extra cash can be put to good use in helping grassroots football around the world, as well as helping the more advanced countries in African and Asian countries but those who are still behind Europe and the Americas.
An increase in teams has both ups and downs. Firstly, it will mean more countries can make their debut on the biggest stage in the world, and base their future prospects around qualification. it is a solid goal to set yourself for the future. The majority of African countries, for example, who play a World Cup, are only seen once.
Take the 2006 tournament. The likes of Trinidad and Tobago and Angola were knocked out in the group stage, and haven’t taken part since. It is only really Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire who are consistent African representatives in the latter stages of the process.
As a result of a bigger chance to qualify for the tournament, the quality of football around the globe will no doubt increase as organisation heads eye up the rewards from competing with the likes of Germany and Brazil on the TV in front of millions and millions of viewers.
However, this addition takes away from the excitement and glory slightly. It was a huge achievement qualifying for the World Cup beforehand, because there was very little space for newcomers and underdogs.
Every four years, you can make a guess at about 80% of the countries who will be competing. There are the usual European heavyweights, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, France and England, then the smaller but consistent nations such as Russia, Switzerland, Portugal and others. In addition, Brazil, Argentina, nowadays Colombia and Chile, and the USA and Mexico come from North and South America.
As previously mentioned, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are safe bets from Africa, while Japan and North and South Korea represent Asia, and Australia and New Zealand make up the rest. You then have the host country, for example Qatar.
Already there are only 10 spots left to be split between the six FIFA Confederations. The maths of the current format doesn’t help smaller, lesser known countries to evolve and improve through facing the teams filled with players they likely idolise. You will never see a clash between Brazil and Vanuatu, because the current format favours the already-skilled.
Adding an extra 16 teams into the mix means there are now 26 spaces between six confederations. Depending on how these are weighed out, either Europe will get a selfish majority, or Asia’s AFC and Africa’s CAF in particular will see a rise in qualifying spots.
Clashes worthy of the final in the Group Stages between Argentina and France are excellent for spectators, but that’s what the latter stages of the tournament are for. The early rounds with the new format will allow the likes of Egypt and Azerbaijan to showcase their talent, and maybe pull off a shock or two to keep it unpredictable and entertaining for the neutral eye.
The new Group Stages are also both positive and negative. Groups of three instead of four guarantee 100% concentration and importance in each match, as sides will know one slip-up could be crucial. However, the complete opposite is also possible.
Take a group of Spain, Tunisia and Australia, from which the top two progress; a likely outcome of the World Cup draw. In the opening tie, Tunisia lose to Spain and go on to lose to Australia. We’ve done the maths, and this would lead to Spain and Australia both having three points before they’ve played each other, while Tunisia are out of games and don’t have any points.
Spain and Australia already know they’re though, so they have no need to put in maximum effort and thus risk serious injuries or suspensions before the knockout stages.
Furthermore, the smaller nations we’ve discussed will enter the tournament knowing their potential number of games has been limited from three down to two. Out of these three teams, Togo are likely to be going home, so their dream World Cup experience has been shortened.
Unfortunately, groups of three mean that only one outsider, such as Tunisia, will probably be in each group, so the chance of these smaller countries progressing are very slim.
You could say an ideal change would be to make it qualification more difficult for the Germany and Spain, thus allowing Fiji and Albania their chance on the world stage, however going too far would create a tournament without the headline acts. That would not only decrease revenue and attendance, but also just wouldn’t be great to watch.
Infantino’s comments that the World Cup is more than just Europe and South America are true, and there is a need for other continents to take part more.
However, a 48-team World Cup is not the ideal solution to the problem. It will bring more money in to be spread across the world at some point in the future, but smaller sides will still feel pessimistic about their chances before participating.