Bigger but not better

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

The 2026 World Cup will have 12 groups of four teams each. It’s a record 48 teams which can only dilute the football extravaganza

Infantino (photoAFP)



FIFA President Gianni Infantino recently said there is a need for “way more” football.

“Way more” football is coming up. The 2026 World Cup, for the first time to be played in three host countries — the US, Canada, and Mexico — will also have a record 48 teams.

That means a 104-game schedule for 2026. The entire 2022 World Cup in Qatar amounted to 64 games played by 32 countries.

Earlier this month, FIFA came out with its latest news which concerned the 2026 format: 12 four-team groups. The top two and eight best third-placed teams would progress to the last 32 after which starts the knockouts.

The original idea was for the 48 teams to be put in 16 groups of three each. A team would play only two group games, with the top two progressing to round 32.

The three-team group plan was scratched because there was concern that scheduling groups of three could lead to match-fixing in a final game between two teams who could both advance to the round of 32.

That format would have meant two teams playing on the final day of the group with one team off, which could lead to corruption of the kind we saw at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Then West Germany and Austria knew that a one-goal win by the Germans would advance both nations at the expense of Algeria. Horst Hrubesch scored in the 10th minute, after which followed an 80-minute lovefest in which neither team threatened after that, as West Germany won 1-0.

It was because of that “Disgrace of Gijón” that ever since, all teams in a group kick off simultaneously on the final day.

“Mitigates the risk of collusion”, as stated by FIFA, was only one problem. It also did not want to tamper with the Group of Four. The group stages in Qatar included some exciting final games as countries tried to secure a top-two place finish to qualify for the last 16.

In addition, playing just two games in the group stage instead of the usual three would be too little in a World Cup in which many countries can only dream of playing in but who would probably not advance further.

That the next World Cup will comprise 48 countries is not new; FIFA confirmed that number in 2017. However, the six years that have passed have not cushioned the disappointment. It is still a bad idea.

It is rather ridiculous to let in nearly 25 per cent of the world into a World Cup. Without mentioning names, Andorra, Gibraltar, San Marino, Luxembourg and Lichtenstein could now make it to the 2026 World Cup. So, too, could Sao Tome and Principe, Faroe Islands and Eswatini. Not to mention Vanuatu, Cabo Verde and Antigua, and Barbuda, etc, etc.

Nothing personal about these countries. They are all great but let’s face it: They are as good as dead when it comes to football. Forty-eight countries will surely devalue the tournament. It will ruin the sense of achievement for qualifying when it becomes so easy to enter. And once in, it will downgrade the event.

Before 32 teams advance, we will get a 72-game snooze fest to eliminate only 16 teams. That’s an awful lot of games and spent energy. It’s going to be a long five-week tournament — 11 June-19 July — plenty of it boring, until the last 16 or so.

Lots of teams will be through before their final games. The teams that might be already in the top two after two games will also be desensitised to win their group.

So besides the top two in a group, eight lesser teams can go through with probably as little as three points and still reach 32. No reward for winning a group or finishing second. The whole excitement in Qatar in some groups of four was because only two went through.

Nations like Germany, who failed to get out of the groups twice in a row since winning the WC, will applaud this format. It’s also a perfect excuse for coaches to play even more negatively when three draws can get you into the knockouts.

The more the merrier? Not really. The more the dilution. In the Qatar World Cup, Brazil was seeded No 1. Ghana was 61 in the world, the lowest-ranked nation at the tournament. A 61-place difference is huge but in 2026 that gap could easily double.

Of course, big money is involved. An expanded World Cup means more money will be generated through sponsorships, merchandising, ticket sales and broadcast revenues, with FIFA expecting to earn $11 billion over the four-year cycle up to December 2026. It made $4 billion from the Qatar World Cup.

The cash surplus was a big reason why Infantino had no opponent a few weeks ago when he was re-elected for four more years in office.

When he was first elected in 2016, Infantino stated his support for a 48-team World Cup in 2026. He got his wish after he persuaded his FIFA colleagues that a 48-team tournament — with Africa, Asia and North America getting more of the extra places — would fuel interest and drive development in countries that rarely or never qualified to play on the biggest stage.

But the World Cup should be better than that. It’s not about sheer numbers. Not every fourth cousin twice removed is supposed to play in it. Because it’s the most prestigious football tournament in the world, with most of the world’s best players and teams, it should be the most difficult football championship to enter and the hardest to win.

The World Cup is not perfect. Not every country deserves to be in it and there are others who deserve to be in it but are not. Italy, the defending champions of Europe, did not even qualify for Qatar.

Expanding it is not a good compromise. Enlarging the tournament will make it more imperfect. It will be watered down to games in between pitiful and dreary. Just because it’s called the World Cup doesn’t mean it’s supposed to include the entire world.

Some say “so what”? Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, and this status quo will be difficult to change no matter how many countries participate. The important thing, they contend, is that 2026 will give more countries instead of the usual bunch a chance to perform in the greatest show on earth.

A lot of people, so the argument goes, moaned when the World Cup jumped from 24 countries to 32 in 1998. They said then it should be called the Third World Cup. But they got over it. In 2026, there might be the usual groaning until the World Cup starts. Then people will like it, it will be a huge success and the final will be watched by the entire planet.

However, this increase will make the World Cup weaker, not stronger. It will no longer be football’s global showpiece.

“When I hear there is too much football, yes, maybe in some places, but not everywhere,” Infantino said upon his re-election. “We need way more and not less competitions. We want football to develop worldwide.’’

But Infantino should have taken the advice of his own organisation. FIFA’s own research in 2016 suggested that the highest quality soccer was achieved by the 32-team format. Why fix something when it’s not broken?

Every player in the world since boyhood wants to play in the World Cup. The vast majority of the 195 countries in the world wants to be in the World Cup. But not every country should be in the World Cup.

The World Cup is a great celebration. It’s the most widely viewed and followed single sporting event in the world. The viewership of the 2022 World Cup was estimated to be around five billion with close to 1.5 billion people watching the final match.

Everybody can watch the World Cup but not everybody is meant to be in it.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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