LONDON – During a 17-year FIFA presidency packed with madcap ideas and policy on the hoof, not even Sepp Blatter ultimately tinkered with the World Cup format.
Blatter inherited a 32-team World Cup when he entered power in 1998 and left – prematurely in disgrace – with that structure intact.
Gianni Infantino, though, has barely put his feet beneath the presidential desk before overhauling the biggest entity under his control: the money-spinning extravaganza that funds FIFA’s largesse and unites the world’s fans around television screens.
Before the first anniversary of his election win, Infantino’s ruling Council rubber-stamped his flagship manifesto pledge on Tuesday. From 2026, 16 more teams will be invited to the World Cup party.
Is it unnecessary interference with a successful format? Or an important move to ensure FIFA’s main event grows at a pace with its swelling membership? That debate will continue long after the 2026 trophy is handed over, most likely in a sweltering American stadium.
What’s certain is that a bigger World Cup will generate more cash – nearly $1 billion in additional revenue, according to FIFA estimates. And there will be additional places for under-represented continents like Africa, which only has five slots in Russia in 2018 while Europe will have 14 finalists despite being similar-sized confederations.
Despite those benefits, there are many who have criticized the expansion, particularly among the sport’s power nations. Their dismissive response risks giving the impression of an elite trying to muscle out the upstarts and protect their gilded status.
Reigning world champion Germany has been at the forefront of the opposition.
Former Germany captain Michael Ballack tweeted: “Irresponsible decision by (hash)FIFA !! It’s an attack on (hash)Football !!”
Quite why, Ballack didn’t find the space to explain.
Even before the FIFA Council decision, Germany coach Joachim Loew was complaining about top players being “physically and mentally at their limits.”
“You have to be careful that you do not overdo things with too many games,” Loew said, seemingly unaware that the 48-team format adds no additional burden for players because teams can still only play a maximum of seven games.
German federation president Reinhard Grindel said: “My main worry is that the attractiveness of the matches will suffer.”
The European Championship expanded from 16 to 24 finalists for the first time last year and produced several tedious and instantly forgettable games. The more limited teams have become adept at defensive tactics designed to frustrate more talented opposition and that can produce stultifying games. Watching a team soaking up pressure, hoping to pounce on the break, is not ideal when trying to attract and retain TV viewers.
And the new format ensures there will be fewer early eye-catching head-to-heads between leading sides. With the tournament starting with 16 groups of three, the potential 16 European finalists will be separated. So there won’t be a repeat of games like the group stage of 2014 when Germany played Portugal and England met Italy.
Maybe a newcomer can inject some fresh excitement into the tournament in a way the traditional power nations cannot. In this decade, England has produced drab, uninspiring play despite a fresh crop of young players.
The English Football Association, which champions global development projects when bidding for tournaments, is skeptical of swelling the expanding the World Cup field. Little wonder perhaps when England’s most recent on-field embarrassment was inflicted at the European Championship by an Iceland side making its tournament debut. At Brazil 2014, Costa Rica finished ahead of England and Italy while advancing from the group stage for only the second time.
“The general level of football is increasing all over the world,” Infantino said. “Increasing the size of teams that can participate in the World Cup will increase the investment in football development.”
This week’s World Cup vote was the culmination of 14 months of public discussion by Infantino. The former UEFA general secretary used his first interview as a FIFA candidate in November 2015 to reveal to The Associated Press his vision of a 40-team World Cup. It turned out that a cleaner format would be achieved with 48 teams.
So the number of games leaps from 64 to 80 but the tournament is still completed in 32 days and within 12 stadiums.
Why tinker at all with the World Cup? Because sport evolves.
It’s why the World Cup was created in the first place in 1930 – almost six decades after England and Scotland played the first official international game.
It’s also why the tournament hasn’t remained restricted to the 13 teams who contested the inaugural edition in 1930.
Expansion of the sport’s biggest event is sign of the game’s vitality. And, whatever grumbling there is, the top players still don’t want to miss out.
“We’ve got to try to be open-minded,” former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “People are still going to be excited about it.”
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