The 2018 World Cup group stage was magical. Pretty soon, FIFA is going to ruin it

There is this moment when it hits you. When you realize that what will become soccer’s fabled history, the stories grandfathers will tell grandkids, is unfolding before your eyes. And man, there’s nothing like it. Nothing at all.

It is Cristiano stepping up to the free kick. Toni Kroos standing over Germany’s, now or never. Messi withering away amid an Argentinean meltdown, then five days later staring ignominy flush in the face.

They’re the moments that eventually bring unflappable professionals to tears. They’re the moments in which legacies are written. They’re the moments that pummel us into disbelief before they’ve even transpired, for the outcome, no matter what it is – a late Argentine winner? Or an early Argentine exit? – will be described as unbelievable.

They’re what make the World Cup so enchanting. And the 2018 World Cup group stage had sooooo many of them.

It had Portugal 3, Spain 3; it had Mexico’s blitzkrieg. It had Argentina’s shambolic collapse, then rapturous recovery. It had Balkan politics and hatred; Peruvian and Moroccan beauty unrewarded; frantic final days. And of course, it had Germany, out, for the first time ever. The defending champs, out, again.

It had 20 89th-minute-or-beyond goals, 12 of which were equalizers or winners. It knocked five of eight top seeds off their perch. It called upon the cruelest of tiebreakers. It gave us everything we could have ever asked for from a sporting event.

And yet FIFA is about to detonate all of it.

The World Cup is expanding and changing

We have one more. One more 32-team whirlwind. Eight more four-team round-robins to revel in.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick-completing free kick against Spain was one of the many special moments of the 2018 World Cup group stage. (Getty)
Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick-completing free kick against Spain was one of the many special moments of the 2018 World Cup group stage. (Getty)

In 2026, the men’s World Cup is expanding to 48 teams. And the group stage is getting the ugliest makeover you’ve ever seen. Foursomes are becoming threesomes, from which two teams will still advance. Three games are becoming two. Simultaneous deciders are disappearing. Dead rubbers – meaningless quasi-exhibitions – are replacing them.

It will be as awful as it sounds.

Why the 48-team format will suck away group stage drama

Think about all of those moments. All of the tension and excitement. All of the indelible significance. Almost all of it will be flushed away.

Portugal vs. Spain won’t happen. Neither will Mexico vs. Germany, Argentina vs. Croatia, or even Switzerland vs. Serbia.

Countless others won’t matter. Argentina, in a three-team group with Iceland and Nigeria, with games in the same order, would have gone into this past Tuesday’s match knowing even a one-goal loss would have seen it through. Germany, in a three-team pod with Sweden and South Korea, wouldn’t have been on the brink of elimination when Kroos stood beside the ball in the 95th minute. And four days later against the Koreans, all it would have needed was a draw, even if Kroos hadn’t curled in an inch-perfect beauty.

There will be few, if any, pressure-packed encounters for favorites. There will be more France-Denmarks and England-Belgiums. There will also be more England-Panamas.

Oh, and everything that happened this week? The dizzying, decisive third games? The down-to-the-wire drama that Groups B, D, F and H delivered? No longer possible.

There will be the occasional Senegal-Japan, which was good fun. But rarely, if ever, will we get anything like we’ve been blessed with in 2018. How do we know? Well, we can use our imaginations.

What a 48-team World Cup would look like in 2018

Based on the 2018 qualification cycle and the October 2017 FIFA rankings, and keeping actual 2018 groups together where possible, here’s what a 48-team 2018 World Cup might have looked like:

Group A: Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia
Group B: Portugal, Iran, Morocco
Group C: France, Congo DR, Australia
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Nigeria
Group E: Brazil, Serbia, Uzbekistan
Group F: Germany, Sweden, South Korea
Group G: Belgium, Tunisia, Panama
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Japan
Group I: Spain, Paraguay, Burkina Faso
Group J: Peru, Denmark, Honduras
Group K: Switzerland, USA, Uganda
Group L: Mexico, Ireland, UAE
Group M: England, Costa Rica, Syria
Group N: Colombia, Northern Ireland, Zambia
Group O: Italy, Egypt, Trinidad and Tobago
Group P: Chile, Croatia, New Zealand

The best 32-team World Cup groups will be stripped of one of their favorites. The worst will become our only hopes. Balance will become imbalance. Brazil-Costa Rica – a game that brought a stoppage-time winner and sobs of relief – will become Brazil-Uzbekistan. Germany-Mexico will be replaced by Mexico-United Arab Emirates.

Will we get an earth-shaking upset or two? Yeah, sure. But very few. And with two of three teams advancing, upsets will essentially be mulligans.

Just as it seemed the rest of the world was catching up to the bluebloods – a big reason the past 15 days were as special as they were – the new format will artificially deepen the divide. The group stage – still three-fifths of the tournament – will die before our eyes.

The benefits of a 48-team World Cup

Here’s the hope: That eventually, Brazil-Uzbekistan will become Brazil-Costa Rica. That the gap between Brazil and the ninth of nine African World Cup teams in 2038 will be just as wide as the gap between Brazil and the fifth of five African World Cup teams is now.

The hope is that an expanded World Cup will present opportunity to the have-nots. That the mere prospect of a World Cup, now within reach, will encourage investment in the sport. And that lucrative appearances at the quadrennial event for nations like China, Canada and Kenya will pour money into the game in those countries – money that can be used for youth development, the type that will eventually fuel the national team’s rise.

Expansion will also stimulate fan interest in nations that would have previously considered themselves international soccer outsiders. That’s another key piece in the growth of the game.

But here’s the problem: None of that is the chief driving force behind the move to 48. The motives are political and financial. Every one of FIFA’s 211 member associations that is now closer to a 2026 World Cup berth will vote to re-elect FIFA president Gianni Infantino next year. And with more games (80 vs. 64) and more countries engaged, the global governing body will win back some of the millions of dollars it lost as sponsors bolted amid the recent corruption scandal.

Sacrificed for financial and political gain will be the greatest sporting event on earth, and our enjoyment of it. A whole 60 percent of it will be harmed, diminished by greed. The format is disastrous.

It is still not finalized. FIFA still has time to save itself from itself. But if it doesn’t, we might never have another 2018 Germany. We might never have all the excitement that accompanied their crash. We will never have another group stage like this one.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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