World Cup expansion disregards the many downsides it's going to bring

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s World Cup wish has come true. (AP Photo)
FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s World Cup wish has come true. (AP Photo)

Soccer only ever grows. Just as there will never be fewer bowl games in college football, lucrative tournaments like the World Cup are only expanded, never shrunk. On Tuesday, FIFA announced that, as of 2026, its signature men’s World Cup will swell by a whopping 16 teams from 32 to 48.

That means rather than a tidy tournament of eight four-team groups that are whittled down to a 16-team knockout stage after a round robin, 16 groups of three will eliminate just a third of the field after two group stage games before moving on to a 32-team bracket.

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There are all kinds of reasons why this is a bad idea. As ever when the World Cup is expanded, the quality of play is diluted. This problem eventually solves itself, as the field of newcomers eventually gets stronger over the course of a few cycles as it adjusts to the higher level – and this is part of the point of expanding. But the other issues are much harder to address.

For starters, the format is problematic.

Granted, it’s better than another mooted plan to make 32 teams enter a play-in round before going back to the same format now being used. But two out of three teams advancing invites collusion if the teams at the top of the group face each other in their final game. (FIFA president Gianno Infantino has apparently proposed penalty shootouts to avoid draws in the group stage – old-school MLS style.) Worse still, with so few teams eliminated, the stakes in the group stage will be diminished. One win would all but certainly see you through. Then, the knowledge that you need to get through four elimination games to reach the final hardly invites adventurous soccer. Instead, pragmatism and opportunism will thrive even more than it already does in the knockout stages, when even the most attack-minded teams tend to grow protective – and understandably so.

Expansion will bring more teams and more mismatches. (Getty Images)
Expansion will bring more teams and more mismatches. (Getty Images)

It will take longer to get to the games that will decide the championship, with a slate of 80 games rather than 64. And in the meantime, there will be a lot of Germany-Gabon and Argentina-Panama type of matchups, to say nothing of the UAE-Burkina Faso showdown. That won’t interest very many TV viewers outside of those countries. The fan will suffer – at least in the first few editions of the expanded tournament.

Like most anything FIFA does, whether under Infantino or his notorious predecessors Sepp Blatter and Joao Havelange, the inescapable conclusion is that this is about money. Money and votes. FIFA has proudly declared that this expansion will increase its revenues from the World Cup by $1 billion or so, two-thirds of which will be profit. FIFA was already making more than $4 billion from the 2014 World Cup.

And giving more World Cup berths to underrepresented confederations like the African and Asian ones is a classic Blatterian ploy to secure their votes in the next presidential election. To be fair, if that accomplishes more involvement from two massive continents that combine for just nine guaranteed places in the current 32-team arrangement, that’s not such a bad thing on the whole.

The consensus appears to be that Europe will go from 13 berths to 16. Africa would go from five to nine. Asia from 4½ to 8½ – half-berths being a place in an intercontinental playoff. South America from 4½ to six. Our own CONCACAF region – North and Central America, the Caribbean and three South American countries – would go from 3½ to 6½. Oceania would go from a half to one place. And, of course, the host team would qualify automatically.

This isn’t yet finalized, but all the reports on the distribution are more or less the same. Lots of new spots for Africa and Asia, as expected. But the other big winner is CONCACAF.

Currently, the confederation that includes the United States decides who gets to go to the World Cup in the ongoing hexagonal round, pitting the final six nations in a double round-robin played during the course of just over a year. That format would have to be scrapped, as with six guaranteed places – and a playoff spot – that entire round would become redundant.

And that’s the other looming, unspoken cost of this World Cup expansion. Qualifying is already a slog, typically sending a cast of the same old suspects to the big dance. This is part of the logic behind expansion: opening up the tournament to new teams. But that entails diluting the significance of an already limp qualification process.

In CONCACAF, the fight over who gets to go to the 2026 tournament would basically just be a tussle between some smaller countries, with the bigger ones all but guaranteed a place. In South America, you could pretty much pencil in the winners in most cycles right now. Oceania will send New Zealand to the World Cup now and always. And in Asia and Africa, races that are now extremely competitive – because of the shortage of berths – would mellow with the continent’s powers all pretty much assured participation. That’s largely true in Asia as well. In Europe, it’s already difficult for a major country to miss out. Even if Europe’s allotment will grow by the least amount, relative to its current share, the margin for error will only get bigger.

With a full quarter of FIFA member nations now going to the World Cup, and every major soccer nation promised safe passage, qualification will become a formality.

And while the upside is that some new countries will now stand a chance, the downside may far outweigh that. Aside from the format and entertainment issues, qualifiers give national teams a purpose – both competitively and in driving interest and revenue – in the years between major tournaments. They keep the national team programs relevant in the years when there isn’t a World Cup or a Euro, Africa Cup of Nations, Copa America, Gold Cup or Asian Cup. They bring in money for federations which helps to fund the sport all the way down to the grassroots level.

By building out the World Cup, FIFA is also appropriating a lot of that exposure and income from its member federations. There will be less attention and income to go around as more of it is sucked up by the big tournament at the end of the road. FIFA will surely claim that the money will trickle back down to the federation, but historically, that money has always been a fraction of a fair share.

But then these arguments left the voters of FIFA’s council unmoved. Perhaps because their self-interests clouded their judgments. Or maybe because they think the negatives are outweighed by the shine cast on a few new countries in every tournament. Or possibly because they were pressured into the idea by their expansionist new president – who knows?

As soon as the idea of growing the World Cup was on the table though, it felt inevitable.

Because soccer only ever gets bigger.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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