Disastrous decisions by Fifa are nothing new. But yesterday’s announcement by football’s governing body that it will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams in 2026 marks another depressing low. The logic is that more teams will now get an opportunity to play on football’s biggest stage. A noble sentiment, perhaps, but this is a half-baked plan that should worry football fans.
The huge imbalance in the quality of football on display at the tournament is one of the main troubles with expanding the World Cup. England fans are accustomed to watching their team play our dismal 3-0 victories against the likes of San Marino and Malta at the qualifying stage. But once the tournament starts, you expect to find your side up against high quality opposition. That was true at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where England faced Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, all in the group stages.
Under the new rules, teams will first participate in a merry three team group where one side – presumably the rubbish one who wouldn’t otherwise have qualified – will be humiliated and eliminated. This will then leave the other two teams to progress on to the real deal. And that tournament, of 32 teams, will rather closely resemble the current format. So the only real addition created by this expansion is a weird onion layer of dismal football before the graft of the competition can begin.
Money, as ever, looks to be the driving force behind these proposals. A revenue increase of around £500m has apparently whet the appetite of the fat cats at Fifa, who insist this is a ‘football decision’. Yet their claim that expanding the tournament is a ‘vision to promote the game of football’ looks like the sort of nebulous non-statement that Fifa revels in. While this ‘vision’ might make the tournament more inclusive for footballing minnows, it’s likely to do so for teams without the football pedigree who also happen to have the fattest cheque books. Countries like China (who have qualified once for the tournament, in 2002) and Qatar (who have never qualified for a World Cup) will undoubtedly be pleased. But other football fans are less likely to be cheering from the terraces of whichever country hosts the 2026 tournament.
Instead this expansion plan is a way of privileging financial clout over the enjoyment of fans. Campaigning group New Fifa Now said the new format will ‘make a mockery of the qualification process for most confederations’ and ‘dilute the competitiveness of the tournament and, therefore, the enjoyment of fans’. They’re exactly right. So if Fifa were looking to send a statement about having moved on from the gloomy days of Sepp Blatter, they have made a huge miscalculation. The support of member states’ football associations only exposes the same structural problems that have hamstrung Fifa for decades. Fans won’t turn away from the World Cup, but the competition as an exhibition of football has been relegated by this decision.