Football fans shouldn’t sweat the 48-team World Cup
There are plenty reasons to be angry and worried when it comes to football.
Manchester City have been charged with false accounting to cover up Financial Fair Play breaches. Barcelona, the league leaders in LaLiga, face corruption charges after it emerged they paid the vice president of the Spanish referees’ committee half a million dollars a year between 2016 and 2018. Juventus, who have already been docked 15 points this season, face both a sporting investigation and a criminal investigation for false accounting and misleading shareholders. France‘s league leaders Paris Saint-Germain are run by a guy who also happens to be chairman of the European Club Association, a UEFA Executive Committee member and — wearing his other hat as chairman of beIN Sports — one of the biggest bankrollers of the game, and he has been implicated in an investigation into “kidnapping and torture.”
So yeah, these are fraught times for the game. And the above are all worth worrying about because unless there’s a transparent verdict everybody understands — one way or another — we won’t have closure, we’ll simply have more accusations and lingering mistrust.
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Here’s what you should not worry about: a 48-team World Cup in 2026. Not now that FIFA came up with a reasonable format, anyway.
The FIFA Council approved the 48-team format on Wednesday: four groups of 12, with the eight best third-place teams advancing to a new round of 32. Cue the biblical gnashing of hair and pulling of teeth.
The quality of the World Cup will be diluted! Won’t someone please think of the players’ welfare! The number of matches is increasing by 60%! This is all about money and greed!
I think that’s a fair compendium of the counterarguments. If there are other valid reasons not to move to 48 teams, I’m all ears: hit me on Twitter.
In the meantime, let’s consider the most cited arguments, starting with dilution of quality. Sure, if you have 48 participants instead of 32, “quality” will get diluted because, presumably, the extra 16 teams won’t be as good as the original 32.
But so what? Lower-division teams participate in cup competitions everywhere in the world. Does Wrexham’s presence ruin your enjoyment of the FA Cup? More broadly, the World Cup isn’t about showcasing the most qualitative teams in the game, because, well, the best teams are club teams. Why? Because they have the funds and the ability to recruit the best players and coaches regardless of provenance and they play and train together year round.
So yeah, if you’re sniffy about “quality,” then international football isn’t for you — and neither is lower-division football and basically every single game other than the Champions League knockout stages, Big Six clashes in the Premier League, the Clasico and a few other choice matches. Sorry.
In fact, the World Cup hasn’t been about quality for a long time. It’s the biggest event in sports and it’s about participation, entire countries stopping to watch games, finding kinship with your neighbour or colleague who annoys the crap out of you in real life but, for 90 minutes, when your team is playing, becomes a member of your circle and a guy you want to hug if your country scores.
It’s a showcase of football from around the world. And while places in the competition have traditionally been dominated by countries from Europe and South America (in the name of “quality,” of course), it’s only right that the rest of the planet gets a shot, too. FIFA has 211 member associations, allowing 48 of them in the World Cup means 22.7% get to participate. For most of the competition’s history, that’s been roughly the ratio of participating countries. When it went from 16 to 24 nations in 1986, it was 19.7%. And when it went from 24 to 32 in 1998, it was 18.3%. I can live with that, if it means the majority of fans around the world get to be part of a World Cup more than once or twice in their lifetimes.
And while we’re at it, a nice byproduct of a 48-team World Cup is more meaningful group games. It’s a lot less likely that anyone will be eliminated even if they lose their first two matches. And while it’s true that it’s far more likely that you’ll clinch qualification with two wins in your first two games (and therefore want to rest your starters in the last group game), if the organisers are smart, they’ll provide a plum incentive to win the group, like ensuring that group winners won’t have to travel significantly (or at all) in subsequent rounds. That wasn’t an issue in Qatar 2022 considering all games were basically in Doha, but with a far greater footprint in 2026 when the tournament comes to the U.S., Mexico and Canada — and subsequent 48-team World Cups — not having to travel could be a gamechanger.
As for the player welfare argument, sure, playing 62.5% more matches sounds brutal, doesn’t it? But in reality, we’re talking four teams playing an extra game (and for two of those teams, it’s the third-place playoff, which nobody but immediate family members will ever remember. Quick! Who finished third in Russia 2018? See?). Under the previous format, 24 of 32 teams played four or fewer matches. Under this format, 32 of 48 will play four or fewer matches.
Player welfare is not something to be taken lightly, I agree. But a summer tournament preceded by no matches for at least three weeks, followed by no matches after the tournament for at least another three weeks (longer for teams that are knocked out before the semis, which is the vast majority) is hardly the problem. The tournament is expected to last 39 days. At most, if your group is one of those that begins later and you reach the semifinals, you’ll play eight gams in 33 days, which already happens regularly for many players during the club season, except they don’t get a month off before and after.
Which brings us to the greed and money argument. Nobody is going to dispute that a 48-team World Cup will generate more cash, simply by virtue of playing more games. Yes, FIFA likes to make money. So does Apple, Google and Tinder. The difference is that the vast majority of FIFA’s revenue gets redistributed to member associations, more than half of whom wouldn’t even exist without the annual infusions they get from FIFA. That’s why they voted for a 48-team World Cup: it brings in more money and allows them to, you know, actually run a federation, tournaments, youth and women’s football.
God forbid the poorer countries around the world should back a World Cup format that allows them to actually play a sport with a modicum of dignity.
Sure, critics will point to the numerous FIFA scandals of the past and talk about how this amounts to patronage and pork barrel politics and it gives Infantino or whoever is in the big chair at the time outsized power to swap FIFA funds for votes from poorer countries. And, yes, we all know about the bribery and corruption that took place in the Sepp Blatter era. (We had a reminder of it just this week, when a former Fox executive was convicted by a New York court of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to secure broadcasting rights to the World Cup.)
But it’s a bit like welfare payments or financial aid for college tuition. If there are people who defraud welfare or a government financial aid program, do you just shut it down for everyone? Or do you make it harder to defraud the government by having a more transparent system and greater vigilance?
I kind of sense that at the heart of the complaints about the 48-team World Cup is some sort of basic conservatism and rose-tinted nostalgia for what the game was when we first fell in love with it. When — most of us anyway — were younger, fitter and had less to worry about. But the world changes and, with it, football.
So, please, reserve your worry and righteous anger for other football-related matters. The 48-team World Cup will be just fine. You’ll love it. Trust me.