FIFA has sacrificed footballs ultimate prize in a political move to placate the pockets lesser nations.
So there it is, history made. This week FIFA and its confederates unanimously voted to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026.
80 matches will be played over 32 days, consisting of 16 groups of three teams playing a total of three games each, with the top two qualifying for the knockout stages.
The brainchild of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the move is hoped to allow some of the 135 member nations that have never qualified to finally do so, and in turn, reinvigorate football at both grassroots and elite levels in these countries.
It is a plan that has been implicated twice before by new FIFA Presidents; João Havelange widened the tournament to 24 nations in 1982, whilst Sepp Blatter went a step further and rounded up to 32 in 1998. Both were elected based on their promises to do so.
Whilst Europe will benefit from a further three qualification spots to 16 in total, it is Africa (with an increase of 5 spots to 9), Asia (4.5 to 8.5), and CONCACAF – aka North America, Central America and the Caribbean – (6.5 from 3.5) who will stand to gain the most.
If we took this information and based it on current FIFA rankings, say CONCACAF for example, this means we could see the likes of Panama, Haiti, and Curaçao joining the party for the first time in their less than illustrious footballing histories.
On these shores, the plan has received widespread condemnation, with fans and experts pointing out that by expanding the field, FIFA are allowing mediocrity to spill over from qualifying into the tournament itself with the appearances of undeserving nations. In addition to minnows predictably being embarrassed by footballing superpowers, some final group games could become farcical if both teams involved decided to play for a result that would see both progress.
Infantino is perhaps gambling that these scenarios do not play out, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t care even if they do.
The Swiss kingpin swept up the backing of smaller confederations prior to being elected and he has rewarded their votes by returning World Cup berths in return. The question of whether these nations can positively impact the World Cup is essentially moot, they’re just happy to be there.
He also promised more money for these confederations to develop.
Thankfully, a bigger World Cup also means bigger profit. Well, the money he’s assured has to come from somewhere. Early estimates state that FIFA and its friends stand to gain an extra $1 billion in revenue. Because you know, the $4bn it rakes in at the moment just isn’t enough.
Just how this money will be divvied out and what will be done with it are seemingly questions for another day. For now, rejoice! The World Cup is even more global, can’t you just feel the love?
Without even scratching the surface, it’s so unapologetically obvious that the expansion of football’s greatest tournament is nothing more than a political move. I know, I know, as if we’re meant to be surprised.