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World Cup

A 48 team World Cup is a natural progression, not a cheap, money spinning gimmick

Wednesday 8th February 2017

In some circles it was derided as nothing more than yet another FIFA gimmick designed to increase revenue after the fallout from the corruption scandal, whilst others saw it as a natural progression, allowing more teams the chance to compete. I stand firmly in the second camp, and here's why



Many of the derisions around this expansion seem to emanate from Europe, home to most of world football's historic heavyweights. Under these plans, UEFA would get three of the extra 16 spots made available. Joachim Low, coach of Germany, one of football's pre-eminent nations derided the idea saying it would lower the standard of football, whilst UEFA itself voiced its opposition, citing an already high number of games being played, despite the fact that the new format would see no increase in the number of games required to win a World Cup. To me, this seems like sour grapes at best, as UEFA would only get three spots, and elitism at worst, with the suggestion that playing at a World Cup is somehow a privilege that should be reserved only for the traditional heavyweight nations of the world. FIFA's own motto is 'For the Game, For the World' not 'For the traditional elite'

A quick look back at EURO 2016, the first European Championships in which 32 teams competed, shows the fallacy of this as it was the supposed ‘smaller' nations, Northern Ireland, in their first major tournament since 1986, Wales, in their first since 1958, and Iceland, in their first ever major international tournament, were among the stars of a tournament, won by Portugal, an apparent heavyweight, which won its first ever major honour. What's to say something similar won't happen in 2026? Remember Costa Rica at the last World Cup?

Continents like Africa and Asia have rapidly improving leagues and players, why don't some of these players deserve the right to showcase them on the biggest stage, simply because they happen to have been born in a country not seen as a traditional player in world football. Fans of the Premier League are familiar with the name Gylfi Sigurdsson. One of the Premier League's most gifted players Sigurdsson is from Iceland and were it not for the expanded tournament of 2016, he would not have had the opportunity to play in the European Championships. Yet Iceland was one of the star teams of the tournament, winning a group that contained eventual winners Portugal and knocking out ‘heavyweights' England in the process.
Iceland's players and fans perform the now famous, slow clap

 

Further, if we simply examine the figures the expansion makes sense. Back in 1930, there was no qualification as FIFA membership was small enough that every member nation was invited to compete, with 13 nations eventually doing so. The World Cup was competed between 16 teams up until 1982 when it was expanded again to 24. At this time 109 teams attempted to qualify. This meant that roughly 22% of all nations that attempted to qualify did so. By 1994 this had increased to 147, meaning that roughly 16% of teams qualified.

So, in 1998 the tournament was expanded to 32 teams, two of which went to the holders (Brazil) and the hosts (France). This left 30 spots available, with 174 teams entering. So this meant that 17% of all teams the entered made it to the finals. Back in 2010 a record 204 nations competed for 31 spots, making a 15% success rate. For the last World Cup, 203 teams entered, so there was little impact on the percentage rate. FIFA presently has 211 members, so assuming one host and all other teams enter that's 210 nations competing for 31 spots, so 14% of all FIFA members would make its showcase tournament.

If we were to assume that FIFA membership remains at the same level then with the expansion to 48 teams, 22% of all FIFA members would make the 2026 World Cup (this could be slightly lower if new members were to join). This would take the World Cup back to 1982 levels. In no way am I suggesting that the World Cup be for every team; that would be crazy, it could go on forever. But a World Cup where roughly 1/5 of all FIFA members are able to compete and showcase themselves? That doesn't seem so bad to me. Football is meant to be for everyone after all and that's what FIFA is supposed to ensure.
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