FIFA's decision to expand the World Cup finals in 2026 to 48 teams has destroyed the spirit and meaning of sport's biggest competition, writes Desmond Kane.
From the organisation that brought you a random and oily first winter World Cup finals in irrelevant but energy-rich Qatar, comes the first 48-team World Cup finals. Even without the legendary Sepp Blatter's eye for a good deal, FIFA can never be accused of failing to put profit before football.
The international game was already dying long before the much-maligned governing body decided to push on with plans for a 48-team World Cup on Tuesday, but this may just be the final thrust and twist of the knife to a sport already ruined by greed, dodgy characters and self-interest.
$1 billion more for the game’s governing body, according to early estimates, brought in from cheapening sport's ultimate event. Making it accessible to dross will do little for the tournament.
Germany flogging Saudi Arabia isn’t fun or clever, but we already had such happenings in the 32-team event. Imagine how many lop-sided games there will be with 48 qualifiers?
Making the World Cup better simply does enter the FIFA lexicon which is as ludicrous as it sounds. With 48 teams, there is no quality control, no sense of elation from qualifying and no competitive purpose. There are too many teams to be bothered watching yet this is still a numbers game.
16 groups of three teams
Top two qualify for last 32
Knock-out stage from last 32 onwards
80 matches in total
UEFA want at least 16 places for European teams
Africa and Asia could see allocation increased from their total of five
USA, Canada and Mexico set to host the finals
The figures are mind-bogging with the sport’s governing body set to snare at least £800 million more in broadcasting, commercial and revenue from matches than the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Revenue is estimated to rise to £5.29 million with 48 teams.
FIFA estimate they could pocket £2.96 billion in 2026 compared to £2.55 billion from next year’s event in Russia.
Imagine if the nouveau riche of China, a decade down the road with their decadent Super League, qualify for such an event? The advantages of such an scenario for FIFA are obvious.
Little wonder Germany lamented this decision as a dilution of the quality of such a great tournament. It is a dereliction of duty to the sport.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino is up for re-election in 2019, and giving extras places to Africa and Asia is wise enough for him to secure vital votes to achieve that outcome. He was only elected on his election promise from 2016. He defended his position on Tuesday, echoing statements made in Dubai last month.
Gianni Infantino addresses reporters in Zurich.
Image credit: Eurosport
There are many upsides to the 48-team format, not least financially, but the decision should not just be financially driven alone, it’s also appealing because the sporting element prevails and every game will be important, expanding is also for the development of football and boosting the game all over the world.
FIFA's call makes no sense from a sporting perspective. Qualifying will become a pointless exercise with every major nation at little risk of failing to make it due to the added 16 teams. If we are going to 48, why not push for more at the finals? After all, more countries means more cash. Or let's have a World Cup every year.
International football is already a poor second to the club game with the annual Champions League long since leaving the World Cup behind as the ultimate exhibition of football skills.
The European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs in football’s continental heartlands, summed up the general sentiment of supporters.
“We fail to see the merits to changing the current format of 32 that has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives,” said a statement from the ECA.
Questionable is also the urgency in reaching such an important decision, with nine years to go until it becomes applicable, without the proper involvement of stakeholders who will be impacted by this change.
"We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable."
Little wonder La Liga, home and traditional employers of the game’s greatest players, are threatening legal action after failing to be consulted on the plans. It feels like the tail is wagging the dog, but at least ongoing fodder Scotland are in favour of it.
"There are some critical voices from some clubs, but I prefer to focus on the positive ones," said Infantino in addressing reporters on Tuesday.
There is a lot who favour this decision. Let's not add on the calendar or the burden on the players. We have achieved this.
"Football is more than Europe and South America. One event every four years which will help to develop football is positive...many more countries will have the chance to dream.
"We hope to have everyone on board, but that is not always possible. In time, we hope to get there."
If Infantino gleaned anything from watching one of the worst European Championships in living memory, an expansion supported during his seven years as general secretary of UEFA, played out in the summer in France, it should have been the dangers of tampering with the format of a tournament that is immaculate.
It was widely accepted that the Euros was the finest international tournament in the world when it moved from an eight-team format in 1996 to double in size at Euro 2000 in the Netherlands and Belgium.
For a continent the size of Europe, 16 was as tight as a drum striking the right balance between giving teams access to the tournament while continuing to make the qualification process meaningful.
The decision to add eight teams to the mix to replicate the size of the World Cup between 1982 to 1994 has merely added more irrelevant matches in the group stage, providing teams with the chance to rest players in the final group games knowing they had already qualified. Rather than going to a quarter-final joust, it has become long and laborious.
The extra teams and games has done nothing to enhance the Euros other than ensuring the possibility of the blue-chip nations like England – who missed out qualifying for Euro 2008 – can qualify even if they tried to avoid it. There will be no draws in the group stage in 2026 which simply defeats the essence of the early stage when draws are part of football's fabric.
FIFA badly needed credibility after the disgraced Blatter’s risible 17-year tenure as president.
It badly needed public confidence after the dodgy decision to award a tiny, sweltering petro-dollars outpost like Qatar a summer World Cup in 2022 before moving it to the winter after they realised it was unplayable in the Gulf state’s long hot summer.
This does little good for FIFA's standing or football's.
Infantino has simply added more suspicion surrounding FIFA's purpose as the ultimate self-preservation racket, but he has delivered on his promise to give more teams access to the finals.
The game’s governing body may think they are laughing all the way to the bank when they have merely bankrupted the heart and soul of sport’s biggest tournament. The spirit of Sepp lives on.