The World Cup is perhaps the most hotly anticipated football event on the calendar. It’s a celebration of the sport’s ability to bring together different cultures in the name of the beautiful game. Yet the competition as we know it is under threat.
Under plans put forward by newly-elected Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, the World Cup finals could be extended to 48 teams, with the final decision being made by next year. This is eight more than what he promised at the start of his election campaign to lead the world’s football governing body, and 16 more than the current format.
The plans, which have sparked debate over what it could mean for the competitiveness of the competition, would see a preliminary knock-out round take place prior to the group stages, with no fewer than 16 teams failing to make the cut and sent home at the first time of asking.
It all sounds very well and good and would likely, on paper, create an enticing narrative. But as we saw in the summer in France, the expanded European Champions created some of the dullest football we’ve had the displeasure of witnessing.
Not only would an expanded tournament create a dreary spectacle as teams look to set-up a rigid backline that’s too fearful of conceding and thus leading to dull 0-0 draws or slender 1-0 victories, it makes the qualification process somewhat meaningless.
For England fans, we all know the inevitable. Qualify with flying colours and then mess around with the team in pre-tournament friendless, only to get knocked out and a post-mortem conducted shortly afterwards. The qualification process is too easy for teams like the Three Lions, who pass through groups with ease, yet to expand the tournament further means that the nations unable to compete with the powerhouses of Argentina, Germany, Spain and the like will aim to shut up shop as soon as they reach the World Cup finals. Qualification loses its edge because so many teams are given second chances, and what should be an entertainment business soon becomes a show of who can make the least mistakes. Sounds exciting, no?
You can see FIFA’s reasoning: it will increase incomes, draw in larger audiences, and it allows more nations to participate in the historic competition. There should be a line, however, between enabling participation and decreasing the competitive edge because teams are too afraid of error and throwing the months of hard work that went into qualifying in the first place into history books that no-one will bother reading.
On the flip side, tournament expansions can also lead to stories such as that of the inspiring Icelandic team who gained the admiration of many, yet to have over a dozen nations already knocked out before the group stage kicks in suggests that many nations that are capable of achieving such a feat will be swamped out. The powerhouses of international football will be so intent on not slipping up that flair and attacking genius may well have to be sacrificed. It will be a tournament for the tactical wizards but, as a spectacle, its allure could diminish hastily.
And with trust in football waning following corruption allegations made in the Daily Telegraph that led to Sam Allardyce’s sacking, the game needs to keep its integrity on the field intact, and that should begin with a competitive competition that features the world’s best, and not any old nation that have been the beneficiaries of a lenient qualification structure. The World Cup is a cash generator, though, and its expansion, unfortunately, appears inevitable.