48-Team World Cup Is a Bad Idea—With One Caveat
January 11, 2017
FIFA IS NOTORIOUSLY DYSFUNCTIONAL organization but it does have a wonderful track record when it comes to one thing: screwing up the sport we all love. The dethroning of Sepp Blatter made the world a better place and brought a tear to the eye of those who believe in justice and the rule of law. But the initial steps taken by new president Gianni Infantino are hardly worth celebrating.
Not only is the 2022 World Cup still heading to Qatar—an absolute joke—but now final confirmation came from Switzerland that the 2026 World Cup will expand to 48 teams with groups of three instead of groups of four. The knockout stages will now feature 32 teams.
This is a bad idea and is nothing more than a cash grab for FIFA. But the victim here is not necessarily the tournament itself, or those who enjoy it, despite the fact that it will soon include a bunch of teams that do not really belong.
The real loss is the sense of excitement and urgency that comes with the World Cup qualifying process. Of course there will be pressure-filled games to determine who advances to the World Cup but that pressure will be shifted from deserving teams to entirely mediocre teams battling it out for the remaining spots.
So yes, the World Cup itself will still be fun, but the time between World Cups is going to take a huge hit in terms of quality and fan interest.
The World Cup expansion increases the odds that the United States will host multiple World Cups in a lifetime given that a 48-team tournament requires a host nation with adequate venues and infrastructure. Many countries could not handle the expanded tournament; in the United States, Texas alone could probably do so.
Despite the hosting possibilties domestically, the negatives far outweigh that positives for the United States.
The United States plays in a relatively weak region. Yes, CONCACF is better than some make it out to be—Costa Rica, Mexico, and the U.S. all advanced to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup. But the top-to-bottom level of competition is far cry from you see in South America and Europe.
Under the newly approved format for 2026, CONCACAF will send six-to-seven teams to the 2026 World Cup. In other words, every team that reached the current Hexagonal will qualify, with perhaps an additional team thrown in. So for the United States, where is the competition going to be? Even at its lowest points the Yanks can stumble to a top-six place in this region.
Qualifying easily does nothing to help the growth of soccer in this country. Without sufficient quality opposition throughout an entire cycle, most would-be fans see little reason to follow the national team outside of the World Cup. Even now, you can see attendance at U.S. national team friendlies declining at an alarming rate. With even less competition beginning with the 2026 cycle, international soccer in the United States runs the risk of being similar to a typical Olympic sport (like curling, skiing, swimming, etc.) that grips the country every four years and then promptly fades into oblivion.
This is bad news for U.S Soccers and its fans—unless a rumored merger takes place.
It was floated around last week that FIFA might merge CONCACAF with South America’s CONMEBOL for a super region that would likely send 12-13 teams to the World Cup .
American fans might not like this development because it could make it harder for the U.S. to qualify for the World Cup. But a merger like this would elevate the growth of the sport in this country in a signifcant way. Now instead of repeatedly facing familiar foes like Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Mexico, the U.S. would develop meaningful rivalries with the likes of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.
A full merger would likely also include a continental championship similar to the Copa America that took place this past summer. And it would also help Major League Soccer teams as the CONCACAF Champions League would probably dissolve as MLS sides competed in the Libertadores.
Yes, the United States would have to work harder to qualify and yes travel would be tough but the rewards far outweigh the costs. It would now be an engaging four-year cycle with better competition, more pressure to perform well, more drama, and more suspense. That would yield a better experience for fans and likely better growth—to avoid the Olympic four year gap.
If the United States happens to miss a World Cup, it would still be facing elite competition regularly and it wouldn’t be four years until another important game is on the horizon. Besides, it would also force the U.S. national team to continuously improve and be self-critical and not just qualify by playing mediocre soccer against so-so competition. As with anything in life, minimal competition is not a key ingredient for improvement.
The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams wasn’t good news for soccer fans but hopefully the next step, from the perspective of the U.S. team anyway, is to make the years in between tournaments much stronger. That's when most of the games are played, after all, and American soccer fans want an enjoyable experience beyond a one-month window every four years.
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