Although the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is still in full swing, people are already beginning to look forward to the next tournament in four years’ time, which will be jointly hosted by the USA, Mexico and Canada, Not only will this be the first time that three countries have shared hosting duties, but it will also see the expansion of the tournament to feature 48 teams. And that poses a new set of challenges for FIFA, which they are considering solving in some unique ways.
Expansion of the World Cup
In 1930, the inaugural World Cup played in Uruguay, just 13 teams competed in it, in part a function of it being hard to get to for European teams in a pre-transatlantic air travel era, By 1934 it had been expanded to 16 teams, and that remained the format until the number increased to 24 teams for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
In 1998 it was expanded again to its present number of 32 teams.
Why is it being expanded?
The expansion is part of the promise made by FIFA president Gianni Infantino for more teams outside the traditional powerhouses of Europe and South America, to feature in the tournament, claiming that every country should have the chance of dreaming about a World Cup.
(This partly explains why he is being re-elected for a third term unopposed, because of the support he has attracted from the Asian, African and CONCACAF football federations).
And it also means for FIFA more games and more money. This is in line with their raison d’être of expanding their revenue and power base, which is why they are also pushing for the World Cup to be held every two, not every four years.
The problem the expansion poses is that the 38 teams are likely to be split into 16 teams of three teams each, with the top two teams progressing through to the next round.
The groups will almost certainly be tight, which throws up the potential for collusion, with two teams going into their final game knowing exactly what they have to do, whilst the other one watches on powerless to influence events.
It is not as if the World Cup does not have history in this respect.
In 1982, West Germany and Austria met in their final group game, knowing that it was still possible for them both to advance to the next stage of the competition provided that the Germans out won by a single goal.’
They duly scored after just ten minutes, but both sides then slowed down considerably, and, by the second half were barely moving at all. Spectators accused both teams of effectively fixing the result, and, although FIFA, later decided no rules had been broken, lessons were learned from what later became known as the ‘Disgrace of Dijon.”
To avoid such a recurrence, the last two group games have been played at the same time. That has already given rise to some exciting drama in this World Cup as Poland and Mexico both vied to see who would progress with Argentina from Group C.
To try and discourage ‘arranged’ matches, FIFA have been considering a range of options.
These consider bonus points to encourage teams to go for a win, or, in the event of a draw, a penalty shoot-out after the match.
There have even been suggestions that a penalty shoot-out could be held before games, and the team that won it would start the game with an advantage. That would encourage the other team to come out and attack from the word go, knowing that they not only had to win the game, but also needed to do so by a minimum of two goals or more.
All options remain on the table
All options remain on the table at this juncture, and nothing has been ruled in, or out.
An alternative would be to split the 48 teams into 12 groups of four. The top two in each group would automatically qualify for the next stage, and they would be joined by eight of the best runners-up from the group stages, although how this would be determined has not been clarified either.
It is hard to get away from the conclusion that FIFA has made a rod for its own back and, in choosing the populist option, has failed to consider all the implications.
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