Platini's 40-Team World Cup Is Coming, and It's Not Something to Fear

Jerrad PetersWorld Football Staff WriterOctober 28, 2013

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In a Monday interview with The Times, UEFA president Michel Platini revealed his preference for a 40-team World Cup—an increase from the current roster of 32—in time for the 2018 tournament in Russia.

The first World Cup in 1930 featured 16 teams.
The first World Cup in 1930 featured 16 teams.

The 58-year-old, who has run European football’s governing body since 2007, was responding to remarks made by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who on Saturday suggested the 13 World Cup berths earmarked for European sides be reduced to accommodate increased African and Asian representation.

“Instead of taking away some European [nations], we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup,” he said, adding, “We can add two African [teams], two Asiatic, two American and one from Europe. I support this idea totally.”

Platini’s enthusiasm is unlikely to be shared by many football administrators, fans and stakeholders who have grown quite comfortable with the 32-nation setup.

Nevertheless, his proposal is nothing to fear. And the sooner it moves from the realm of grumbling to practical planning the sooner it can be accepted, even embraced.

Because, like it or not, it’s going to happen.

Since the first World Cup in 1930 the tournament format has changed eight times. In 1934 and 1938, for example, it was a straight knockout competition, and in 1950 the champion was determined through a pair of group stages.

The number of participants has also doubled over the course of the 19 previous World Cups, and it would be both arrogant and ignorant of a rather obvious trend to assume that the current format will be upheld indefinitely.

World Cup Participants & Format Since 1930
World CupParticipantsFormat
1930134 groups; semifinals; final
193416straight knockout
193815straight knockout
1950132 group stages
195416group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal
195816group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal
196216group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal
196616group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal
197016group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal
1974162 group stages; final
1978162 group stages; final
1982242 group stages; knockout beginning with semifinal
198624group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round
199024group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round
199424group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round
199832group stage; 16-team knockout round
200232group stage; 16-team knockout round
200632group stage; 16-team knockout round
201032group stage; 16-team knockout round
Jerrad Peters

As Platini pointed out, the popularity of football continues to increase, and it only makes sense that the sport’s biggest event represents that growth.

“Football is changing and now we have 209 associations,” he said. “There are more countries so why reduce? Forty is not so bad.”

Indeed it’s not, and while the increase in numbers would extend the World Cup by anywhere from three to six days the current format of eight groups followed by knockout stages beginning with a Round of 16 would be left intact.

The current World Cup format has existed since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998.
The current World Cup format has existed since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998./Getty Images

One side would be added to each group, meaning the number of teams in each bracket would merely grow from four to five.

Of course, Platini likely has an ulterior motive for making the World Cup more inclusive.

Elected to the UEFA presidency on a platform that promised increased representation to the body’s less prominent associations, the Frenchman looks set to mimic his previous approach in an upcoming bid for the top job at FIFA.

Under his watch both the Champions League and Europa League have become more welcoming for sides outside the continent’s biggest divisions, and the Euro 2016 tournament, which will be held in France, will be the first of its kind to include 24 teams, up from the current 16.

Increasing the number of World Cup participants would garner Platini increased support from CONCACAF, the AFC and especially the CAF, whose 54 associations makes it the most vote-rich confederation in world football. And if his initial UEFA campaign is any indication it’s a strategy that would pay off.

A 40-team World Cup is coming. Historical trends and political motivation indicate as much.

But it’s nothing to be scared of.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, and the World Cup is its most prestigious event. Being inclusive and relevant will ensure both continue to thrive.