Gianni Infantino's 48-Team World Cup Will Kill the Essence of the Tournament

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2016

FIFA President Gianni Infantino addresses journalists during a press briefing at a hotel in Roissy-en-France, north of Paris, on November 23, 2016.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrapped up the first of 11 executive meetings with federation representatives today by saying those gathered in Paris were all in favour of expanding the World Cup. A 48-team format would see the 16 group winners of a qualifying round automatically book a place in the tournament, while an additional 32 teams would compete in a new pre-tournament play-off. / AFP / CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/Getty Images

And so here we are, again. You might have thought that we were past all of this. You might have thought that FIFA was ready to smarten up. You might have thought Gianni Infantino was the man to lead that. You might have thought that an organisation recently raided by the FBI would be ready to protect the essence of its defining event rather than protect itself. Or maybe (probably) you knew better. 

A 48-team World Cup has been looming for some time, and it got closer on Wednesday, as news filtered around that FIFA president Infantino is determined to push ahead with expansion plans for the 2026 World Cup, per Sky Sports

This is what FIFA reform looks like, people. Introspection of an unprecedented magnitude is what's needed, but it's evidently not what's wanted. That there's been an inevitability about it says much in itself.

"There is absolutely no inevitability," the great American filmmaker and animator Chuck Jones once said, "as long as there is the willingness to think."

Of course, on some level, FIFA is thinking, and you hardly need to extend yourself to know what about. Expanding a World Cup from 32 teams to 48 means more games and more happy federations. More games equal more money, and more happy federations equal more votes for whoever is able to make it happen.

That's straight from Page 1 of FIFA For Dummies, which, on second thoughts, might be the most redundant theoretical book ever. 

But beyond what this says about the game's governing body, it paints a miserable picture for future World Cups. 

Infantino's preferred proposal is one of five to have been sent to members of the FIFA Council. The options include maintaining the current 32-team format, two different versions of a 40-team event (10 groups of four, or eight groups of five) and a further two for a 48-team tournament. 

The first in the latter category is to have a 32-team play-off round, with the 16 winners going through to meet 16 seeded teams in a conventional 32-team group stage. 

"It means we [could] continue with a normal World Cup for 32 teams, but 48 teams go to the party," Infantino said in October, per ESPN FC

But there has been resistance to that proposal. Such a format would see 16 teams sent home after playing just a single game, thus meaning we're more likely to get a format featuring 16 groups of three—Group P, anyone?

The obvious issue is one of quality. The World Cup is supposed to represent the pinnacle of the international game and feature the best of the best, to some extent anyway. You could make the argument that there aren't even 32 teams worthy of competing as it is, let alone 48. Throw in the extra 16 and your Bloody Mary soon becomes a virgin. 

Just look at Euro 2016. The expansion from 16 teams to 24 gave us one of the worst tournaments ever staged. Sure, countries like Wales and Iceland gave us a splash of the feel-good factor, but the rest of the event was stale, negative and utterly tedious, given the way the bloated format rewarded draws and took consequences away from too many games. 

Who gave us that format again? Ah, yes, Infantino. And so here we are again, his justification baffling.

"When a team qualifies for the tournament, the whole country is in football euphoria," he said in October, per ESPN FC. He also added: "[The World Cup] is more than a competition, it's a social event."

You wonder what Infantino thinks the essence of the World Cup is. Perhaps the next step is to give everyone a balloon and a bag of candy upon arrival. Then the participation trophies can be handed out later, along with awards for Most Improved and Teacher's Coach's Pet.

When did the World Cup become a vehicle through which to deliver "football euphoria" to as many as possible? Has it been forgotten that such euphoria is experienced by achieving something that's both great and difficult, not by being told you can come along to Infantino's everyone's-welcome "party"?

The reason the World Cup is a social event is because it is a competition. The further we go down this path, the more we're saying that being invited qualifying is the major prize on offer. That's not the essence of a World Cup, of sport. 

Nor is a format that would heighten the possibility of dead rubbers or, worse, collusion. A 16-group affair with three teams in each opens up the tournament to what we saw in 1982 in Gijon, Spain, when Austria and West Germany entered the final game of Group 2 knowing a one- or two-goal West German victory would see both sides go through at the expense of Algeria. 

So when West Germany took the lead after 10 minutes, both teams proceeded to kick the ball around aimlessly for another 80. That game led to changes in scheduling, ensuring the final group games have since been played concurrently. But that's not possible with three-team groups. 

Even if we didn't get to the point of collusion, dead rubbers would be highly likely. All it would take would be for Team A and Team B to both defeat Team C. For a final game between Team A and Team B, there would be nothing to play for in a situation where first and second both progress—top spot in a group isn't necessarily beneficial in a structure where you don't have a random draw to decide the knockout rounds, and instead an A1 vs. B2 arrangement.  

Recipe for Dead Rubbers
Team 1vs.Team 2
Brazil2-0Japan
Croatia2-0Japan
Brazilvs.Croatia
B/R UK
Which Results In... (before final game: Brazil vs. Croatia)
RankTeamPWDLGFGAPTS
1Brazil1100203
2Croatia1100203
3Japan2002040
B/R UK

These are just the most obvious issues, of course. Others would include the strain on resources to accommodate the rise in games from 64 to 80, the greater time commitment placed on players whose bodies are already being pushed to the absolute limit by a packed calendar, and the removal of one group game for the fans of many countries who'd travel from across the world to be there.

But hey, as long as everyone's invited, right? As long as more federations are making extra bucks? As long as more votes are secured for whoever delivers those bucks? 

And once expansion occurs, the process is never reversed. There's a good reason why you've never seen a World Cup or a Euros shrink. The former has gone from 13 teams to 16 to 24 and most recently to 32 across its history; the latter has gone from four to eight to 16 to 24. Once more are involved, there are too many whose interests are for it to stay that way. 

"The feeling of the FIFA Council is that giving more teams a chance to qualify for the World Cup is beneficial for football development," Infantino said, per ESPN. "More youngsters want to play the game, companies want to get involved in sponsorship and the benefits to football as a whole are immense."

That's true to an extent. That is until qualifying for a World Cup is no longer an achievement. Until it's no longer something incredibly special to get there. Until the World Cup loses its competitive essence and what makes it, thus undermining Infantino's whole point. 

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