FIFA politics strike again with latest proposal

FIFA’s recent proposal to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams is not a footballing decision, argues Guillaume Paugam.

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The FIFA Council, which met in Miami earlier this month, discussed the possibility of increasing the number of countries taking part in the 2022 football World Cup from 32 to 48.

Gianni Infantino, the president of the football governing body, said that such a change, originally planned for 2026, was possible.

This is consistent with the trend set by UEFA, Infantino’s former organisation: the European Football legislating authority increased the number of sides allowed in the Euros’ group stages from 16 to 24.

I believe that the aim to make football more universal is laudable, but the way FIFA does it is wrong and primarily results from its own financial and political considerations.  

To understand the topic better, a bit of history is needed. The first World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930: although 16 teams were expected, only 13 of the invited sides could make it to Montevideo.

As early as 1934, invitations were abandoned, and qualifying rounds were implemented. 16 remained the number of participating nations until the 1982 Spanish Mundial, where it was raised for the first time to 24. Less than two decades later, it was increased yet again to its current level of 32.

This increase in competing sides parallels a trend of universalisation in World Cup Access: while the first tournaments saw almost no nations outside Europe, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America, involved, raising the numbers has allowed the world’s most popular sporting event to open up.

The rise from 16 to 24 sides, in 1982 coincided, for the first time, with the participation from two, rather than one, African Confederation sides and Asia/Oceania sides, following the wish of the then-FIFA boss João Havelange to diversify the tournament. For Cameroon, Algeria, Kuwait and New Zealand it was their first involvement at this stage of World Football.

The move to 32 teams further raised the number of teams from outside Europe which, however, remains the main provider with 13 teams. The planned reform, with 48 countries, follows the same logic. Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North and Central America, all see their representation almost double, while Europe and Latin America’s spots also increase – but much less in proportion.  

This looks great on paper but carefully thinking about it reveals a number of issues. The first one is an obvious quality and quantity trade-off, already apparent at the 2016 Euros. It is clear that opening the door to so many teams from all continents, that would not normally be let in, will undermine the overall quality of the competition.

Whether this is problematic or not depends on personal values, and it is not up to me to decide. With the last Euros taking place in my home country, I was well-placed to witness the incredible and unique enthusiasm brought by fans of countries that did not make the cut in the old formula.

However, one also has to admit that the standard of the competition was much poorer than before the reform, with some games exhibiting appallingly low quality at this level. The Wales-Northern Ireland game, a Championship-level fixture if you are feeling generous (which is not even surprising if you look at the squads), springs to mind.

One could argue that this is not the first expansion, and that previous reforms did not harm the World Cup, but the 80’s and 90’s expansion matched a real boom in football universalisation that made such reforms necessary, something which is less evident today.

Moreover, the planned increase is a lot more worrying than previous changes due to its impact on the tournament’s organisation. Indeed, 48 teams is an awkward number that requires an overhaul of the group stages: from groups of four with the top two qualified, the World Cup is moving to groups of three. Yet, the number of teams going through remains the same, meaning that the degree of competitiveness of group games decreases sharply. As such, unlike previous changes to the number of teams, this specific reform undermines the very competitive nature of the World Cup. The question “where does it stop?” comes to mind.

At this stage, you might think that this may be true, but that I am definitely watching football through the lens of a privileged fan, one whose favourite team seldom misses big football tournaments and sometimes wins them (thank you Griezmann).

Why would my pleasure matter, you might ask, if more teams, hence more countries and people, can take part in the giant party atmosphere created by a World Cup? And you would be right. The point here is not to defend the privilege of established teams to partake, but to denounce a reform that in fact will do little to really benefit newer footballing nations.

Very likely, smaller teams will not make it through group stages. 16 teams will come for two games only. Besides the absurdity in terms of organisation (a World Cup requires a huge amount of preparation for a team, even more demanding for smaller teams with fewer resources, that is certainly not vindicated by the perspective of playing two averagely competitive games, seen as training rather than actual competition by the biggest team in the group), it is just illusory to think this will contribute to a country’s footballing development. FIFA might grant more countries an access to the table, but certainly not the right to eat.

What makes a nation improve at football are long-term policies and investments in people and infrastructure. This is precisely what enabled Iceland, a place about as populated as Croydon, to become a footballing nation to be reckoned with (no need to remind English fans). Not being granted an easy right to participate (and most probably lose after two games). Sadly, it seems like FIFA prefers to renovate the facade rather the inside.

Another problem emerges. By making the World Cup seemingly more universal in terms of country access, FIFA reduces the capacity of smaller, or less developed, countries to ever host the world’s most popular sporting event. 32 was already a lot for a country to host. 48 amplifies the problem. It is no coincidence that the 2026 World Cup was attributed to the gigantic geographic trio of the USA, Canada and Mexico, rather than Morocco, unsuccessful for the fifth time at this stage: the infrastructure required to accommodate nearly 50 squads, all the fans and the media will become out of reach for most.

As usual, FIFA’s decision to increase the number of countries in fact only follows the logic of money and politics. Bigger World Cups mean more TV rights and marketing fees. The French Press Agency (AFP) revealed in 2017 that FIFA already expected the increase from 32 to 48 teams to yield an extra 605 million euros for its budget. Electorally, FIFA presidents are elected by all 209 affiliated Football Associations, with each country having one vote, regardless of its size. No wonder why Infantino, who is running again this year, is so keen to please as many smaller FAs as possible with his reform project.

What alternatives are there, then? First of all, FIFA, being the wealthy organisation we know (five billion in expected income over the 2015-2018 period), has the financial power to fund extensive football development programmes everywhere in the World, especially in less-advanced footballing nations. As mentioned above, long-term policies work: countries need to build infrastructure and develop competence. Not all countries are as rich as Iceland, but this is precisely where FIFA should step in. There are so many countries that have the passion, pool of players, and talent to play football, but, due to a lack of resources, are unable to develop the infrastructure to succeed at top international level. Rather than giving these national team players an increased “chance” to maybe play two group games before, most likely, going home, FIFA should invest its money into making smaller footballing nations the heavyweights of tomorrow.

Of course, this is long-term. Meanwhile, FIFA could reform the allocation of spots given to each continent within a 32-team World Cup. Europe, representing 40% of teams in the group stage of the last tournament, and Latin America, with 50% of its affiliated national sides qualifying, dominate hugely. This obviously derives from these continents’ dominance over world football: they have provided all the World Cup winners. Countries from other continents making it to the last four, like South Korea in 2002, constitute rare exceptions rather than regular occurrences. As such, an overhaul of representation quotas would bring the risk of missing potential winners of the tournament, which is probably not desirable. Nevertheless, while massive expansions such as the one from 32 to 48 teams risk letting very average teams in, current repartition rules across continents have the opposite flaw, leaving some very decent non-European/Latin American sides at home, due to the very restrictive number of teams from similar areas being allowed entry. 

As such, without arguing for a perfectly representative allocation of spots, I believe there is room for reform. A team like Ivory Coast, made up of players found in all the top leagues, missed out narrowly due to the restrictions imposed upon the number of teams Africa can send to the World Cup, while sides like Iceland, Serbia or Poland came bottom or second bottom in their groups. It is possible to marginally reform the system to make it fairer, while waiting for longer-term investments to work and balance the repartition of footballing power across the globe, with the ultimate aim being to not have any trade-off between fair continent representation and quality of the football, hence making it possible to more drastically reform the continent quotas. But FIFA’s current desire to increase the number of teams from 32 to 48, fuelled by economic considerations and petty politics, represents the worst of both worlds: lowering the level without giving smaller footballing nations an actual chance to really be important actors in international football.

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