FIFA President Gianni Infantino would like to see a World Cup with 48 teams, comprising 16 groups of three teams, with two going through to the expanded knockout round of 32. Is it viable?
The idea of including more teams in the showcase tournament of world football is understandable, but the right balance needs to be found for it to work properly.
The 32-team tournament format works well, with eight groups of four teams keeping the draw balanced. EURO 2016 showed that the 24 team format has too much uncertainty and one side of the draw ended up being packed with all the strong teams, while the other side saw a team that had finished third in their group- without winning a game- progress through the tournament with a much easier draw. The balance needs to be there so there is an incentive for teams to top their group and keep the integrity of the competition.
While a tournament with 16 groups of three teams would allow for symmetry in the draw, it is still fraught with danger.
One issue would be that team A could beat team B, say 5-0, then see team B beat team C 1-0. Team A and team C could then go into the final group game knowing that they would both go through to the next round provided that that team C didn’t win by more than four goals.
It could lead to a regular occurrence of what happened in 1982, when Austria and West Germany knew before kick-off that they would both qualify if West Germany won 1-0. West Germany scored early and the rest of the match saw little intention from either side to change the result.
Another issue is that for a fan, the best part of the tournament is the group stage as it’s a party atmosphere as every team has a chance to show what they’ve got. A shortened group stage could mean that the atmosphere is more tense from the start and less enjoyable. From a planning perspective, knowing that your team has three matches makes it more worthwhile. Teams like England and Australia showed that without the group stages, they would have been going home even earlier two years ago.
As has also been the case in recent tournaments, games have been much tighter in the knock-out stages and haven’t always made for good viewing.
It seems difficult to make any changes at the moment without seriously compromising the integrity of the tournament and until a solution is found, things might be better off left as they are.