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No, FIFA did not ruin the World Cup by expanding it to 48 teams

It’s expanded before. It will expand again. It’ll just be more inclusive this time.

Germany v Argentina: 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final Photo by Fabrizo Bensch - Pool/Getty Images

FIFA has voted to expand the Word Cup to 48 teams in 2026. The proposal was one of the pivotal aspects of Gianni Infantino's election campaign when he ran for presidency last year, and true to his word, he has done what he promised. Including more countries is supposed to reinvigorate the tournament. The new format will be 16 groups, each of which contains three teams and comprises three games, with the top two teams at the end moving on to the knockout stage.

To say that there are concerns is to be minimalistic. People are angry. FIFA has apparently voted to ruin the tournament. The increase of teams will put too much burden on the players. It’s all been done for political benefit. Host nations won’t be able to accommodate the 16 additional teams.

The three-team group format is already a disaster, under the reasoning that it will allow for weaker teams to make it to the next round, as well as the insinuation that, because it’s only three games, the third and final games may end in suspicious draws, if it happens to be beneficial for both teams involved. Not quite match fixing, but an agreed cautiousness.

Like something out of The Simpsons.

The instantaneous repulsion at this expansion seems to be born out of our habit of seeing only the immediate and our inability to look back at the past or forward to the future. And our penchant for being extreme in reactions. That’s how statements like “2016 is the worst year ever!” came to life. Whatever transgressions we experience at the moment are the worst to have ever happened and everything is over.

The World Cup has expanded several times. It seems like a banal thing to say but the reactions to this new development would make one think that the 32-team format was sent down by a divine hand, perfect and entertaining, and any change to it should be considered blasphemy. Until 1978, it was capped at 16 teams. It expanded to 24 teams in 1982, and 32 in 1998.

Expansion was something championed by Sepp Blatter and João Havelange for the same reasons that Infantino professes: more games, more fans, more money, and especially more places for teams that aren’t European or South American. As Infantino said in the linked article at the beginning: “Football is more than just Europe and South America. Football is global.”

Since the 16-team era, most of the nations in the World Cup have been from Europe and South America. Cuba, USA, Mexico, and North Korea were the only non-European/South American teams to advance out of the first round until 1982. After the expansion to 32, there have been more success stories — Ghana, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Senegal — yet the tournament is still dominated by the same two regions. All the quarterfinalists in 1994, 1998, and 2006 were from those two continents. And all the finalists in all of the tournaments so far have been from Europe or South America.

It’s no secret that Europeans and South Americans are much more advanced in their soccer cultures than everywhere else. And even the teams that managed to break the duopoly, like USA and Mexico, are places that are close or growing rapidly in terms of financial power and athletic development. They have the money to be better, so they’re better, and they succeed in these tournaments, which gives them more money, popularity, and prestige. And the inequality grows.

The World Cup right now is a combination of the European Championships and the Copa America, and that’s not representative of the soccer world at all. It’s subjectively boring. As Infantino said, “I think that even if you organized a World Cup with two teams, one of the two teams would be Germany.” This change, like the ones before it, isn’t going to stop these two regions from dominating. Teams that are less funded and have weaker infrastructure aren’t suddenly going to beat their counterparts.

But it will, as the other expansions did, give an opportunity for teams from other regions to succeed on their own terms. It’s not parity, nor is it an attack on meritocracy, but an honest step towards making the tournament inclusive. This expansion isn’t a case of greed and hubris, but an attempt at diversity.

To stick with the current concept, as the pool of FIFA countries grow, is silly. Like Hugo Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal once said: “It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”

The complaints about more stress to the players is an unrealistic one. The total games will increase from 64 to 80, but the eventual winners will still only play seven total, as they had before. The tournament itself will still be completed in 32 days.

The three-team groups will be tricky, and the biggest concern is the “boring” draws — which penalty-shootouts have even been suggested as a way to determine. It’s been compared to the expansion of the European Championships, which saw Portugal win the event after drawing all of their group games, and winning three of their knockout games in extra time, including one on penalties.

But that's a single example, and honestly no worse than whatever Greece did in 2004 (16 teams) or Argentina in the 1993 Copa America (12 teams). And it’s not as if Spain in the 2010 World Cup were exciting, with their 1-0 wins in the elimination stages. Uninspiring winners have always existed because international tournaments are stingy events.

The cries about the dilution of the tournament are just as hyperbolic. The quarterfinals and everything after will be mostly teams from those two regions still. The expansion will not bring an end to the joy of the tournament by having one or two teams from the rest of the world in the mix. It’s still going to be rare for outside teams to make it to those late stages, let alone win the tournament, but creating a platform where that future is possible is not something to denigrate.

Infantino and those who supported the measure to expand the the World Cup to 48 teams looked at the current climate and thought it unusual, not unfair, that the World Cup should be really played by only two regions. He wants to fix that, as had the presidents before him. A 48-team tournament is weird, and presents problems, just like every expansion has, but these problems are challenges to be embraced in the good chase for a more diverse tournament.

Sometimes you have to change what’s good now in order to try to be better in the future. Even if the transition period seems worse than the state before. And anyways, soon we will be at 64 teams, which is just a double-sized replica of the divine formula that we have now, and everyone can be happy again.