The World Cup is, from a purely structural standpoint, a beautiful sporting event.
Every four years, 32 teams meet in a perfect format — a small round robin, followed by a knockout tournament. It’s elegant, clean, and with just 32 out of 211 FIFA members qualifying, the competition is fierce enough to make the event truly special.
Say goodbye to it.
(And the rest of the way men’s international soccer is organized, while you’re at it.)
The 2018 World Cup might mark the end of men’s international soccer as we know it. There’s a serious possibility Russia is hosting the final 32-team edition of the tournament, while the rest of the soccer world will be drastically altered as well.
FIFA has already announced the World Cup will expand to 48 teams by 2026, but the people behind the 2022 tournament in Qatar — which, while we’re talking changes, is being held in the winter — are pushing to get the field expanded even sooner for their World Cup. At the same time, FIFA is considering a proposal to expand the Club World Cup and create a new, between-World-Cups tournament.
This is in addition to the UEFA Nations League, which is another new tournament that takes place between World Cups involving European countries.
The inaugural UEFA Nations League kicks off in September, by the way, as UEFA aims to cut down time filled with meaningless friendlies and qualifiers with no stakes. That will lead into UEFA 2020, which will not have one or two host countries, but 12 of them.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the North and South American confederations — CONCACAF and CONMEBOL — are looking to build off the success of 2016’s Copa America Centenario, a tournament which featured teams from both continents and drew big ratings. Not only do they want to hold the tournament again, both federations are actually considering merging together.
That’s an expanded World Cup field, a new European tournament, a possible new world tournament, and a possible merging of two confederations into one, hemispheric-spanning confederation.
Imagine Rip Van Winkle as a soccer fan, laying down for a nap in 2002. He’ll wake up 20 years later to a soccer landscape that is completely unrecognizable to him. What might happen in the next four years could represent the largest change over one World Cup cycle in the game’s history.
If you’re wondering why this is happening, the very easy answer is money, though who ultimately pockets that money is very much to be determined. It’s also remains to be seen what current fans of the sport will think of the changes.
What we do know is that these changes are coming in the name of expanding the game to a more global audience.
FIFA’s mission to make soccer more accessible in all corners of the world makes sense, and expansion of international tournaments isn’t inherently corrupt. But the speed with which changes are being thrust on the sport raises legitimate questions about how the game — from the competition on the pitch to the fan experience — will be affected. The thing with those questions, though, is that with the amount of money that’s set to be generated, it’s unclear if world soccer’s top executives even care to answer them.
FIFA wants you to believe it’s doing socialism, not corruption
Sepp Blatter is very easy to hate — he was the president of FIFA when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup despite their deeply troubled bid, and he’s a sexist asshole. But despite public perception, neither criminal investigators nor FIFA’s ethics committee were ever able to prove that Blatter took bribes from anyone. He’s banned from FIFA for dereliction of duty because he paid another dude, former UEFA president Michel Platini, not because he took money from someone. He didn’t even have the most interesting stories during the scandal.
That distinction belongs to Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, the two men who used to run CONCACAF, the governing body that oversees soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Blazer had a Trump Tower apartment just for his cats, as well as a confederation-issued Hummer to drive around Manhattan (which is probably a more egregious waste of money than the cat apartment). The FBI caught on to his shenanigans and convinced him to rat out his partner in crime, Warner. If you’re unfamiliar, Warner has the air of a cartoon villain and once allegedly solicited and received a bribe in the form of a shitload of cash in a suitcase, allegedly pocketed money intended for Haitian earthquake victims, and got into a public spat with John Oliver.
Blazer and Warner screwed up the game for everyone else with the brazen nature of their alleged corruption. Before those two, no one could prove that any of FIFA’s dealings were shady, and there was a legitimate explanation for all kinds of payments that the public might view as bribery. No one was ringing up the United States Department of Justice to investigate, say, a fee for consulting services here, or an allocation of funds for new fields there — but alleged off-the-record briefcases full of cash draw different attention.
You might think Blatter was a crook, but he did a pretty good Robin Hood bit. He made sure that a lot of countries got funding they needed for various projects, and as a result, they voted for him. New president Gianni Infantino is continuing Blatter’s legacy by spreading FIFA’s wealth around to a large number of countries. A cynical person might view that as buying votes to retain power, but Infantino will tell you that he’s trying his best to grow the game. It’s an entirely defensible point.
The World Cup is the largest sporting event on the planet, but it has yet to include some of the world’s most populous countries. There are eight Asian countries that make up half the world’s population that are currently nowhere near making it to a World Cup. This is a huge problem for a sport that brands itself as the global game.
FIFA wants a 48-team World Cup to give not just China and India, but other countries — like Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines — hope that they could qualify for a World Cup. That increased hope could lead to those countries investing more in soccer. FIFA says it wants to generate $25 billion from new tournaments to help fund projects in countries where soccer is still struggling to take a strong foothold. China is already on its way to eventually establishing itself as a top-four team in Asia, but the others appear decades away.
This strategy from FIFA stands in stark contrast to world cricket’s governing body, which is regularly accused of corruption for the exact opposite reason. That sport’s Big Three — England, India, and Australia — have taken control of the ICC, and actively work to consolidate their control of the game, rather than grow it. Despite massive global interest, the Cricket World Cup has shrunk. That’s what a completely self-serving brand of executive corruption looks like. FIFA, at least, is genuinely spreading resources to a lot of countries and creating new opportunities for a lot of players. Some guys just skim $40 million off the top for themselves in the process.
International soccer is changing dramatically in the name of spreading the game to a truly global audience, and some greedy people are probably going to make money for themselves at the same time. That’s why dramatic changes are incoming, but what no one can possibly know is what the results will be.
What might this new world look like?
It’s easy to envision world soccer’s dedicated fanbase — the people who watch more than just the major tournaments — developing international soccer fatigue. The most intriguing part of the World Cup is that we get an opportunity to see matchups for the first — and likely only — time. If you miss it, you might miss some great moments in soccer history, never to be duplicated again. The UEFA Nations League is already going to dilute the specialness of the World Cup by pitting Europe’s best teams against each other more often than ever before. If a FIFA copy of the concept comes into existence, it’ll make the big inter-confederation matchups less special as well.
Perhaps FIFA will find a way to make this nations league and confederation championships double as World Cup qualifying, but it seems more likely that we’re going to have a system with a lot of bad, pointless qualifying matches. Everyone will have more margin for error, so we’re unlikely to see a USMNT in Trinidad situation ever again. You might think that’s a good thing if you’re a USMNT fan, but a lower level of competition and larger margin for error means the team isn’t going to be forced to get better.
A 48-team World Cup is also going to have more matches than any previous edition, and test the endurance of the viewer. Inevitably, fans who used to watch every single game of the tournament are going to skip some. FIFA might have to put two games on at the same time more often. And unlike now, when every game has the chance to be very competitive, a 48-team tournament will mean that the likes of Germany and Brazil will end up in matches against low-quality opposition that they can sleepwalk through.
More international matches could also lead to some of the world’s best players opting out of national team duty between big tournaments, or just retiring from international duty altogether. Coaches might be nice enough to rest players on teams who are involved in a lot of club competitions, but with campaigns already being so demanding — players for the biggest teams are already playing more than 60 matches in a season — it’s even more likely that there’s an uptick in players like Joel Matip, who retired from the Cameroon national team at age 25.
These are the bad scenarios. They’re far from guaranteed. Maybe the expanded tournament will be more exciting, and there will be wild upsets and crazy Cinderella runs. Big teams won’t miss the tournament anymore, so fanbases of bigger countries — including the U.S. — will never have to sit out a cycle. Maybe more soccer is always better.
The thing is: We don’t know. We don’t know what will happen to the Euros, Copa America, and the Nations League. We can’t foresee whether a 48-team World Cup and the build-up to it will suck, just like we can’t tell whether Blatter and Infantino are making a good faith effort to grow the game or simply trying to make themselves and their associates richer.
But there is a very real possibility that men’s international football, the most popular iteration of the most popular sport in the history of the world, is about to get irreparably screwed up.
With that in mind, this World Cup might be more than just another World Cup. It could be the last of a generation of superb tournaments, and our last opportunity to enjoy international soccer as it is now before it’s altered beyond all recognition. Do not take this World Cup for granted. Savor every match.