Will a 48-team World Cup be detrimental to football globally?

Tim Vickery and Philippe Auclair join Off The Ball to discuss a seismic change in how the World Cup is structured

BY Cian Roche 19:50 Tuesday 10 January 2017, 19:50 10 Jan 2017

Image: Joe Giddens / PA Wire/PA Images

World football will brace itself come the end of the decade, with the two World Cups after 2020 experiencing massive upheaval to the traditional competition.

In 2022, the World Cup comes to Qatar which has forced organisers to rethink when the tournament will take place. To combat scorching temperatures, FIFA has sanctioned the competition to now go ahead during the winter months and, for a large part, has widely overlooked their poor human rights record within the country as get themselves ready to host the tournament. 

Four years on, we will see even more turbulent change to the competition. From 2026, 48 teams will compete for football's greatest prize. This represents a 50% increase on the standard 32 team format and will also introduce a new grouping system which will see 16 groups of three compete.

Speaking on Tuesday's Off The Ball, Philippe Auclair and Tim Vickery gave their views on the move and what impact it will have on the global game, as well as on the competition alone.

"I can't say I'm entirely surprised to see the council rubber stamping [Gianni] Infantino's [FIFA President] proposal," Auclair began. "The thing that strikes me most in this whole story is the fact that a proposal which would have been deemed completely insane when Sepp Blatter [disgraced former FIFA president] was in power - or even a few months ago - is now accepted by people saying 'well, it might not be so bad after all'.

"One of the big problems for it for me, regardless of the format and what the groups will look like, there's been no consultation whatsoever. It's rare that I find myself in agreement with the ECA, I have to say it's been a scandal pretty much all the way along.

"There was no process. When Gianni Infantino declared his candidacy for the FIFA presidency, he said he wanted to expand the World Cup to 40 teams, this was the promise. Another time, many of us covering the election thought it was one way to conciliate the good will of some people who will vote in the election and give them more hope to compete in the final competition. 

"The 40 then went to 48. It came out of the blue. At the beginning of October, we hear from Gianni 'oh it's not gong to be 40, it's going to be 48'. The resolution was past unanimously - as these things tend to be passed - by the successor of the FIFA executive committee. Now we're faced with the 2026 World Cup with 48 teams which is, well, what can you say?"

FIFA President Gianni Infantino was behind the decision to 'drive the game globally' and extend the competition to a 48 team tournament. Image: Joe Giddens / PA Wire/PA Images

Tim Vickery then pointed out that the change came into effect to alter the perception of Infantino to the wider football community. The feat would be that the former UEFA President would only look after European countries in his capacity of presidency.

"Didn't we all want Sepp Blatter out? Wasn't that all that was wrong with football? I'm not a Blatter fan, but Blatter would not have done this. He didn't need to do this. Infantino has seen a need to do this. Why?

"We're hearing about financial benefits, but I think this has been politically led and we have to do a little bit of history for this...  You have to go back to a previous FIFA President, Stanley Rous. Then, the World Cup was 16 teams and it was really difficult for Asia and Africa to qualify. 

"In 1966, there was only one place for all of Asia and all of Africa. That compounded by a subject in African football that seemed to interest Rous: support for Apartheid South Africa. The argument there was for standards, which was a foolish one all along. How are people suppose to improve if you don't let them in?

"Infantino on the campaign trail he had to do something to beat that resistance that he was going to run just for Europe. We've had this proposal that will mainly benefit Africa and Asia - we think. But that could have been achieved without all the disadvantages that we're going to get from a 48-team World Cup."

The disadvantages include a more hectic schedule of games to complete the tournament within a set time-frame and the fact that the introduction of smaller nations made lead to larger defeats for so-called "weaker nations".

Vickery added: "For me, a solution to that problem is simple. Europe is over represented as it stands. The dull teams, the boring teams, the ones that clog up the World Cup, are the weaker sides from Europe.

"I think we could have improved inside the format of 32, without the enormous disadvantages that we have in 48."

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