OPINION: The FIFA president's 48-team World Cup plan would be a cosmetic change

Gianni Infantino's proposed format is a little convoluted

BY Raf Diallo 14:55 Tuesday 4 October 2016, 14:55 4 Oct 2016

Newly elected FIFA president Gianni Infantino of Switzerland raises an arm during a press conference after the second election round during the extraordinary FIFA congress in Zurich, Switzerland, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Delegates of the soccer body FIFA met to elect a new president. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Since 1998, the World Cup has had 32 teams competing for football's grandest international prize.

And if the unexpected had happened, 2010 could have had 33 teams had Ireland been given an extra place in South Africa as a result of the Thierry Henry handball that helped send France to the tournament instead of us.

Truthfully, it was never going to happen and didn't need to happen as injustice unfortunately comes with the territory in sport. The episode did indirectly give birth to the name of a Newstalk show though.

The number 32 is pretty perfect from a sports perspective as it divides into 16 and then 8, 4, 2 and then the champions. Perfecto! It's one of the reasons that the Champions League has that number of teams and why that 32-team group stage format has often been put in the conversation regarding the restructuring the All-Ireland football championship

Of course, one accepts that the World Cup is imbalanced in terms of its global representation with Europe and South America dominating. 

At the next World Cup in Russia, both UEFA and CONMEBOL will cover off either 18 or 19 of the 32 places, leaving Africa, Asia (including Australia) and North and Central America fighting over the remainder.

Is it fair? Not in pure numbers terms it isn't.

But from a sporting perspective, in this writer's opinion, one would need to take into account results and historic trends.

Europe and South America have more places because they have won every World Cup between them since its inception and dominate when it comes to getting to the latter stages. Most of the world's strongest national sides come from one of those two federations.

Meanwhile, only three sides from Africa have reached the quarter-finals (Cameroon 1990, Senegal 2002 and Ghana 2010) while Asia's AFC saw South Korea make a run to the semi-finals on home soil.

Otherwise getting to the last-16 has tended to be the current ceiling for nations from Asia. The same can be said of Mexico who have two quarter-final appearances in the history books but have finished in the first post-group stage round at every World Cup since 1994.

For USA, knockout round appearances have occurred but not beyond a quarter-final.

Between the likes of Ghana and South Korea, Mexico, USA and Japan, the federations of CAF (Africa's governing body), AFC (Asia and Australia) and CONCACAF (North and Central America as well as the Caribbean) have strong second tier national sides with the potential to make runs to quarter-finals at the World Cup.

Which brings us to FIFA president Gianni Infantino who has gone beyond past comments when it comes to his change of mind on proposals for expanding the tournament.

At one time he advocated that 40 teams would be a good way to go and if that means that teams from non-European or South American confederations would have greater representation, it wouldn't be as drastic a change.

It would mean groups of five teams rather than the more workable and mathematically streamlined four, but it wouldn't be impossible.

However, he has new plans. A 48-team tournament that in reality still remains a 32-team tournament.

His basic idea is thus: The top 16 seeded teams would be given a bye into a 32-team group stage.

The other 16 teams would qualify by way of a preliminary round, with 32 sides playing a knockout tie in the host nation for a place in the group stage.

"It means we continue with a normal World Cup for 32 teams, but 48 teams go to the party," he says.

So, essentially it is a cosmetic change to the tournament because it would be hard to call the preliminary round part of the proper World Cup regardless of how FIFA market it.

Indeed, the 16 unlucky nations who miss out on the group stage by losing the preliminary round game would be travelling to play just one match.

Forty-eight teams wouldn't necessarily increase true representation from outside Europe or South America in the group stage because the way the format appears to work, nations from CAF, AFC and CONCACAF could still lose to a UEFA or CONMEBOL team in the preliminary round. Of course they could win but defeat is always on one side of a coin. 

Thus, it's not really a solution to the perceived problem Infantino wants to address unless they seed that preliminary round to put European/South American teams against each other and the rest of the world on the other side of the draw.

But there is also a danger of diluting the quality of the final tournament through expansion if it easier for certain teams to qualify for the group stage at the expense of sides who may be stronger overall but are put at a disadvantage by dint of being from Europe or South America.

It is a dilemma because we all want to see emerging football nations developing. The World Cup can play a role in that regard with qualification providing financial and status incentives for those nations.

Nations from AFC, CAF and CONMEBOL have developed quickly over recent decades because if you remember Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) for example in 1974 who lost their three group games by an aggregate score of 14-0, we don't see those sort of one-sides results anywhere near as often anymore.

On one hand, increased representation from past 16-team World Cups to 24 and then 32 has allowed for that, but at least those expansions saw countries qualify directly for the group stage where they would gain the comparative experience of playing three matches rather than one.

So, if FIFA do really want to make a real change, they can create a 48-team version of the World Cup - but that should be the group stage rather than an unnecessary preliminary round.

And by the time, a new format would come into place, the global unbalance of world football between the traditional powers and emerging nations may have been reduced further.

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