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48-team FIFA World Cup will increase Asian and African participation

FIFA has voted to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from its current 32, brushing aside concerns that the expansion would lower the overall standard of the tournament, and make it too big and unwieldy. HT explains what it means

football Updated: Jan 10, 2017 19:34 IST
Sean Sequeira
Sean Sequeira
Hindustan times
FIFA,FIFA World Cup,48-team World Cup
German players celebrate after their victory in the FIFA World Cup final vs Argentina at The Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on July 13, 2014. (AFP)

FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s proposed 48-team World Cup plan was accepted by a 37-member council on Tuesday. The first World Cup tournament to feature the new format will be the 2026 edition, the host of which will be decided in 2020. The decision marks the first change that will be made to the World Cup format since the expansion to 32 teams in 1998. (FIFA Footballer of the Year Ronaldo’s best goals)

Listed below are the changes that will take place, and the likely pros and cons of the decision:

The changes

The most obvious change is the number of teams competing in the tournament proper. From the previous 32 teams, the list of participating nations will go up to 48.

According to the new format, the 48 teams competing in the group stage will be split into 16 groups of three teams each.

The top two teams of each group will proceed to the knockout stages which will start from the round of 32 and go all the way to the final.

The number of matches in the tournament will rise from 64 to 80, but no team will play more than seven matches during the tournament. This means that the number of matches played by each team remains the same from the current tournament format.

Hence the champion team’s match schedule during the tournament will look something like this:

Group match 1 -> Group match 2 -> Round of 32 -> Round of 16 -> Quarterfinal -> Semifinal -> Final

The pros

In Infantino’s words, the idea behind the expansion proposal was to make the World Cup “more inclusive”. “There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup,” Infantino had said during a conference in Dubai in December 2016.

Germany's players pose for pictures as they celebrate with their World Cup trophy after beating Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on July 13, 2014. (REUTERS)

The expanded format will mean 16 additional qualification slots to be distributed among the six continental confederations.

At present, Uefa holds the highest number of slots at 13, CAF has 5 slots, AFC gets 4 or 5 slots, CONMEBOL gets 4 or 5 slots, CONCACAF gets 3 or 4 slots and OFC gets 1 or 0 slots.

Slots are awarded to the best performing nations of the qualification stage which means that slots between AFC, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and OFC can be added or dropped. A single slot is also reserved for the country that hosts the tournament.

Advantage Asia, Africa

With the new format, Asian and African countries are set to benefit as they are likely to receive more slots meaning more Asian and African countries will play in the 2026 World Cup.

The expansion will also lead to increased profits for FIFA  (Reuters)

The decision was also backed by federations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under the understanding that Europe would receive at least three more slots to take their participation up to 16 nations, thereby allowing for one European team in every group.

Before the decision was made, Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan drew reference to the expanded Euro 2016 format while expressing support for Infantino’s plan, citing the examples of Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland in saying, the expansion will be “a positive thing for the smaller nations”.

In addition, the expansion will also lead to increased profits for FIFA.

FIFA’s internal research has suggested the expanded format will increase revenues by £800million from increased broadcasting, sponsor deals and ticket sales. This is expected to raise the total profits from the World Cup to nearly Pounds 3.5 billion.

The cons

The biggest detractors to the expansion plan were English Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn and German Football Association president Reinhard Grindel, both of whom preferred the current 32-team format because a change could affect the quality of the tournament.

Grindel said adding more teams could “strengthen the imbalance” seen in some international tournaments while Glenn had said, “Our preference would be to keep the tournament smaller, because there’s a quality factor here.”

Whether the quality of the game will be affected will only be known once the tournament begins.

Aside from those concerns, Venezuelan Football Federation president Laureano Gonzalez was not completely in favour of the new qualification format proposed alongside the new tournament format.

As part of the proposal for the 2026 World Cup, FIFA had proposed merging the qualification phase for North and South America. At present, 35 CONCACAF teams compete for 3 or 4 slots and 10 CONMEBOL teams compete for 4 or 5 slots.

Gonzalez had said 45 teams competing for seven slots was not viable but if North and South America were given at least 14 slots like Europe, “the idea would catch on”.

Changes but still the same

The European Club Association (ECA) — a body which represents top professional clubs in Europe — said before the vote that the increased format would not be suitable as it would lead to more player injuries because of more matches and a congested fixtures calendar.

ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said the new format was more of a political and commercial venture on Infantino’s part than something that would help the betterment of football.

However, in keeping that in mind, Infantino’s team created the new format that would not increase number of matches for each team during the tournament.

Furthermore, in an attempt to keep the top European clubs happy, the proposed plan schedules the tournament to begin and end within 32 days, same as the current format.

First Published: Jan 10, 2017 19:30 IST