It might have been a matter of time until the biggest sporting event on the planet was going to expand. The question was when and by how much. On Wednesday, we got that answer. The answer was by 16 and it will happen in time for the 2026 World Cup.
Whether it’s March Madness, College Football Playoff, the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup. They all have one thing in common. They will expand when it makes sense financially. And that’s exactly what FIFA did and they accomplished it with a bang.
Unsurprisingly, there was controversy after the announcement throughout the world. While the 48-team World Cup is met with an overwhelming amount of optimism from countries like Peru, Panama, Albania, Uganda and Bahrain, a few will all be eager to taste the World Cup with a much higher percentage. The one criticism about the 32-team World Cup was it was the same teams qualifying cycle after cycle, and that cinderella runs only happened when a country received a good draw.
There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s begin with the good, the bad and the down right ugly over things regarding World Cup expansion.
48 teams will mean more education and more tourism for the host country and less importance on the draw that a country is given. World Cup Qualifying’s room for error is razor-thin on the surface, so it does make sense to expand. Even when teams do qualify, there are some, that don’t have a chance of reaching to the knockout stage.
In fact, there is going to be a new format for the 2026 World Cup. Instead of eight groups of four, there will be 16 groups of three. This will eliminate and decrease the chances of “Group of Deaths” that will level the playing field. More importantly, the knockout stage will begin with 32 teams creating a higher chance of different matchups in the early rounds.
Despite a 48 team World Cup seeming like a good idea, World Cup Qualifying has instantly become boring for teams like Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Ghana to name a few. Those countries are regional powerhouses that should have no problem qualifying for 2026.
In addition, the actual World Cup might become diluted with average teams qualifying regularly. As of now, it is too early to say that this will actually come true until we see the Qualifying formats regionally. To continue, the World Cup happens every four years and qualifying for one should be special. A 48 team World Cup isn’t special to qualify anymore.
A huge concern that will come up is the upcoming biding for future World Cups. With the increased number of teams, comes an increased number of games. That means an increased number of millions it will cost to host a World Cup and consequently decrease the number of countries able to bid for World Cups in the future.
16 groups of 3? Who’s brilliant idea was that? It doesn’t take a calculus major at the University of Duke to figure out that groups of three will be a gong-show to say the least.
I present to you Rock Paper Scissorology: Everyone has played it as a kid, rock beats scissors, paper beats rock, but scissors beat paper. In this study, this is what FIFA has gotten themselves into. Let’s say we are in Group M and it features Croatia, Panama and Cameroon. In this group, Croatia would be the favorite but not by much. Well what happens if Croatia beats Panama 1-0, Panama beats Cameroon 1-0, and Cameroon beats Croatia 1-0? All realistic score lines against three competitive teams. At the end of the day, you have a complete three-way tie. This is not too far-fetched from becoming a disastrous situation.
To make stuff even more of a nightmare, FIFA enforced that “their will be shootouts to decide ties.” Unfortunately, my math says that won’t solve much except for exciting back and forth action. In fact, even with shootouts in place, my rock, paper, scissors theory still exists.
Also, with three team groups, there will be a huge advantage to the two teams playing in the final game.For instance, a team might not know if their eliminated until after the final game, which isn’t fair to the odd team out. At the end of the day, FIFA had to change something, but I think they made too drastic of a move. Potentially, they should have maybe tested this format in the Europa League or Champions League to see if fans liked it because most fans are puzzled by the format. 2026 is nine years away, and hopefully FIFA hasn’t ruined the most watched month-long sporting event in the world.