I hoped we were past this World Cup expansion nonsense, but apparently Gianni Infantino still believes that his grandiose plans to enlarge the flagship FIFA tournament are more important than fixing the many things that still ail FIFA.
Lack of transparency? Lack of accountability? Player welfare issues? Limited opportunities for female players? Failure to develop referees and coaches? Match fixing? Doping? Corrupt national association officials? Racism? Sexism? Homophobia? Child trafficking? Illogical and discriminatory FIFA rankings?
Apparently, none of those are important. Instead, let's prioritise fixing the obviously broken World Cup.
Within the next month, FIFA will apparently be voting on which format to move ahead with for the 2026 World Cup. By FIFA, I mean the men (well, they are almost men, aren't they?) who have the most to gain from increasing the number of teams that qualify. Just think, under their inspired leadership, their country could qualify for the World Cup Finals for the first time ever!
Apparently there are five proposals on the table:
1. Retain the status quo. 32 teams qualify. The group stage consists of eight groups of four. The top two teams from each group progress to the knock-out phase. If you win three of these in a row, you're in the Final. Lose any game and you're out.
2. Add eight teams to the tournament. 40 teams qualify. The group stage consists of eight groups of five. Knock-out matches are then played to determine the finalists. I'm being deliberately vague about this format for reasons that will become clear later.
3. Add eight teams to the tournament. 40 teams qualify. The group stage consists of ten groups of four. Presumably the ten group winners and the six best second-placed teams move on to the knock-out stage. It's never really been made clear what the exact plan is. It probably doesn't matter, anyway. It's not going to happen.
4. Add sixteen teams to the tournament. 48 teams qualify. The lowest-ranked 32 teams play a single elimination match. The winners stay and qualify for the group stage. The tournament proceeds much as the current format proceeds. There is a big asterisk here that Gianni Infantino is ignoring. More on that later.
5.Add sixteen teams to the tournament. 48 teams qualify. The group stage consists of sixteen groups of three. The top two teams in each group progress to the 32-team knock-out phase. Win four of these games in a row and you'll find yourself in the Final. Lose any game and you're out.
Infantino's rationale for expansion is apparently to increase excitement (and, no doubt, revenue) in nations that normally aren't good enough to qualify for (what used to be) the world's elite international men's tournament. He argues that even if teams don't qualify, just knowing that they have a chance will, in itself, help promote the game.
I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the arguments for and against his viewpoint. A lot of the arguments made by Infantino and his detractors are purely subjective and speculative.
Instead, I'm going to look at the practicalities of the different formats, and I will discuss them all purely through the lens of Infantino's recent statement in which:
First, there are certain assumptions I need to make.
Matches per Day
Recent history tells us that, for various revenue-based reasons, wherever possible, FIFA prefers to only play one match at a time. The exception is currently for the third round of group matches, where two matches are played simultaneously to lessen the opportunity for teams to manufacture results that suit both themselves and their opponents (as happened in 1982 when West Germany defeated Austria 1-0 to ensure both these teams qualified for the next phase at the expense of Algeria). The third round of group matches is currently the only time when more than three matches are played on a single day.
Currently the maximum number of kick-off times per day is three. Realistically, that could be expanded to four. This would mean it would be possible for the worldwide audience to watch matches played at 1:00PM, 3:15PM, 5:30PM and 7:45PM for example, leaving enough time between matches for stoppage time, etc. and plenty of time during the build-up for TV to show those lucrative advertisements. For matches potentially involving extra time or penalty shoot-outs, more time would be required between kick-off times.
As the tournament progresses into the knock-out phase, eventually matchless days are required. The current format includes seven matchless days. There is one after the completion of the group stage and prior to the start of the Round of 16. There are two more after the Round of 16 and prior to the quarter-finals. There are two more between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals and then two more between the semi-finals and the third place play-off.
3rd Place Play-off and Final
Traditionally the match to determine the third place winners is played the day before the Final. It would be possible to play both matches on the same day but that would in all likelihood lead to the third place game being overlooked by many fans. FIFA appears to want to promote this match as important and also seems to be of the opinion that the Final itself is so important that there should be no other game played on the same day.
Taking into account the above three assumptions and combining them with Gianni Infantino's claims, I have come up with possible (likely?) formats for each of the five tournament format options that FIFA will apparently be selecting from.
The current format would require no change. The group stage could continue to be played over fifteen days. The 16 knock-out matches could be scheduled for the current ten days and the existing seven matchless days could be retained.
With forty teams divided into eight groups of five, 80 group stage matches are required. Even if four matches were played every day, including the Opening Game which traditionally is set aside by itself or with only one other match being played on the same day, that means twenty days would be required to complete the group stage. By then, each team would have already played four matches.
If we are to believe Gianni Infantino, the maximum number of matches played by the finalists would be seven. This means that only three rounds of knock-out matches would be possible (quarter-finals, semi-finals and Final) which could easily be scheduled in the remaining twelve days.
But the obvious conclusion is that only the eight group winners would progress to the knock-out phase, meaning the other 32 teams would be eliminated at the group stage. This would mean 80 out of the 88 matches would be group stage games, many of which would surely be meaningless from as early as the third round of group matches onward, and only eight matches would be straight knock-out matches that are so loved by fans.
I don't see how this format could possibly be acceptable.
With forty teams divided into ten groups of four, sixty group matches are required. If four matches per day were scheduled the group stage could be completed in fifteen days, the same as it is under the current format, and the rest of the tournament could be conducted the same way as in the 2018 schedule.
This format would logically require that the ten group winners and the six best second-placed teams would qualify for the Round of 16, with the remaining 24 teams eliminated after their three group games. In this format, too, there would be a high probability that many of the later group matches would be meaningless.
I really don't see this format being approved.
With 32 teams playing a single elimination match to determine which of them stay in the tournament and which go home after just one match, four days minimum would be needed just for these sixteen games.
An additional twelve days minimum would be required to complete the 48 group stage matches, by the end of which some teams would have already played four matches, meaning only three rounds of knock-out matches are possible. Therefore, only the eight group winners would progress to the knock-outs and the remaining 24 teams would be out.
A week or so ago Infantino thought this format was the best thing since sliced bread. It's actually another non-starter.
With 48 teams divided into sixteen groups of three, 48 first round matches would be required so the minimum days needed to complete the group stage would be twelve. The teams in groups 13-16 who have byes in their first match wouldn't begin their tournament until Day 8, by which time twelve teams would have already completed their group games, some of which could already be mathematically eliminated. There would also be the prospect of a team drawing their first game and knowing that anything better than a five goal loss would see them through to the next round. It's hard to see this format generating much excitement among viewers.
32 teams would progress to the 16-match second round requiring four days minimum to complete. At least one rest day would probably also be needed before the start of the Round of 16. By playing four games per day all of these matches could be accommodated.
On the negative side, there would be the potential for the third round of group matches to be either meaningless or manipulated, causing a huge disadvantage to the the teams with third round byes. In addition, the worst case scenario for the finalists would be that they are required to play seven matches in 25 days (or 24 days for the teams playing off for third place), whereas currently the worst possible scenario is that the winners play seven matches in 29 days.
This doesn't really fit in with Gianni Infantino's claim that there would be no extra demands on players.
Given the above, the best option of the five seems to me to be to keep the existing 32-team format. Certainly, options 2, 3 and 4 appear to be non-starters, and option 5 has numerous serious drawbacks.
In passing, I would note that Infantino campaigned on increasing the World Cup to forty teams, and yet neither of the forty-team formats is acceptable once subjected to even a modicum of scrutiny.
His next great idea was Option 4, which is also a non-starter.
It seems clear that he is a man who changes his mind often, suggesting one bad idea after another, failing to carry out due diligence and using poor arguments for justification. The devil is in the details, but clearly he's not a details man.
In a few more weeks, once the 2026 decision has already been taken, who's to say that he won't have come up with another three ridiculous formats?
On the bright side, with any luck, by the time 2026 rolls around, he'll no longer be FIFA President.