Here are some of the points I included in an e-mail I sent to a FIFA Council member this morning. I have omitted parts of the e-mail that would identify who that member is.
I am contacting you to today because having seen some of the leaked documents for tomorrow’s FIFA Council meeting, I have serious concerns about the upcoming decision that the FIFA Council will be taking as to which format should be used for the 2026 World Cup Finals. I am increasingly being given the impression that proper due diligence has not been performed on the costs and benefits of each of the five proposals being considered and that one proposal is having its strengths exaggerated while its weaknesses are glossed over.
I am concerned not only that FIFA risks destroying its flagship product, but also that such a major decision would be undertaken without the members of the FIFA Council (i.e. the voters) being provided with proper analysis.
It has been reported (http://www.espnfc.com/fifa-world-cup/story/2972078/fifa-to-study-expanding-2026-world-cup-to-40-or-48-teams) that Gianni “Infantino confirmed on Friday that a bigger World Cup would be for sporting reasons, ‘not a financial or political decision.’"
In a brief interview (viewable at http://www.onenewspage.com/video/20161208/6214494/FIFA-Infantino-defends-his-48-team-World.htm), President Infantino also stated the following regarding all of the proposed formats that will be considered by the FIFA Council in January:
“What I can say already now and just to be very clear, is that all these formats can be played in the same number of days as currently (32 days), with the same number of stadiums than (sic) currently (12 stadiums), and that the team qualifying, or the two teams qualifying for the Final of the tournament, will play seven games.
This means that there is no additional burden for the players because if you play the Final you play seven games in 32 days, as exactly as it is the case now, so there is no downside for the players, there is no downside for the clubs because the calendar is not impacted but there is a big upside for football because it allows eight or sixteen more teams and more countries and more regions in the world to participate in the top competition of the world which is the World Cup.”
The five proposals are:
1. Retain the existing 32 team format
2. Increase the number of teams to 40, with the group stage played in eight groups of five
3. Increase the number of teams to 40, with the group stage played in ten groups of four
4. Increase the number of teams to 48, with a preliminary round played first to reduce the number of teams to 32 and then follow the existing format
5. Increase the number of teams to 48, with the group stage played in sixteen groups of three
While I understand the desire for more countries to attend the tournament and what that would potentially mean in terms of revenue and increasing fan interest, I do not believe that this should be done at the expense of the integrity of the tournament.
Certainly it appears that three of the four plans for expansion are non-starters, because they would result in only one team qualifying from some or all of the groups.
The proposals I refer to are, of course, #2, #3 and #4.
#2: 40 Teams (8 groups of 5 teams)
If there are eight groups of five teams, then each team would play four group games. This would mean they can only play three more matches each.
This logically means that only eight teams can make the knock-out stage.
Therefore only the eight group winners would progress beyond the group stage and the remaining 32 teams would be eliminated.
I find it hard to believe that this format is actually being considered.
#3: 40 Teams (10 groups of 4 teams)
If there are ten groups of four teams, then each team would play three group games. This means they can play up to four more matches each.
This logically means that sixteen teams can make the knock-out stage.
Therefore, the ten group winners and six best runners-up would progress, meaning four groups would see only one out of their four teams progress. 24 teams would be eliminated.
I also find it hard to believe that this format is actually being considered.
#4: 48 teams with Preliminary knock-out round, then 8 groups of 4 teams
If 32 teams play a preliminary match, then sixteen will be eliminated after just one match, which is not much of a ‘tournament’ for those teams.
It is quite likely too that there would be a regional imbalance in the number of teams making the last 32.
At the end of the group stage, with half of the teams having played one preliminary match plus three group matches for a total of four matches, we have the same situation as in #2. The teams can only play a maximum of three more games each.
This logically means that only eight teams can make the knock-out stage.
Therefore only the eight group winners would progress beyond the group stage and the remaining 24 teams would be eliminated.
This format also seems completely unacceptable.
The fact that #2 was the proposal that President Infantino widely promoted prior to the election, with #3 and #4 having been alternatives he suggested later, makes me question whether he did any due diligence at all on his own proposals.
A more sinister interpretation would be that President Infantino knows only too well that none of these proposals can possibly be acceptable and is just presenting them to introduce false alternatives where none really exist.
#5: 48 teams (16 groups of 3 teams)
That leaves just #5 as a possible useable format. But there are also huge negatives with this proposal, including the following:
1. Result Manipulation
Groups containing three teams necessarily have byes, meaning the two teams that play on the last day are at an advantage because they know what result they need to progress. The whole reason FIFA instigated the system where all teams in a group play their third group match simultaneously in 1986 was to prevent a repeat of what happened in 1982 when West Germany defeated Austria 1-0, a result that saw both teams progress at the expense of Algeria.
Consider some of the possible scenarios that could result:
England 1 Australia 0
Argentina 2 England 0
Both Australia and Argentina will progress at England's expense if Australia win the third game by one goal
Switzerland 0 Honduras 0
Ecuador 1 Switzerland 0
Both Ecuador and Honduras will progress at Switzerland's expense if the third game is a draw.
Italy 1 Nigeria 1
Italy 0 Colombia 0
Both Nigeria and Colombia will progress at Italy's expense if the third game ends 2-2.
New Zealand 0 Paraguay 0
Germany 3 Paraguay 0
Both Germany and New Zealand will progress if Germany win the third game by one or two goals.
2. Possibility of all three teams in a group finishing with identical records.
There is an increased chance of teams finishing with identical records in a group and no obvious tie-breaking mechanism being available.
Consider these scenarios:
Iran 1 Iceland 0
Iceland 1 Cameroon 0
Cameroon 1 Iran 0
All three teams have one win and one loss, with identical goals for and against.
Brazil 1 Poland 1
Poland 1 USA 1
USA 1 Brazil 1
All three teams have two draws, with identical goals for and against.
Belgium 2 Peru 0
Belgium 2 Morocco 0
Peru 1 Morocco 1
Belgium have won the group with two wins, but there is no way to separate Peru and Morocco.
There has been talk of removing the possibility of draws by having penalty shoot-outs for matches that finish level. This would be a radical change to football and would see FIFA introducing something for the World Cup that isn't used anywhere else.
And even this radical change wouldn't help with all of the scenarios above.
It is also possible to imagine the following:
Mali 0 Israel 0 (Mali wins on penalties)
South Korea 0 Mali 0 (South Korea wins on penalties)
Israel 0 South Korea 0 (Israel wins on penalties)
3. Unequal Rest Periods prior to the knock-out matches
In each group, one team will have a bye in the third round of group matches, while the other two teams meet each other.
Two out of the three teams will progress to the next round. Therefore, there is a 67% chance on average that a team that has a third-round bye will progress to the Last 32.
When this happens, there is a good chance that team will meet a team that played in the third round of group games.
This would mean that one team has a full week to prepare for the Last 32 match, while the other team has only three days, including possibly travelling. This seems inherently unfair.