With the FIFA World Cup expanding to 48 teams, it will be interesting to see how the future of world football pans out.
The FIFA World Cup has undergone a raft of changes since its inception. From making it a 16-team World Cup in Italy in 1934, to eventually moving to the current 32-team format in 1998, it has had its fair share of ups and downs. However, in the recent past, FIFA has been under the spotlight – for all the wrong reasons. After a number of FIFA officials were put under the scanner for corruption charges, it revealed the problems brewing in the game. Awarding Germany the World Cup hosting rights for 2006, Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022, were all issues that came to the fore. Put in a position, further investigations delved into the murky nature of world football’s administrative body laid bare the kind of politics that was involved at the very top. Sepp Blatter, the centrepiece of the organisation, was considered instrumental in the rise of the game in multiple smaller nations since he took charge. He was forced to resign after 17 years at the helm in 2015 and was banned from the organisation for eight years, tainting his legacy.
A fresh start
With the affable, bald-headed Gianni Infantino in-charge now, FIFA is looking to restore the legacy it was building under Mr. Blatter. Having come from UEFA, Infantino was seen as insider who wanted to change the face of the game. One of his major campaigns till now has been truly to include the ‘world’ in the FIFA World Cup. Building on the promise of former and much maligned UEFA President Michel Platini who wanted a 40-team World Cup, Infantino wants the expansion to be from 32 to 48 teams. A number of nations will now find it easier to qualify for the World Cup. Nations including China, where President Xi Jingping has confessed his love for the game and wants to bring home the World Cup by 2050, will now have a much easier task at hand and won’t have to wait long for an appearance at the famed tournament. Unanimously voted into, it seems football administrators across the world are seeing the move with favourable eyes. A chance to appear at the World Cup is an opportunity that everyone wants to hang on to.
Also Read: China’s World Cup Dream
By 2026, the World Cup will be divided into 16 groups of three teams each, with the top team from each group qualifying for the knockout stages. More matches, more excitement and expected increase in turnover by £521 million – HUGE. But, does the phrase ‘the more the merrier’ fit in here? Will a World Cup, including a whole group of debutants and rarely-seen nations be an actual success, or will it be a bust? These questions can only be answered conclusively when the time actually comes. However, as far as the principle of the move goes, there are some things that need to be questioned. Critics have blamed Infantino of going ahead with the idea because he wants to win favour from multiple smaller countries. The more chances he gives to the nations to qualify, the better it will be for him the next time the presidential vote comes around. Secondly, the nature of the competition has also been put under the microscope. The kind of competitiveness the tournament offers is coupled with a hint of exclusivity – that only the best of the best can qualify. That exclusivity contributes to the kind of aspirations that nations often attach to it. Will that aspiration be the same, when it is much easier to qualify the World Cup? That remains in doubt.
There is a need to look at the various perspectives to see what exactly a World Cup would be with 16 more teams. Although teams might find it easier to qualify, the benefits accruing out of the expansion might work on two levels. First, an increased chance to participate increases chances of a larger number of people being drawn to the sport in numerous smaller nations. For example. the sporting culture in India has largely developed around cricket, given the early success the team had in the Cricket World Cup of 1983. The expanded fan base was a result people attaching a higher aspirational value to the sport, with more kids now wanting the success and glory that their heroes got to the nation. On a secondary level, the increased sporting fervour can be tapped into. A significant rise in revenue can be used by FIFA to pour money into nations which need it the most. FIFA development programmes across the globe could use a lot more money, to develop the sport further and bring it up to the quality of many European and Latin American nations.
Going back in time
However, to look forward, we also need to go back in time. Tracing the changes that the World Cup has seen over the years, a pattern needs to be drawn out, of the kind changes that the tournament has seen and simultaneously what it meant for the nature of the World Cup. But that pattern doesn’t mean that the same means for all expansions. When 1934 came around in Italy, the addition of three more slots was a welcome relief for the world which was witnessing the rise of fascism through Mussolini and Hilter and the emergence of multiple powerhouses on the world stage. However, multiple nations declined to participate. Uruguay refused to defend their crown because a lot of European nations had boycotted the World Cup four years previously and the United Kingdom considered itself above all the other nations who wanted to play at the World Cup, therefore not caring to participate. However, the expansion brought a number of teams under the spotlight, especially European ones. More slots meant that the eventual runners-up of that edition would enter the World Cup for the first time in their history – Czechoslovakia. Earning their entry on the world stage, they made for a enthralling final with Italy, which, unfortunately for them, ended 2-1 in the favour of the hosts. It was a stepping stone in the building of the legacy of the World Cup. Jump to 1998, for the first time ever when 32 teams participated in the World Cup. It was crucial to the development of the game in two countries, who can boast of a strong performance on the international stage – Croatia and Japan. Stars like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic from Croatia and Shunshuke Nakamura and Shinji Kagawa from Japan have become household names in the places they play, being inspired by the opportunities that their national teams got on the international stage.
1934 and 1998 were two examples of where expansion was a success. But, is 48 too far? Will the shine of the trophy be taken away when 16 more teams are allowed to participate? The pattern seems to differ when it comes to measuring the success which the World Cup had. Parallels can be found in the UEFA European Championships of 2016, which expanded to 24 teams. While it had its drawbacks, with the quality of football brought down, the world got to see the unparalleled efforts of the Icelandic and Welsh teams, for the first time in very long. Not only did they have deep runs in the tournament, they won hearts across the board. Football takes a backseat when emotions are running high, and the Icelandic crowd was a sight to behold. It brought forth new cultures and new style of play to the world game. And those are exactly the things that make this game beautiful, adding to it every step of the way.
Maybe adding literally the ‘world’ to the World Cup won’t be such a bad idea. It won’t be bad to see teams like China, or on the off-chance an Indian team flying the flag high at the world stage in the near future. The tournament might lose a bit of prestige, however, the kind of aspirations people attach to see their countries play at the world stage will still be the same. The emotions of scoring a last-minute equaliser, or scoring the winning penalty in a shootout among the roars from the stands will be the same.