More is not merrier

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While some national football associations as well as FIFA President Gianni Infantino will no doubt be disappointed at the news that plans to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams, up from 32, have been abandoned, many others should welcome it.

While it is set that the 2026 World Cup will be enlarged to 48 teams, Infantino had toyed with the notion of bringing forward the increase to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. But meeting a few days ago, FIFA, world football’s governing body, said that after a “thorough and comprehensive consultation process” the change “could not be made now”.

That conclusion should come as a major relief. The change would have required Qatar to share hosting duties with other countries in the region, however, at this stage, Qatar cannot co-host with other countries in the region which are at odds with Doha’s regional policies.

And lest it be forgotten, staging the 2002 World Cup in which South Korea and Japan co-hosted - a World Cup first - was a logistical nightmare.

FIFA also said it explored the possibility of Qatar, the first ever Middle East nation to stage the event, hosting a 48-team tournament on its own but decided not to pursue those plans as there was not enough time for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact. The problem is that the next World Cup is being held in a country that is less than 100 miles long and 60 miles wide, with a population of little more than 2.5 million people. In simple terms, Qatar doesn’t have the capacity to stage an enlarged tournament. Due to the advanced stage of preparations, more time would have been required.

When FIFA agreed that the 2026 tournament, which will be jointly held by Canada, Mexico and the United States, will feature 48 teams, that decision was made before the bidding process had concluded.

Infantino has been a strong advocate of expansion and said the World Cup has to be more inclusive. In Infantino’s eyes, more games means more chances to generate more broadcasting, sponsorship and ticket revenues. This solution is the perfect way to reconcile money and equality – allowing more countries to compete with more games in more venues.

The Swiss official campaigned on a platform of promoting equality across world football, a promise that somehow has to be paid for. During his term in office, the FIFA president has therefore set about drumming up business through all manner of money-making schemes. This has included signing a series of big money sponsorship deals, most notably with a group of reportedly big Chinese companies. He also hit upon the idea that bigger tournaments make more money. It’s worth remembering, too, that Infantino is in the middle of a presidential re-election campaign in which he needs the votes of football associations big and small.

But money isn’t everything. There are also human rights risks associated with adding new countries, not least the potential widespread exploitation of migrant workers providing construction services.

There is also no doubt that increasing the number of countries in the World Cup will dilute the field. It’s true that football is no longer about Europe and South America, the two dominant footballing continents. There are many African and Asian countries that are on a par, and in many cases, better than what the two big continents can offer.

The World Cup has experienced successive expansions. The inaugural edition, held in 1930, was contested by only 13 teams. In the tournaments between 1934 and 1978, 16 teams competed in each tournament. The tournament was expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and then to 32 in 1998. With each expansion, the World Cup became less exciting and more ponderous.


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