How to make 48-team World Cup work

FIFA have an unrelenting campaign to become the most vilified administrative body in the world, it seems. Their descent into a comedy Bond villain organisation in the eyes of the public continued apace with their recent decision to expand the number of teams participating in a World Cup to 48.

Gianni Infantino, a man with a haunted ostrich egg for a head, announced that as of the 2026 edition of the competition, an additional 16 teams would qualify and the 48 nations would be divided into 16 groups of 3 for the tournament itself.

Understandably, this was met with derision by large swathes of the football community and it does admittedly feel like a transparent attempt to simply squeeze more cash out of international football’s biggest prize – including teams from more diverse parts of the world = more games, bigger audiences, greater sponsorship opportunities etc etc. In fact, if you were being super cynical, you could claim that this is a brazen attempt to give China the greatest possible chance of making it to the World Cup finals in order to cash in on a highly lucrative market.

And, given the revelations as to the internal culture at FIFA, it’s hard not to question where all that extra revenue is going to end up. Let’s face it, they’ve eroded any benefit of the doubt they may have been due.

Infantino has defended his plan and made assurances that the projected $640 million profit from the expanded tournament would be reinvested into football, with each of FIFA’s 211 member associations are promised $5 million a year to aid development. Amid accusations that the decision had been made for political rather than sporting reasons, Infantino asserted his desire for a more inclusive competition: “We are in the 21st century, and we should shape the World Cup for the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America; football is global.”

And I find that hard to disagree with. A 48-team World Cup is a horrible idea, but not due to having more teams.

Although that’s what much of the backlash has been focused on. The tenor of most criticism has suggested that having 48 teams take part would dilute the quality of the competition, that increasing participation is somehow a contradiction of the inherent meritocracy of sport. To which I would say: any tournament that England consistently qualifies for can make absolutely no claims to quality.

That’s also a decidedly Euro-centric view point to take – the sporting hegemony of European football is surely a result of colonialism in a variety of ways and the reason that superiority exists is due to having had greater time and resources to develop the game in their respective nations.

Offering smaller nations more of a chance to get to the finals could galvanise change – with World Cup qualification a real possibility, football associations would be encouraged to invest in their infrastructure, knowing that it could realistically end up with them mixing with the big boys.

A more representative World Cup is something to be lauded. It can’t be right that UEFA, with its 55 members, has nearly three times as many places as the 56-member African federation, or the 48-member Asian Football Confederation. Europe doesn’t own football and, although it might be difficult for some to acknowledge, the vast majority of the world lives outside of our continent. They deserve more opportunities to see their teams compete on the grandest stage of them all.

Others have mentioned to the expanded edition of the European Championships we saw in France this summer and pointed the incredibly dull football played in the opening fixtures as a herald of what’s to come in 2026. That seems to miss the point, though.

The real problem of Euro 2016 was the structure. When there is potential for 3 out of 4 teams to qualify from a group, you’re obviously going to encourage defensive football as 2 points is liable to see you progress.

It’s easy to see how the same might apply to a tournament where 2 out 3 teams in a group go through. The 3-team group, however, presents its own set of difficulties – not least the very real possibility of collusion.

During the 1982 World Cup, West Germany and Austria played out a game that has been referred to as the “Disgrace of Gijón“. The other two teams in the group, Algeria and Chile, had played the previous day and the result of that game meant that a win for West Germany by 1 or 2 goals would see the Germans and the Austrians both progress. West Germany scored in the first ten minutes and the following 80 were a drab, tepid affair with both teams safe in the knowledge they were through, meaning there was no incentive to try and win the game for Austria, or to increase the lead for their opponents.

The current policy of playing the final round of fixtures in a group concurrently is designed to make it extremely difficult for the integrity of the competition to be so flagrantly undermined again. It’s virtually impossible to prevent this sort of thing in a 3-team group though.

Say you had a group consisting of Sweden, Japan and Tunisia. The first two results played out like this:

Sweden 0 – 0 Japan

Tunisia 1 – 0 Japan

In the last game, a draw between Sweden and Tunisia would see both teams through and would knock Japan out. Even if there is no outright conspiracy between the two sides, there’s no reason for either side to be progressive and try to win the game which makes for a tedious spectacle.

Then there’s the problems that occur if all the games in a group are drawn by an identical scoreline – you’re down to drawing lots, effectively rendering the group stage pointless. There have been suggestions that drawn games would end in a penalty shootout to allocate an additional point. But what happens if you end up in a round robin situation – e.g. Sweden beats Tunisia on penalties, Tunisia beats Japan on pens, Japan beat Sweden on pens (after they’ve drawn each game 1-1) – you’re back to drawing lots.

Neither of those scenarios are particularly implausible and there is little that could be done to legislate against them under the current proposal.

So, if FIFA are wedded to 48 teams, which they appear to be, here’s my proposal: we scrap the group stage.

Obviously the biggest problem with 48 is if you keep halving it, you eventually end up with 3, which isn’t helpful when you’re trying to get down to one winner – like in a World Cup. For a tournament to function properly, you need to be working with either 2/4/8/16/32/64/128 (if you’re going really fucking mad) entrants if you intend on using a head-to-head set up as in the existing knock-out phases.

So we need to whittle our 48 back down to 32 and what I’m suggesting is that we chuck in some seeding.

We put the top 16 teams straight through to the second round and the remaining 32 teams get randomly drawn against each other. That gives us 16 ties and 16 winners who would progress to meet our 16 seeded teams in a round of 32 and, from there, normal service resumes.

When it comes to the seeding, there are a couple of different routes you could go down but, seeing as Infantino’s focus is on ensuring that the World Cup is a reflection of the global nature of the game, the fairest way seems to distribute seeded places between confederations in proportion with the number of qualifying places they receive at the minute.

The current distribution is: Europe 13/ Africa 5/ Asia 4.5/North America 3.5/South America 4.5/ Oceania 0.5/ Host nation 1. (the .5s are play-off games between nations).

So, if we tried to make our 16 seeds reflect that, we’d end up with something like: Europe 7/ Africa 2/ Asia 2/ North America 2/ South America 3.

Then there’s the difficulty of how we decide which teams get to be seeded. You could incorporate it into the qualifying campaign itself. That would work well in regions where they use a league format for qualification, like in South America or the latter stages of the CONCACAF qualifying, where you could give seeded places to the two highest placed teams in the table. But it wouldn’t work in continents that use a group format for qualifying, where the number of groups exceeds the number of seeded places they receive – Africa, Europe and Asia would run afoul of this.

How about using FIFA’s rankings to determine who is a seed then? It would be contentious, as the rankings are largely viewed as a bit of a joke. That said, they are currently used to decide on the division of countries into pots in the current World Cup system so their use isn’t unprecedented. Plus, if your ranking became relevant – as it would do if it meant you would get a bye into the second round of the World Cup – it would give international friendlies some meaning; you would be encouraged to play strong nations and to beat them in order to improve your ranking.

If we use the ranking system then, that would mean our 16 seeded teams would be:

Argentina/ Brazil/ Chile

Costa Rica/ Mexico

Iran/ South Korea

Senegal/ Cote d’Ivoire

Germany/ Belgium/France/Portugal/Spain/Switzerland/ Wales

And if we stuck them into a tournament, along with the rest of the top 48 nations according to the official rankings (with the places divided among federations according to existing distribution and the draw for the unseeded teams totally randomised) we’d end up with a top half of the draw looking like this:


And the bottom half of the draw looking like this:


There are some tasty fixtures in first round of games and a few potential crackers in round two

I think something like this can work. The unseeded teams could say it’s unfair that they have to play one game more than the seeds. However, a route to the final for an unseeded team would be 6 games which is still fewer than the 7 games that would be required under  Infantino’s current plans.

Those teams could also have complaints about the ability of their first round opponents; their draw could potentially be a game against a minnow, making the game pointless, or they could be drawn against a bigger nation, resulting in one of them going home early and allowing a smaller nation to scrape through into the latter stages.

But that argument can hardly stand if the reason for opposing expansion is that the newly included teams reduce the overall quality of the tournament – if that’s truly the case, then the more established teams should be more than capable of beating them without too much trouble, while granting smaller nations the chance to cause a dramatic upset if we go straight into knock-out football. Also, if the first round is randomised, it has the opportunity to throw up some intriguing ties early on. If you happen to be drawn against another big country, tough – you were going to have to beat a good team at some point anyway.

There are some obvious drawbacks to this structure. Most obviously is that every nation is only guaranteed one game at the tournament but in a three-team group stage, you’d only be guaranteed two games so that difference seems negligible. That’s unlikely to go down well with the broadcasters as the biggest, most established nations undoubtedly draw the biggest ratings. You can’t see ITV being happy with the fact that they’d only be guaranteed one England game rather than the 3 group games we’re currently guaranteed, or the 2 under Infantino’s version.

But there are some big names in the projected bracket above – Uruguay, USA, England – and this format has the potential to produce a huge game straight off the bat. According to the current rankings, Netherlands vs Italy and Uruguay vs Colombia are possibilities which are obvious appealing prospects for fans and media companies alike.

On the subject of the media, the fact that there would be fewer games overall is unlikely to be well received: under the current proposal with 16 groups of 3, there would be 80 games; under mine, only 48. There’s a trade off between quality and quantity though. Each of the opening 16 games has something at stake immediately and they’d be undoubtedly competitive affairs and would be much more compelling viewing than the cagey, tentative performances of the opening round of group stage fixtures where everyone is concerned with avoiding a damaging loss, rather than wanting to win. Clubs would surely be in favour of the reduced number of games – it would allow the tournament to be over with swiftly, allowing players more time to recuperate over the summer and generally diminishing the impact of the World Cup on an already packed footballing schedule.

This is by no means a perfect system but if FIFA are going to insist on going forward with 48 teams, this is much better than having 16 groups of 3. There’s no danger of collusion, you have the instant thrill of knock-out football from the first game onwards, and you’d have a more competitive, more exciting spectacle too.

Just a shame that it’s never going to happen.




One thought on “How to make 48-team World Cup work

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