2026 will mark the death of international football: that year’s FIFA World Cup will be saturated by lesser teams offered a place in a competition ideally reserved for the elite by an artificially inflated pool of 48 teams.
After consecutive victories for one of the greatest international teams of all time, Portugal’s triumph in Euro 2016 came as something of an anti-climax. Though they were arguably deserving winners, it cannot be denied that they were facilitated by the competition’s expanded size, which allowed them to potter their way through the group stage having drawn all three of their matches. The football on display in France last year made for one of the worst European Championships in memory – with the notable exception of the heroics of Iceland and Wales – and should have proved once and for all that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
FIFA didn’t get the memo, and this week, another blow was dealt to international football: in their unending quest for more money, the world’s governing body has voted unanimously in favour of a 48-team World Cup, comprised of sixteen groups of three teams. Euro 2016 showed us that an artificially diluted competition lowers the overall quality of football and encourages negative tactics: we’ll have more of the same on the world stage from 2026 onwards. Even if the plan’s defenders are correct that the three-team format will make a group match matter, the prospect of minnows like Uzbekistan and Gabon battling for a place in the second round does little to inspire.
Any hope for the revival of international football has probably been dashed. With the next two World Cups set to be held in the corrupt basket case of Russia and the slave-ridden wasteland of Qatar, questions can and have already been raised about the increasing concessions to finance over football. Many thousands of fans will be put off by the destinations available to them, and, in the case of Qatar, the irritating break it will force in the domestic seasons of England, Spain, and other major leagues. 2026 will have no such problem: with 48 teams on the roster and the United States as a likely host nation, that year’s tournament will be the most highly attended and most profitable of all time.
Gianni Infantino was careful, in his defence of the expansion, to quietly mention the expected profits. With much of the football world bemoaning the dilution of the competition and the inevitable decline in quality, it is difficult to see the FIFA president’s assertion that expansion will improve the World Cup as anything but disingenuous. We are all under no illusions that the motive is not money, and the consolidation of Infantino’s position among the Africa and Asian confederations. Expansion is already predicted to increase FIFA’s profits – curiously, for a non-profit organisation – to an unprecedented £611 million.
No other major global tournament is so generous to its competitors than the World Cup, which is already saturated by makeweights.
If FIFA truly cared about international football beyond its possibilities as a moneymaking tool, their discussions would centre on reducing, rather than increasing, the number of teams allowed to qualify. Jonathan Wilson (who has long argued for a return to a 16-team World Cup) has made the case for a smaller, more elitist final tournament and a reformed global qualifying competition that would give a flavour of World Cup football to smaller nations while ensuring that all 16 finalists would be picked from among the global elite. Not only, he argues, would a smaller tournament open up the opportunity for hosting to more countries, but it would also encourage better, more positive football.
Elitism is not unwelcome in sport. No other major global tournament is so generous to its competitors than the World Cup, which is already saturated by makeweights. In the 2014 edition, the first 0-0 draw was played between Nigeria and Iran: was anybody outside of those two countries truly interested in that game? Sport at the highest level should be open only to the very best in that discipline. If, in a 16-team world cup, that meant an exclusive group of European and American teams, then that would be an accurate representation of the game’s elite. With a qualifying competition involving 211 countries, nobody could argue that any had been unfairly prejudiced.
One day, African and Asian national teams will be able to compete with their European and South American counterparts. Until that day, they should not be privileged by an artificially inflated World Cup. Jonathan Wilson’s suggestion, a global qualifying competition of around 60 teams (drawn from regional rounds) would draw together teams from all confederations into groups, allowing the likes of Burkina Faso to meet France and Mexico in home and away matches. Thus, lesser footballing nations would be able to compete against the very best in front of their own fans. ‘What is better for the game in developing football nations?’ he asks. ‘Playing three games in a distant World Cup, or hosting three major games in your own country where substantial numbers of your own fans can actually go and watch?’
All that is as unlikely as Donald Trump acting in the interests of the common man. Football has long been on the path towards becoming an empty, soulless corporate husk. FIFA’s decision is the latest in a long line of money-spinning schemes that will only serve to dilute and damage the quality of the game for which they are responsible. Why bother improving the game when there is money to be made out of China and the United Arab Emirates qualifying for every World Cup? Infantino will have enriched himself and his organisation, at the cost of being remembered as the man who killed international football once and for all.