Recently, FIFA president Gianni Infantino suggested expanding the number of participants in the FIFA World Cup from 32-teams to 48-teams. On the surface this proposal is absurd as the bloated World Cup would further dilute the talent of the teams participating, expand an already exhausting 64-match tournament to 80 matches, and be a mega event requiring massive infrastructure to support thus eliminating many countries from hosting (or worse, exploiting countries by making them build one-time use facilities with resources better spent on a nation’s people). Nevertheless, I can still see how a 48-team field may work and make it possible for more countries to participate and to host World Cup matches. It would require reimagining the staging of the World Cup into three phase.
The first phase, much like today, would be qualification at the level of the six continental confederations. Increasing the field to 48 teams from 32 means that proportionately, the number of teams from each confederation would be as follows:
- AFC – 7
- CAF – 8
- CONCACAF – 5
- CONMEBOL – 7
- OFC -1
- UEFA -20
These 48 teams would be drawn into twelve groups of four, with seeding to allow for a balance of teams from different confederations.
The second phase would be group play of these twelve groups, scheduled in a two to three week international break in domestic leagues around February. Each group of four would play in a different host country. The goal would be for each confederation to have at least one country hosting a group of four. After a 3-match round robin, the first place team in each group advances automatically to the final phase.
The twelve second place teams will be drawn to play home and away aggregate goal playoff to reduce the field to six. The surviving six teams are drawn again to play another home/away playoff. These three teams join the 12 teams already qualified and the host nation in the final field of 16.
The final phase will once again be familiar. The 16 teams are drawn into groups of four and the top two teams from each group advance to a knock out round. And that is how a 48-team World Cup could work.
- Expanding to 48 teams allows for me teams to participate in the World Cup and play competitive matches against teams from other confederations on a world stage.
- Playing World Cup in phases allows for more matches without forcing them into an exhausting schedule concentrated in a month’s time.
- Any country with at least two good stadiums can host a group in the second phase.
- The final phase has a smaller number of teams – appealing to traditionalists – and makes it possible for many countries to host without breaking the bank.
- Still may be too many games and too many teams.
- Too long an interruption of domestic league seasons.
- Too spread out over space and time.