FIFA’s decision to increase the number of countries taking part in the final tournament for its World Cup has provoked a predictable range of responses from those involved in football.
From 2026 there will be 48 countries in the final tournament instead of 32. They will take part in 16 groups of three, with the top two in each moving directly to a knockout phase. The number of matches played will go up from 64 to 80, though the tournament will still be completed in 32 days, as it is now.
Each member association has been promised more money from the increased revenue the tournament is forecast to generate. Whatever the amount, it means much more to the smaller and less affluent of FIFA’s 211 member nations than to the European and South American superpowers.
Coming in for criticism
The main objections raised are that the decision has been made on financial and/or political rather than footballing grounds. More countries taking part means more games and more money from sponsors, media rights and fans.
There is a fear that the standard of play in the early stages will be lower, and opportunities for collusion in the final game – to ensure qualification for the next round – in the group stages will increase.
In the long run, it is claimed, this will decrease interest and involvement in the tournament. But this opinion is not shared by former Scotland manager Craig Brown, who points out that the Europeans have increased their football championship tournament numbers from eight to 24 since 1992 – with no related drop in interest levels.
The logistics of hosting the tournament will put it beyond the reach of most countries. Even the US, the overwhelming favourite to host the 2026 tournament, may have to look for partners to assist. Joint hosting with Mexico and Canada has been mooted, though perhaps Donald Trump’s wall might get in the way.
Critics also fear that the underlying problems of corruption at FIFA have not been tackled, and that hosting decisions in future may not be made in terms of the technical quality of the bids.
That is a real concern. While a reform process is underway within FIFA, it is far from complete, and the impetus to continue seems to be waning. Much of the driving force behind the anti-corruption movement has come from the US, and Trump may not be a keen supporter.
What are expansion’s potential implications?
Only eight teams have won the World Cup since it began in 1930 – five from Europe and three from South America. It is not clear how increasing the numbers of teams in the final tournament will change the fundamental influence on the game of these parts of the world.
The concentration of the world’s playing talent in Europe’s major leagues, where club competitions dominate, will remain.
Recently, it seemed China might be threatening that hegemony with obscene levels of spending on foreign players and coaches. But even its football-loving head of state has seen the cost of that strategy and called a halt to it.
Down the track, however, China is a possible future host of the tournament if it can raise the standard of its national team.
The implications for Australia are minimal. The number of places in the final tournament for countries from the Asian Football Confederation will increase, but by how many remains to be decided. As the standard rises in Asia, Australia will find it harder to qualify, as it is finding under the current regulations.
One local commentator, Mike Cockerill, has suggested Australia might consider rejoining the Oceania Confederation, which might guarantee a place at last. But that assumes Australia will always beat New Zealand, and it has failed to do that in the past.
More relevant is the fact that, apart from the Kiwis, there is no country in Oceania that would draw a crowd similar to that of matches against the top teams in Asia.
The chances of Australia ever being able to host the World Cup final tournament, always tiny, have now become even slimmer. The only hope might be a joint bid with the other countries of Southeast Asia.
If Australia really wants to be accepted as a participant in the Asian Football Confederation, this is an area where the interests of the game and national political considerations might align. So far, football in Australia has not exploited the potential the game has to open doors and advance our common interests with our northern neighbours.