Patrick Burke

At last, I proclaimed on Thursday (December 1) evening. Not at last have I finally "got into" this year's FIFA World Cup - an event that in the past has effectively put my life on hold, but on this occasion I have struggled to embrace for a host of reasons. 

But at last FIFA's crazy plans for a group stage featuring 16 groups of three in the men's tournament from 2026 have come under the spotlight.

"Is this not enough fun for you?", renowned ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley asked FIFA President Gianni Infantino - or words to that effect - during Japan's remarkable turnaround against Spain to top a strong Group E.

The drama in that group, which with around 20 minutes of play remaining had European giants and World Cup winners within the last 12 years Spain and Germany going out at the expense of Japan and Costa Rica, was replicated across many of the other seven four-team round-robins. 

Most satisfyingly, from a partisan Evertonian perspective, when South Korea struck late against Portugal to knock out Luis Suárez and co when Uruguay were cruising against Ghana.

The 48-team World Cup has long been a subject of conversation in the insidethegames office. 

It's great news for some, not least New Zealand who would be likely to become regulars on men's football's biggest stage with Oceania assured of at least one place. Performances at this tournament also suggest the Confederation of African Football (CAF) would be worthy of an extra four places to take its representation up to at least nine.

Yet to be blunt, the proposed format looks a sure-fire way to kill the excitement that has gripped the globe this week. It's an example of change for sake of change, and yet another example of a sports governing body whose priorities are in the wrong order.

The FIFA Council approved the 48-team World Cup in 2017. Two years later, it expanded the Women's World Cup from 24 teams from 32. Bigger is better as far as the powers that be are concerned, it would seem.

It's difficult to see how more matches tallies with delivering more sustainable events when there is no time to lose in the battle against climate change.

Women's football also remains chronically underfunded around the world. Addressing that could have been prioritised over increasing the size of major tournaments.

When FIFA voted for its changes to the format, there were credible human rights concerns in Russia and Qatar, host countries of its upcoming World Cups. Those well-documented issues remain in place. Many would argue FIFA has not done enough to prevent those tournaments being used as a means of sportswashing. Particularly relevant to Qatar, campaign groups have long called for the global governing body commit to providing compensation for migrant workers and their families for abuses faced on preparing World Cup projects.

Infantino has form for the expansion of tournaments, so the developments at FIFA since he became President in 2016 should come as little surprise. As UEFA secretary general, he oversaw the growth of the men's European Championship from 16 to 24 teams. In 2016, it allowed Portugal to do the equivalent of sending the continent to sleep, and by the time we woke up they had crowned themselves European champions.

The 24-team format broadly appeared to receive less criticism at Euro 2020, but some convincing is still required on the merits of four third-placed teams being allowed to advance to the knockout stage.

Japan's victory over Spain formed part of a remarkable final round of fixtures in Group E at Qatar 2022 ©Getty Images
Japan's victory over Spain formed part of a remarkable final round of fixtures in Group E at Qatar 2022 ©Getty Images

UEFA also increased the size of the Women's European Championship from 12 to 16 teams, effective from 2017. This, in fairness, delivered a marvellous tournament won by hosts England earlier this year.

The UEFA Nations League, which has featured two men's editions with the women's equivalent set to launch next year, was also approved while Infantino was secretary general. And while not universally popular, it has succeeded in giving international football outside of major tournaments more meaning, I would argue.

The FIFA World Cup format has been subject to change throughout history, and change is not something I am averse to.

Three-team groups have in fact been seen before at the 24-team Spain 1982. The top two from an initial six groups of four entered a second stage featuring four groups of three. After that, the top team in each group advanced to the semi-finals.

This was replaced by a format akin to that currently used at the men's Euro from 1986 to 1994, before FIFA settled on its current eight groups of four with the top two qualifying for a round of 16 at France 1998.

And it works. The maths makes it quite simple and delivers drama at every edition of the World Cup. It keeps the tournament at a reasonable size too. Had the FIFA Council not made its decision in 2017, it seems doubtful there would have been any widespread clamour for expansion.

It appears to have been the drama of the third round of matches at Qatar 2022 which has sparked growing opposition to FIFA's plans. Reports this week have suggested that the governing body is considering moving away from the three-team group idea towards 12 groups of four, with eight third-placed teams joining the top two in a knockout round of 32. Essentially the men's Euro as it is doubled.

The three-team groups risk creating more dead rubbers, and would make the tournament more open to "convenient results". No simultaneous final group matches either, so all-in-all the format doesn’t sound all that fun.

Yet the four-team group idea floated is not without its imperfections either. A total of 80 matches are scheduled under the current plans. The alternative would nearly hit that during the group stage, which would feature 72 games. That is quite an ask for 2026 hosts the United States, Canada and Mexico, plus players' clubs, to accept.

Qatar 2022 is set to mark the last 32-team edition of the men's FIFA World Cup ©Getty Images
Qatar 2022 is set to mark the last 32-team edition of the men's FIFA World Cup ©Getty Images

Another fear is that there is no guarantee that 48 teams is the limit. The next logical step after that would be a 64-country tournament, effectively doubling the current format. Mathematically that would provide simplicity, but it would make the World Cup even more of a mega event than it already is. Too big, surely.

The argument to the contrary in favour of the 48-team World Cup is that it will make the competition more accessible to more countries, and assist with the global development of the sport.

"The upside is having 16 more countries, some of which would never have dreamed of participating before," Infantino said at the time the reforms were approved.

"We have to shape the football World Cup in the 21st century and we now think we have a format which brings benefits without negatives."

Infantino has not spoken publicly since his bizarre, remarkable or however you wish to describe it pre-Qatar 2022 "today I feel" press conference. It would be interesting to hear whether he still believes the change would be a good one, and how he can guarantee the same drama we've witnessed over the last week or so.

There is certainly a discussion to be had on ways to grow the game. Africa's representatives have performed well at Qatar 2022, despite the absence of several big hitters including Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria due to the brutal playoff system to allocate its five places. Asian teams have exceeded expectations too, securing more places in the round of 16 than South America. There was not even room for European champions Italy, although blame can be laid at their door for their shock home defeat to North Macedonia in the playoffs. My colleague David Owen ran an excellent blog earlier in the week evaluating the prospect of a non-European or South American team lifting the trophy.

Ultimately, a bigger World Cup is a vote winner for Infantino. The prospect of biennial men's and Women's World Cups thankfully appears on the backburner now, but received support from CAF, while the consultation was welcomed by the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, Asian Football Confederation and Oceania Football Confederation.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who is set for unopposed re-election next year, has claimed the changes to the World Cup provide
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who is set for unopposed re-election next year, has claimed the changes to the World Cup provide "benefits without negatives" ©Getty Images

Increasing opportunities to appear at the World Cup is appealing to National Federations, but the 48-team idea represents a diluted tournament. There are surely alternative solutions targeting growth at national level, especially at grassroots, rather than expanding the World Cup to allow more countries to play a couple of games on the highest stage, one of which may be a dead rubber.

Specifically discussing the Women's World Cup, former insidethegames reporter Nancy Gillen penned an excellent blog in 2019 in which she convincingly questioned the connection between appearing at the tournament and development of women's football infrastructure.

A bottom-up approach would certainly be preferable to the simplistic solution of expanding major tournaments.

International Olympic Committee member Infantino is in a privileged position in that he is set for unopposed re-election as FIFA President next year for a term which would run through to 2027.

Politically speaking, he does not need to win votes. A small number of European countries are threatening not to support him, but if it is change they are after, then unfortunately it is far too little, far too late given that no one received sufficient backing to challenge Infantino.

Coverage of Qatar 2022 and the sight of Infantino being booed on the big screen during Wales' match against England show that the honeymoon - if ever there was one for the FIFA President after the organisation's reputation was left in tatters under his predecessor Sepp Blatter - is over.

The perils of one-candidate Presidential elections are a regular theme on insidethegames. However, it presents Infantino with an opportunity to take some big calls.

Going back on the 48-team World Cup, even if too late for the 2026 edition, would be a courageous decision. Unlikely, you have to feel, but courageous. And the correct decision.