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Why does FIFA Want To Expand the World Cup?

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Okay, yeah, it's about money. But it’s also about egalitarianism, opportunity, and politics. It’s still mostly about money, though...

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Italian Football Federation Trophies Exhibition Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

FIFA has just announced that, starting with the 2026 World Cup, the number of teams will increase from 32 to 48, an increase by 16 nations (50%). These 48 nations will be broken up into 16 teams of 3 (the group stage). The top two teams from each group will advance to a round of 32, followed by the round of 16 (at this point, the existing and new formats are the same). Let me be clear about this. These changes are bad, for a lot of reasons. This article aims at explaining why they are bad and why FIFA wants to expand the World Cup in this way. This post starts with the later.

Why Does FIFA Want to Expand the World Cup?

Money. Let’s move on.

Wait, what?

Yeah, the new format is predicted to create $1 billion more in revenue. That comes down to only a few hundred million more after increased costs, but still, that’s a lot of extra money to put into some executives’ pockets...

Wait, so it’s all about corruption?

I’m feeling cynical. So, yes.

Seriously?

Ok, fine. The way that the World Cup spots are allocated does not match up with the world’s population. As a result, the vast majority of people have no opportunity to see their nation compete. Increasing the number of countries that qualify would help to fix this issue, advancing ideals of egalitarianism and globalism, along with advancing the sport. It also just so happens to make it easier to market the tournament to more people, potentially vastly increasing profits. (Profits that I expect, considering FIFA’s reputation, to go into private pockets instead of into the betterment of the game).

How bad exactly is the disparity between the global population and the population of FIFA World Cup participants? Pretty bad.

This is a rough estimate of the global population by country in the 2014 World Cup (data from Wikipedia). Countries not represented in the World Cup make up 74% of the world’s population.

The vast, vast majority of global population was not represented at the 2014 World Cup. And that year’s edition of the tournament is not an outlier. The cause of this disparity is the fact that a massive portion of the world’s population lives in a handful of countries that systematically do not make it to the World Cup. Specifically, India and China.

These are the 5 largest countries in the world by population, compared against the remaining World Cup represented nations and the rest of the world. The five largest countries are China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil, with India and China by FAR larger than the rest.

China and India are so big, they are comparable in size to the populations of all the World Cup represented nations, excluding the USA and Brazil. Just adding those two countries would increase the representation from 26% to 60%. 60 Percent is exactly the kind of number that one would expect for a tournament that represents the entire world. The problem with the current format is that China is bad at soccer, while India and the rest of South and South East Asia are horrible at the sport. None of these countries has a chance of qualifying reliably with the few spots allocated to Asia. Both India and China have qualified to the World Cup only one time in their histories. India qualified by default in 1950 and then chose not to go. China qualified in 2002 and then proceeded to lose every game without scoring a single goal. (I remember talking to my dad about the first half of one of China’s games. I told him that I thought China was doing fairly well considering that they were playing Brazil. They were only losing by 3 at that point. The game ended 4-0.) The other large countries in the region, the likes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, among others, have never qualified for the tournament (excluding the 1930 World Cup when Indonesia went as the Dutch East Indies, represented by a mix of colonial Dutchmen and local Indonesians.) Expanding the World Cup means that there are more spots for Asian countries, which means it’s more likely that India and China find a way to qualify. Even if India and China don’t manage to qualify, some large Asian nation will, thus improving the level of representation. More countries qualifying means more countries have a reason to make a real effort to qualify, which means more investment in soccer. That doesn’t just apply to Asia, though. Expanding the World Cup by this many spots means more opportunities to qualify for nations in all the areas that receive more spots, increasing investment in soccer everywhere.

Ok, well, if this move will lead to better representation and the growth of the sport, what’s so bad about expanding the World Cup?

Lot’s of reasons. For starters, the size of the World Cup is not the problem and expanding it ignores what’s really at fault. The real issue is that Europe gets to send too many countries to the World Cup.

This is a graph showing representation at the World Cup over the years by continent. Asia and Oceania have been combined for convenience. If you notice, Europe has had twice as many representatives as any other continent in all but two years. Those two years, 1930 and 1950, several European nations declined to participate, reducing the size of the tournaments from 16 to 13.

Europe receives so many more World Cup spots for a lot of historic and political reasons. When the first World Cup was being organized in the 1920’s, most of Africa and much of Asia was under colonial rule. Any talent that was any good would play for the mother nation. For example, the famous Eusebio was one of Portugal’s most talented players ever. Yet, Eusebio came from modern Mozambique. As African and Asian countries gained their independence through the middle of the 20th century, the World Cup allocations didn’t change with them. As a result, Europe kept hold of many spots that should have gone to Asian and African countries. This culminated in a boycott in 1966, where every single African nation (except Apartheid South Africa) refused to participate in the World Cup or World Cup qualifying because they were given only one spot that they had to share with Asia (and because they refused to play with Apartheid South Africa). 1966, ironically enough, was the year where the afore-mentioned Eusebio was one of the stars of the tournament, while North Korea, the qualifying Asian nation, shocked the world by knocking out Italy. After that, FIFA agreed to give Asia and Africa each one spot. Europe had to sacrifice and go from 10 spots to a measly 9.

While 1 spot for each of Asia and Africa is an improvement over no spots for one, or even both, it’s still not a good deal for the two most populous continents. The two continents gained more spots as the World Cup expanded, first in 1982, and then 1998. However, as Africa and Asia (and North and South America) got more spots, so did Europe. The result is that, while the rest of the world is a little more represented, Europe is still heavily over-represented.

Yeah, but isn’t Europe really good at soccer? Don’t they deserve more spots because more countries are good at the sport? Don’t they deserve it out of merit?

Not really, no. Europe has a handful of countries that are among the best in the world — Germany, Holland, Spain, etc. — but many of the countries are fairly mediocre. Even some of the more historically decorated nations haven’t done well in recent World Cups. We saw France, Spain, and England crash out in the group stage in either 2010 or 2014. Four-time winner Italy managed to do it both times. That says nothing about less decorated countries. We saw the likes of Russia, Bosnia, and Croatia unceremoniously dropped in the group stage in 2014. What’s happened is that, over time, the whole world has gotten more competitive. In the last World Cup, the only nations to have lost by 4 or more goals were Portugal and Brazil (both at the hands of Germany). Adding spots for Asia and Africa hasn’t made them perform worse. However, adding spots to Europe has.

Over and Underachievement in the Group Stage
This is a look at how well continents do in getting to the second round of the FIFA World Cup. The expectation is that the percentage of a continent at each stage of the tournament would match the percentage of total countries that qualified from that continent out of all the teams. So, if 20% of the teams were from Africa at the start, we could expect 20% of the teams in the round of 16 to be African. The break-even point is 0, so we can look to see which countries are overachieving and which ones are underachieving. I only looked at advancement from the first round for a few reasons. The format of the tournaments has varied over the years, so it becomes difficult to accurately compare the later stages. Further, Africa and Asia (here, including Oceania) receive so few slots and have few instances of advancement deep into the tournament, that you get problems with sample size.

Historically, South America and Europe have generally overachieved in advancing out of the first round of the World Cup. However, in the last two editions, Europe has slightly under-performed. They are actually in line with Africa for the 2014 edition.

A fair tournament weighs merit with representation when it comes to selection of participating teams. The continents are not all equal. They are not equal in population, in the number of teams, nor in talent. So, we should find a balance between fielding talented teams and fielding representative teams. Right now, there’s a number of countries in Europe that get into the World Cup that don’t perform well. If we were to take two or three spots from Europe and give them to Africa and Asia, we would improve the representation of the tournament without meaningfully sacrificing the quality. Whether Croatia is substantially better than Egypt or Uzbekistan (two of the countries that were among the last to be knocked out of their respecting qualifying tournaments ... and two countries with substantially larger populations than Croatia), is a bogus question. Even if Egypt is worse than Croatia, the debate is over which country we are going to kick out of the first round. So long as Uzbekistan or Egypt is good enough to not be humiliated, they effectively are just as good qualitatively as the teams that make the last spots from Europe. For the sake of other ideals, taking those couple of spots from Europe and giving them to other continents would be an improvement without meaningfully degrading quality. Taking spots from Europe may actually improve the quality of the tournament as it would force European nations to take qualification more seriously while encouraging African and Asian countries to invest more time and money in qualifying.

But Why is that Better Than Just Expanding the Tournament?

Well, it’s reported that Europe will actually be getting 3 more spots with the new expansion. Yes, other continents will be getting spots, improving the overall levels of representation. But with 16 European nations, there will now be just as many European countries in the World Cup as there were in the European Championships up until France 2016. With that many countries from one continent in the World Cup, why bother having the continental championship at all?

The even bigger issue is that there are costs and problems that come with expanding the World Cup. The original tournament had 16 teams (occasionally 13 when some of teams decided not to show up). It increased by 8 teams to 24 in 1982. It then increased by another 8 in 1998, up to 32 teams. That is the World Cup we currently have. There’s already massive issues with this tournament in the cost and feasibility of hosting the tournament. The first 3 tournaments with 32 teams were hosted by the following nations: France, South Korea/Japan, and Germany. All three of these tournaments went splendidly. However, all 4 of these countries are wealthy, stable, and have well established infrastructures.

The next tournament was held in South Africa. South Africa was a very fun tournament to watch, but there were problems with moving fans around and now there are a number of expensive stadiums that aren’t being used. Brazil was even worse with a political meltdown occurring simultaneously with the World Cup (and the Olympics 2 years later). As Brazilians experienced a devastating recession, the government spent billions of dollars on over-sized stadiums that now see little use, and unfinished infrastructure projects (that largely help the wealthy), all for the World Cup and the Olympics. We are already seeing Qatar reduce the number of stadiums that it will build for the 2022 World Cup, (stadiums being built with Human Rights Atrocities).

The current tournament is already so big and bloated and expensive that most countries cannot afford to host. Increasingly, countries don’t want to hold these sorts of big sporting events because citizens balk at lining the pockets of corrupt sporting executives while healthcare and infrastructure spending gets ignored. Los Angeles declined to pursue hosting the Olympics. The European Championships will be hosted by nobody and everybody in order to keep costs down. In this context, FIFA wants to expand the tournament by a whopping 16 teams. That means training facilities for every single team. Stadiums (and large stadiums, at that) for every single game. Infrastructure and transportation logistics in order to accommodate teams and fans as they travel. The current tournament is a financing nightmare. But with 16 more teams? The tournament will be limited to the likes of US and China, countries that already have the capacity to host massive events. Alternatively, it could be hosted by countries with authoritative regimes, the sorts of places where the government is not held responsible for how they spend their money. Otherwise, there will have to be more joint hosted tournaments. Those are also logistical nightmares, with the added pleasure of making the tournament much harder for traveling fans to attend.

FIFA actually had the expense and difficulty in hosting an expanded tournament in mind when they created the tournament format. In crafting a group stage with only 3 teams per group, FIFA limited the increase in games, increasing only from 64 to a mere 80. (As if 16 more games wouldn’t increase costs.) But that new format creates all sorts of new, perverse incentives. Now, teams will go to the World Cup and face the possible prospect of only playing 2 games. Teams will be desperate to avoid being knocked out so early, especially if the groups are seeded, in which case we will see groups made up of a talented top seed, a decent second seed, and an awful third team. And, yes, there will be an awful team in each group. Adding 16 teams is a lot and those teams will represent a substantial decline in quality. It gets worse. Each of the teams, but especially the worst teams, have an incentive to play as defensively as possible. With only 2 games, the teams cannot afford to lose, or else face elimination. If the rumors are true and that FIFA is contemplating putting in penalty kick shootouts to break ties and prevent group deadlock, there will be even more incentive for teams to park the bus. For talented teams, this presents an incredible risk of seeing an upset. Bad teams would now potentially advance by playing as defensively as possible and trying to win the crapshoot that is a PK shootout. And finally, the tournament format presents an incredible opportunity for match fixing. After 1982’s Disgrace of Gijón, FIFA reorganized the group stage so that teams had to play their final group stage game at the same time as the rest of the group in order to make it harder for teams to fix results. That is impossible with 3-team groups, which means that teams go into the last game knowing exactly what kind of result would get them through, assuming the last game mattered at all. The new format is an atrocity that strips the game of attacking incentive, while creating perverse incentives for cheating.

Why are these changes going through? Because FIFA executives face no consequences for their decisions. Making the tournament less fun doesn’t matter. Making the tournament more expensive and difficult to host does not matter. The execs can get cheap political points by expanding the tournament in the name of better representation, while really making themselves more money. Even worse, once the tournament has been expanded, it will never be reduced in size. Nobody has the political will to take away spots. It’s why UEFA didn’t give up a spot until an entire continent boycotted the tournament. Once the expansion goes through, there’s no turning back. FIFA is cannibalizing itself, and all we can do is watch.