In 1982, FIFA was comprised of 148 member organizations.
In order to account for the growth of the game across the world, FIFA expanded the World Cup for the first time to 24 teams. Europe protested the move.
Italy defeated West Germany 3-1 in the final.
In 1998, FIFA consisted of 198 associate nations. Citing the desire to diversify across Africa, Asia, and North America, FIFA expanded the World Cup again, this time to 32 teams. Europe protested once more.
France beat Brazil 3-0.
FIFA is currently made up of 211 member countries. Although we cannot predict future geopolitical scenarios, it is not a stretch to imagine that the organization will continue to grow over the next decade. As a result, FIFA voted this week to broaden the World Cup to 48 teams. Like 82’ and 98’, Europe naturally led the protest.
And once again, expansion will do very little to change the status quo. Out of the 211 FIFA nations, 77 have made the World Cup. Out of those 77, only 8 countries have won it.
In 2028, one of those 8 will almost certainly emerge the victors.
Expansion is not about these superpowers. The fraternity of World Cup winners have the infrastructure and capital to continue their dominance, which they undoubtedly will. As Giannu Infantino admitted, “I think that even if you organized a World Cup with two teams, one of the two teams would be Germany.” These extra 16 nations will not suddenly stop a select group of countries from reigning supreme.
But it will open up a route for teams that need a World Cup, not just the countries prepared for one.
Thirty years ago, the United States were one of those teams. Prior to the 1990 World Cup, the USMNT consisted of college players, indoor stars, and the sprinkling of established professionals. The USSF was bankrupt, and its owner even paid the salaries of some of the players out of pocket.
Yet, with the expansion of the World Cup in 1982, they suddenly had an accessible route to the finals. With Paul Caliguri’s strike against Trinidad and Tobago, the USMNT snuck into the finals as CONCACAAF’s second team. For the first time in its burgeoning history, US Soccer became relevant both at home and abroad as the world followed their foray into the 1990 World Cup. The United States almost shocked their Italian hosts, impressing neutrals with a resilience unmatched by their final point tally.
But the stage was set.
A burgeoning affair with the game at Italia 90’ turned into love at USA 94’. As a country, we have not since looked back. Soccer has become an integral fabric of the American sports makeup, while the MLS continues to set record levels of expansion growth. It’s not just a one-sided relationship. Today, the United States is one of the biggest markets in the global game. American players grace some of the top domestic leagues in the world, while the USMNT has become a reliable international competitor. As any supporter outside of Algeria would also agree, Landon Donovan’s last second 2010 strike ranks as one of the all-time great World Cup moments.
And it all started in a Zürich boardroom.
Even if the processes behind World Cup expansion are not always the purest, they at least have the honest intention of inclusivity. Looking past FIFA’s many misgivings; their paramount goal is the growth of soccer across the world. An expanded World Cup will do just that. Success and capital continue to remain a positive feedback loop in the sport. By changing the competition to 48 teams, FIFA gives traditionally fringe countries the money, popularity, and prestige that they need to challenge on the world’s stage. By increasing competition, we all benefit as fans.
The question that remains is how?
Formatting a 48-team cup will be very difficult. A three-team group lends itself to all sorts of potential for deceit. We’ve seen or heard about it before with the famous Disgrace of Gijon in 82’. However, it is a risk that can be diminished. Playing the top seeds in the first games would statistically cut down the chance of later collusion. However, modernity offers another defense against the problem of group stage complicity. Unlike Austria v Germany in 1982, today’s World Cup is truly a performance for the whole world, dissected and discussed by all. Players are not just athletes, but brands. While deceit may offer fleeting success in the tournament, it would destroy a competitor’s value as an individual unit of business, a value that every professional is well aware of.
The problem of training bases and scheduling remains another issue. However, both have solutions. If the World Cup were not held in a large, industrialized country, finding 48 training camps could be difficult. ESPN’s Gab Marcotti has a good solution to this problem. In smaller entertaining nations, you could have teams stationed in neighboring countries. This would have the added benefit of bringing revenue to a wider region than just the host nation.
In terms of scheduling and the idea of a ‘bloated’ World Cup, once again, there are answers. For those worried about player burnout, the roster size could be expanded from 23 players to 26. On the game-to-game level, substitutions could be increased from 3 to 4. Both of these changes would not only limit exhaustion and injuries, but would also raise the level of play and tactical awareness in the matches, two improvements I would wholeheartedly welcome.
Yes, a 48 team World Cup will be different. It will require FIFA to think creatively, but this is an organization that constantly has to adapt to a quickly changing world. As any American supporter can attest, the game moves at a similar pace.
So kudos to FIFA for continuing to progress the sport into the future. A better and more diverse product on the field will always be worth the challenge.
Bring on the 48.