Plenty of criticism has been fired at Gianni Infantino’s suggestion of a 48-team World Cup, and rightly so.
While an increased field wouldn’t dramatically hurt the the tournament — several decent sides missed the last outing in Brazil — a poorly-implemented and high-volume expansion would hurt the dramatics of the world’s best tournament.
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Look no further than EURO 2016 for this, as many of the group stage games lacked flair thanks to teams knowing points here or there could be enough for one of four third-place berths (Northern Ireland advanced with a win and two losses, while tournament-winning Portugal went to the knockout rounds with three draws).
Infantino’s suggestion would be to have 16 seeded teams advance to the group stages, and have the remaining 32 teams battle to avoid a potential “one and done” tournament via a pre-group stage knockout round.
We see a way to expand the field without dealing in such a dramatic end for 16 teams’ World Cup dreams: knockout round byes for the top eight group winners.
This would allow an even more jam-packed World Cup schedule — *cough* broadcast revenues *cough* — and also avoid most of the pesky final matches with no ramifications for an already-advanced team by offering a bye to the second round of the knockout rounds for the top eight sides.
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The four remaining group winners get the four worst second-place finishers, while the other eight second-place sides draw each other for a second-round berth. This adds one more round of games.
How would this affect a field? Take the 2014 tournament.
AFC (4): Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea
CONCACAF (4): Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, USA
CAF (5): Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria
OFC (0): New Zealand lost playoff to Mexico
CONMEBOL (6): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay
UEFA (13): Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland
There are 211 associations in FIFA. They break down as such:
The easy additions would be throw in playoff losers New Zealand and Jordan. That’s 34 teams, and guarantees a slot for OFC.
Now Europe’s four playoff losers: Sweden, Ukraine, Romania, Iceland. That’s 38.
Africa’s five playoff losers: Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso. That’s 43.
CONCACAF’s remaining Hex teams: Panama and Jamaica. That’s 45.
Another CONMEBOL side: Venezuela (46), a second OFC side (New Caledonia 47), and sixth Asian side (Uzbekistan 48).
That would mean the final breakdown would be:
Africa: 10 of 54
Europe: 17 of 55
CONMEBOL: 6 of 10
CONCACAF: 6 of 35
OFC: 2 of 11
AFC: 6 of 46
There is also the option of an off-year tournament run at the same time or near the Confederations Cup that would take the next-best two sides from each confederation and put them in group play for the final slots. In 2014, that would’ve arguably been Uruguay, Venezuela, Romania, Iceland, Panama, Mexico, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.
Again, the system is not broken, but if FIFA demands an expansion as high as 48 teams — which is still less than a quarter of its members — there’s a better way than so many one-and-dones on the world’s biggest stage.