Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Examining FIFA's 48-Team World Cup and Media Criticisms....

Predictably, the Western media have criticized the recent announcement that the 2026 World Cup would go to 48 teams. Why not? The chance that Asia and Africa will gain more teams is certainly unappealing in the West. Of course, the predictable reasons have resurrected. They are (a) the new structure will dilute the World Cup, (b) there will be too many games, and (c) No one will be watching some of the games.  

One has to be reminded that the West does not make up the world, there are other parts of the world deserving of having a say at the table if the World Cup is to be a truly world event. But let us examine those media complaints.

The World Cup certainly will be exciting for all the reasons that it has always been – the hope that David may triumph over Goliath as was the case in 1990 when Cameroon triumphed over Argentina, or in 1966 when the Koreans upstaged Italy. Those are some of the lores of the World Cup and that will not be hurt by this expansion. Instead, there could be more of those.

Moreover, assume that Africa gets nine representatives instead of the current five. How exactly would that represent dilution of quality when in fact there are possibly 12 African teams that produce approximately same quality of play? Think about this – South Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Algeria who have all played in  World Cups and have each achieved victories, at the World Cup, over Western countries that were deemed World Cup quality. Would adding Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, and Tunisia represent dilution? I think not.

Too many games? Really. I recall the same arguments were many when the tournament expanded to 24 teams and then to 32. Yet, the average attendance at games remains strong on the average through those changes. Going by that, it seems that this complaint reflects the blowing of hot air and a human reticent to change and nothing more. By 2028, few will remember that “too many games” was even an issue.

No one watching the games? Well, it at least provides choice of games to watch and nationals of teams at play will certainly watch. As mentioned above, average attendance at games or eyeballs watching the games remain strong.

Why Does it Make Sense
So why does this change make sense? For a lot of reasons although one has to reserve comments until the actual spot allocations to confederations are agreed on. Now, the sense making is based on the following factors: (a) Likely assurance that all confederations would have at least an automatic place at the event, (b) Possible opportunities and fairness for reasonably strong teams to get into the tournament, (c) A sense of the beginning of dilution of Eurocentricity of World football.

In the current 32-team World Cup, one of six FIFA confederations is not guaranteed a spot at the game’s biggest tournament. That should be a shame. In a tournament with that many teams, representativeness of each confederation should be guaranteed. Surely, Oceania cannot be justifiably denied a place in a 48-team event when another confederation provides almost half of the teams! The logic has to be bizarre.

The increase to 48 teams provides opportunities that reasonably strong teams, in all confederations, have a fair opportunity to get to the tournament. The World Cup has never been dominated by super teams like Argentina, Brazil, or Germany. They are in the minority. Instead, the vast numbers of World Cup teams are moderately strong teams like Nigeria, Sweden, Paraguay, and USA. Unfortunately, UEFA currently provides a swath of these moderately strong teams at the World Cup whereas Africa, for example, has teams of similar strength missing the tournament because of difficult qualifiers. That has to be fixed.

Fixing the above will help dismantle the Eurocentrity of the World Cup that has now spanned almost a century. To think that even today, Europe provides about 25% of FIFA’s membership but continues to provide about 50% of World Cup representatives. That has to be an outrage. It is a legacy that is due for closure. More equity is required and hopefully, the new structure can begin to move towards equity and a true representation of a World event.


For me, the announcement of a 48-team World Cup raises hope for justice and fairness but as the saying goes “the devil is in the details.” The allocation of actual spots will signal whether or not FIFA has made the move towards equity and a diverse World Cup or whether the rest of the world remains in an Eurocentric cocoon.

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