As regular readers of ths blog will know I have been a strong critic of the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of teams at the 50 over World Cup to 10 from 2019. This does nothing to grow the game outside of its core nations, indeed it strangles growth in markets where cricket could and should be thriving. A 16 team format should be the minimum for the premier tournament of our sport.
Meanwhile FIFA, soccer’s governing body, have moved in the opposite direction with their decision to increase the number of teams in their World Cup to 48 in 2026. On the face of it I would be supportive of this decision, for it reinforces all the arguments for cricket – chances for smaller nations, an increase in prestige, more tournament prize money for countries to improve etc; but in this case, I think FIFA have gone a little overboard, and for the wrong reasons. FIFA’s reputation has been in tatters for years, even with a new president. So every decision they make will be met with suspicion based on their past indiscretions. This one seems more motivated by greed than a genuine attempt to help smaller countries. The extra revenue and sponsorship deals will swell FIFA’s coffers, and the different federations will be happy at having more participants in the tournament. But there are some problems.
Firstly. and this argument is used time and again in cricket, is that the quality of the competition would be diluted. I strongly disagree with this argument for cricket, but it may have some merit in football. Euro 2016 was expanded to 24 teams for the first time and was widely regarded as the worst tournament in living memory as a spectacle. A boring, defensive-minded team won it and there were few thrilling matches. Cricket doesnt have this problem, for the teams ranked in the lower half of the top 16 are very evenly matched, which would make their matches more competitive, not less. The second issue for FIFA is that the qualification process is demeaned further, with more teams from each region qualifying, which will again lead to boring, meaningless matches which are poor for spectators. As cricket isn’t meritocratic it doesn’t even have qualifying, so FIFA is a long step in front on this regards.
Worst of all is the format FIFA have decided upon – 16 groups of three with top two reaching the last 32. Expect more draws in the group stages as teams play to safeguard from defeat rather than to win. Even worse, there is talk that if two teams have identical records in the group stages then a penalty shootout will decide who progresses. This is not only a terrible way to organise who goes through, it strikes me as being open to all sorts of corruption too.
So there are all sorts of problems on the horizon if this format is approved. For both football and cricket, the structure of a tournament should focus on high quality product, a format that allows upsets but rewards consistency of play, games that allow the least possible room for corruption, fixtures that are best for players and fans rather than TV, and a tournament that doesn’t drag on forever. Both cricket in its current guise and this new format for soccer are not fulfilling these criteria. Two sports with completely different views on expansion but both unable to come up with a suitable format.