How an Expanded World Cup Could Shrink Our Interest or Pique It

You will not be alone if you hate the idea of the winter World Cup which will be held this year in Qatar and looks set to wreak havoc on the traditional footballing calendar.

However, despite that distaste, you would be wise to appreciate the tournament while it lasts, as it will be the last to have the World Cup’s much-loved 32-team format.

2026 – The Year of the Expanded World Cup

Love and Loathing

In 2026, when the World Cup travels to the United States, Mexico and Canada, an additional 16 teams will be making the trip. These 48 teams will be drawn into 16 groups of three, with the top two from each group progressing to a new knockout round of 32.

Such a format is necessary to negate the fixture congestion and subsequent player welfare concerns that will arise due to the tournament’s expansion. After all, despite adding 16 extra teams, only 16 additional matches have to be played to accommodate these teams, so the tournament’s overall length should remain roughly the same.

Furthermore, the two sides who reach the final, will still only have to play six matches to get there, which is the same as they do currently.


However, the format itself is riddled with issues, both for the participating countries and the fans watching on. Let’s say you’re one of the 16 teams that does not feature in the opening game of your group.

If your opposition won their opening fixture, they will need merely a point to ensure their progression to the knockout stages; conversely, if they lost it, they will very much be in win-or-bust territory. Both of these scenarios will inevitably lead to a very different game to one where both teams start on zero points and this poses a tactical disadvantage to the team that plays last.

Fitness Disadvantage

Even more pressing is the fitness disadvantage these teams will face, as they’ll be playing their way into the tournament, yet will come up against sides who are fit and firing, courtesy of the 90 minutes they already have under their belts.

Moving on to the fans, there is a very real possibility that your World Cup journey will be cut ridiculously short after just two games played in a group that is much more likely to be unbalanced.

What’s more, with teams in this format considerably more likely to play for draws in order to ensure progression, you’ll probably be watching less exciting contests too.

Considering the extortionate fees that some fans pay to go out and support their home nation in the world’s biggest sporting competition, reducing the participation of 16 nations by a third seems unfair to the supporters of those countries.

None of this is to say that changes to the international football calendar necessarily have to be a bad thing. Take the Nations League, for example. Excitement has been created where unnecessary, uncompetitive and frankly tame international friendlies once stood. However, the World Cup is meant to be an exception to the rule.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for players to cement their place in history and footballing folklore by leading their country to glory on the biggest stage of them all.

It is special.

Yet, if FIFA president, Gianni Infantino has his way, not only will the World Cup grow, it will become biennial too, jeopardising player welfare (the only thing that the expanded model has going for it).

This proposed £3.3 billion power grabfrom the same members of football’s elite that slated the European Super League – would have catastrophic effects on all other international football tournaments.

AFCON would have to move to the autumn, the Euros to odd years, not to mention the damage it would do to the women’s game, with a men’s international tournament being played in the same summer as the women’s World Cup.

On top of this, the integrity of football’s premier competition would be compromised, with quantity, both in terms of scale and frequency, favoured over quality.

The World Cup should be rare and should be contested by football’s best. That’s the excitement, that’s the draw.


If the World Cup gets diluted to a competition where countless teams can easily qualify and those that don’t only have to wait another two years for the next edition of the tournament to come around, then it will lose its sense of grandeur.

Players will go from having missed a career-defining moment to thinking: “there’s always next time”, as they await their fourth or even fifth bite at the cherry.

Losing teams should face despair, as their golden generation of players will never get an opportunity to clinch glory on the global stage ever again.

You listen to legends of generations gone past bemoaning missing their one or two shots at lifting that famous trophy.

That’s how it should be.

So, bear that in mind as you watch the Qatar World Cup later this year.

As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you had until it’s gone.


What do you think about the new format? Get involved with the chat on this topic in the comments section below or let us know at @extra_time_talk

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