Now that the international break is over, we were able to enjoy some actual enjoyable football at club level. Liverpool got demolished by Manchester City 5-0, and Lionel Messi did Lionel Messi things and scored a hattrick. But let’s not be too harsh on the international break, it is after all, the decider for whom gets to play in the biggest sporting spectacle on this planet, the FIFA World Cup. Yet, the fun and surprise that comes with the qualifiers may finally be lost. In January of this year, FIFA had unanimously voted to expand the tournament to 48 teams, up from 32, beginning from 2026 and onwards. The decision was met with a lot of unpopularity, and it’s easy to see why.
No longer will there be an underdog
The easiest argument to make for maintaining the number of teams at 32, is that it showcases the teams that want to be there and it brings with it an underdog story every tournament. Costa Rica notably overachieved most recently in 2014, reaching the quarterfinal and only losing to the Netherlands on penalties, after beating Italy and Uruguay along the way. Ghana made a big run in 2010, again reaching the quarters and only missing out on a place in the semis to Luis Suarez’s goalkeeping skills, followed by a heartbreaking loss on penalties.
You cannot possibly name every underdog in a World Cup, but they all feature at least one, and it becomes the feel-good story of the tournament, the team that every neutral gets behind. However, should the tournament be expanded, the underdog may no longer be a story to take away from the event. More teams simply means more lower seeds making it in, and therefore versing each other and eliminating the idea of an underdog itself. Costa Rica couldn’t have been an underdog if it had defeated an obscure country that we had never heard of, it became an underdog because it defeated and matched up with powerhouse footballing nations. Having 48 teams simply kills that element of the World Cup, and it’s an element that fans would love to maintain, as everyone loves an underdog.
The prestige of qualification is lost
Part of what makes the World Cup so exciting is that it truly is the best of the best coming together. 32 teams out of nearly 200 is a very small amount, but it ensures that those who made the tournament, deserved to be there. Not only is the merit lost in getting this far, it will also lead to drab and dull affairs. The fact that only the best teams are going against each other is what makes it exciting, yet now that FIFA is allowing minnows to make it in, will just lead to pointless games that shouldn’t have any place in the World Cup. No one wants to see Spain thrash Tahiti 8-0 (Like what happened at the 2013 Confederations Cup), and certainly no one is looking forward to key matchups between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the knockout stages.
While it is definitely a positive that lower ranked teams can make the World Cup, the fact that the tournament will be saturated with them will kill the competition and the atmosphere that we normally associate with the event. These are the kinds of games that we can expect to see in an expanded World Cup, as it is easier for lower placed sides to qualify, and then be matched up against either each other, or a side that is completely out of their league. What makes the World Cup so great is that it’s the best teams, the best players battling out for the best trophy in sports. We don’t need filler games in between, let’s just cut to the chase and get to the real games.
Qualifiers will no longer be exciting
Tying into the previous point, qualifying for the World Cup won’t be as fun as it once was. Right now we are in the middle of one of the more intriguing qualification processes we have seen in a long time. Argentina, the runners-up of the previous tournament, may not be able to make it and have looked lost without Lionel Messi pulling the strings in attack. The same goes to Chile, who have won the last two Copa America titles, they also are under threat of missing out. Crossing over to Europe and the Netherlands, one of football’s great nations, may miss out on a spot to Sweden who are without their all time greatest player Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even in Asia, Australia have to verse another playoff team from Asia in Syria, a team that has come so far despite the Civil War in their country, and the winner of those two will have to potentially verse the USA, who have drastically underperformed in the qualifiers.
To put it bluntly, some of the biggest, richest and most famous national teams may miss out on next year’s tournament, which not only adds excitement to the qualification stages, also helps change up the status quo. Again, this is a feature that expansion will kill, as this level of excitement won’t be seen. Syria won’t have its miracle story, Argentina and Chile won’t have their backs against the wall and the Netherlands will be able to qualify without much of a hassle. If we’re going to tie into the previous point again, the merit of qualification has truly been lost. If those teams don’t make it through, you can almost say it’s deserved, as they shouldn’t be in these positions to start with, they should comfortably be in the running for qualification. There is no way Argentina and Chile should be lower than Peru on the table. Under expansion these teams all will qualify whether they deserve to or not, as this threat is eliminated and qualification spots in the World Cup becomes a sort of, participation trophy, rather than something a whole nation strives for every four years.
Let’s just enjoy the World Cup the way it is now while we have it, as the fun and excitement that it brings every four years will be lost, as any team can get in and there won’t be any shocks or surprises coming our way.