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The best World Cup format–that FIFA would never consider

What's the World Cup really about? Here's the best way to balance determining the world's best, growing the game around the globe and not diluting soccer's grand spectacle.

The World Cup might grow to 40 teams, or it might wind up with 48. It might be eight groups of five or four groups of 10, or there might be 16 seeds and a straight 32-team knockout round to get to join them in the format we have now. Or it might be 16 groups of three.

Either way, the endless gigantism stimulated by FIFA presidential elections, as candidates promise more and more nations that they, too, can play in a World Cup, means that the competition will be even more bloated, even more unwieldy by then. Of course, this is 2026 we’re talking about, so there’s a significant chance global political elections by then will mean that by then, as George Orwell foresaw, it’s just three teams: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.

The format Gianni Infantino let it be known that he prefers is 16 groups of three, with the top two going through into a round of 32. From there, it would be a straight knockout competition. It would mean an increase to just 80 games from the present 64, so it could still be completed in around five weeks, while the winners would still, as of now, have to play seven games–something that’s important in not antagonizing the clubs who actually pay the players.

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But there are significant problems with the proposal. For one thing, each team would be guaranteed just two games rather than the three they are now. But then–and this tends to be the last issue considered–there’s a question of sporting integrity. The fixtures would run A vs. B, A vs. C, B vs. C. B has a clear advantage, because it would have a longer rest between matches–not a day or two as sometimes happens now, and is all but unavoidable, but three or four days.

Or what if A loses the first two games? Then the third game would be a dead rubber (although that could be avoided by having A vs. B followed by C vs. the winner of the first game, followed by C vs. the loser of the first game. This complication to the scheduling is just about manageable so long as a group is, unlike now, played in a single venue rather than spread around to make sure as many cities as possible in the host nation get to host the "glamorous" countries).

It’s true there may be an advantage in topping the group and playing a second-placed team in the next round, but this wouldn’t be a free draw like, say, the Champions League, in which probabilities rule and, even if a giant finishes second in its group, you’re still more likely to get a straightforward game by coming out on top. If it were anything like the present format, the team topping Group F, for example, would know it faces the runner-up in Group E. And it’s easy to imagine a situation, if Group E finished first, in which coming second was preferable for teams in Group F, making that third group game worse than a dead rubber–it would be one that both sides want to lose.

Or imagine the first two games in the group finish 0-0. A 1-1 draw in the third game then takes both teams through. Even if there were not direct collusion, is any side going to rock the boat if they find themselves at 1-1 with half an hour to go? And what if all three games finished 1-1–or any of the various other highly possible combinations of scorelines that would leave all three sides equal? What, then, is the tiebreaker?

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But this comes back to something far more fundamental. What is a World Cup for? It already feels overlong, with too many drab games that are essentially moderately well-drilled defenses against attacks that at the club level would take them apart but at the national level lack the slickness that comes with months of playing together and developing a mutual understanding.

When Germany won the World Cup in 2014, how many games did it play against sides that might potentially have won the tournament? Three? Four? Spain in 2010 arguably played only two, three at most. Often the group stage feels like a protracted throat-clearing before the main event. If the World Cup were just about the best against the best, determining the top side in the world, it would make sense to return to the system of 16 teams in four groups of four leading to quarterfinals that existed between 1958 and 1970.

But the World Cup is about more than that. It’s about global representation and trying to grow the game in developing football countries. The present 32-team structure, flawed as it is, probably does offer the best balance between those aims unless FIFA were prepared to accept something truly radical.

There is a way to both spread the reach of the game, and concentrate quality so it became again a festival of the best playing the best.

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Imagine this: a host is selected for a 16-team finals, the reduction to a 32-game competition lessening the demands on the hosts and so opening up the possibility of hosting to far more countries. The other 15 teams then come from a global qualifying competition of, say, 60 teams.

Those 60 teams would be determined from regional pre-qualifying. Roughly doubling the present allocation to the 32-team World Cup, that would mean, say, 22 sides from Europe, 14 from the Americas, 12 from Africa and 12 from Asia/Oceania. Divide them into 15 groups of four and play home and away with either the top side going through or the top two going through into a knockout, home-and-away playoff round.

So a possible group may be France, USA, Algeria and Japan; or England, Chile, Burkina Faso and Iran; or Slovenia, Argentina, Ghana and Australia. What is better for the game in developing football nations? Playing three games in a distant World Cup, or hosting three major games in your own country where substantial numbers of your own fans can actually go and watch? And for developed nations, traveling to other continents would alleviate the familiar plod around teams within your own confederation.

If that meant the final 16 included a dozen European nations or 10 from the Americas, so be it: they’d have earned their right to be there. Sport is about about winning and about offering the chance to compete. This provides both.

It won’t happen, of course. There are far too many vested interests in the present structure. What might actually be good for football is the last thing that will be taken into account, and so we trot on, diluting the World Cup further and further because that might bring votes in a future presidential election, leaving a once great tournament defiled by greed and political expediency.