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Roundtable: What's the best format for an expanded World Cup?

Our expert panel takes a look at alternate solutions for the inevitable: The expansion of the World Cup from 32 teams.

World Cup expansion appears to be inevitable. As part of FIFA president Gianni Infantino's platform when running for office, he pitched a 40-team World Cup. Since then, his plan has evolved to a 48-team event for the world's greatest spectacle, which would conceivably go into effect for the 2026 competition. 

Ahead of FIFA's meetings in Zurich next week, when the future of the sport's spotlight event is discussed by the FIFA Council, we took it upon ourselves to ponder World Cup expansion. While our expert panel is in agreement that the 32-team format needs no tweaking, we're embracing the change that appears to be on the way.  

Here are our grand ideas:

Alexander Abnos - Don't just expand it: Double the field!

It’s high time we embrace reality. The World Cup is going to keep expanding and expanding, regardless of what anyone other than those with a whole lot of money think about it. If 42 teams doesn’t work, FIFA will expand to 48. If 48 doesn’t work, FIFA will expand to 52. It’s next to impossible to imagine FIFA ever voluntarily downsizing the size of its flagship event, so long as it remains the cash cow that it is. 

Given that, I feel the best that can be done at this point is to steadfastly maintain a primary positive aspect of the World Cup: The perfect balance of its structure. That’s why, if I had to expand the tournament, I’d take the (admittedly crazy) step of doubling the number of teams to 64. 

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Part of the beauty of the 32-team World Cup is how symmetrical and easy to understand it is. There’s no need for awkward one-off pre-group stage knockout games (as proposed by Infantino), no use for ranking third-place teams (a tournament feature I strongly dislike)—the top two in each group advance to the knockout round. No fuss, no muss. A 64-team World Cup keeps that exactly the same, it just doubles the number of groups, and adds a Round of 32 to the knockout stage. After axing the pointless third-place game, every four years we’d be blessed with a 127-game overdose of soccer. 

No doubt, organizing a tournament this large would be a gigantic logistical challenge. That, taken the right way, could actually be an advantage. So many matches might encourage more joint bids for hosting, potentially lessening the burden on any one country to serve as host. It’ll also ensure that all stadiums, especially those built specifically for the tournament, see plenty of action (Arena das Dunas in Natal, for example, cost well over $100 million to build, and it only hosted four matches). 

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Will more of those matches be “unsexy” games between, say, Lithuania and Guatemala? Sure…but that will be the case in almost any expansion format. The competition will be heavily diluted with 64 teams, especially at first. But over time, as more and more smaller nations get the experience, recognition, and money from going to a World Cup, I believe the gap will close. In the meantime, there will be more opportunity than ever before for Iceland-at-Euro-2016 types of stories to happen, and that’s no bad thing.

Brian Straus - One obvious solution, one radical one

This will be fun. And also sad. But it’s inevitable, and it’s also an assignment. So let’s wreck the greatest month in sports. Let’s ruin the World Cup.

At the moment, with 64 games and 32 teams, it’s all perfectly balanced. Qualifying still means something in most places, but the World Cup remains pretty inclusive and representative. We’re guaranteed at least a few riveting, instantly memorable games. The competition is hard to win, but it doesn’t drain the participants or drag on our patience too much. The format is fair and easy to follow. It’s pretty close to ideal. So naturally, FIFA wants to mess with it.

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The World Cup is going to grow. There’s too much interest and too much money to be made. So how do we do it without destroying every last vestige of that balance? By keeping these key principles in mind: the games either must matter or pit elite countries against each other. And there must be reward for victory and consequences for defeat. Motivated teams make for entertaining soccer. Euro 2016 featured great stories in Iceland and Wales, but the tournament itself was a snoozer because the stakes weren’t high enough during the group stage. By the time the knockout rounds rolled around, most survivors weren’t able to find a higher gear. When Pepe is the key to the title, it’s probably safe to skip the highlight video.

Infantino’s 48-team proposal is ridiculous. Countries aren’t going to spend tons of time and money selecting, training and marketing a World Cup team only to see them fly home after a couple of days and 90 minutes of action. So let’s hope there’s enough restraint at FIFA headquarters to expand only to 40.

Here are two potential formats—one relatively obvious and one a bit more radical.

The obvious one is to divide the field into 10 groups of four teams each. The group winners and six runners-up with the best records move on to the round of 16, and the World Cup unfolds as normal from there. For the four second-place finishers who don’t advance, there’s a little sympathy—but not much. Win your group. Yes, some quartets are more difficult than others, but that’s the case now and always has been. The added incentive to get results and score goals in order to secure one of those wild card spots will have the opposite affect of allowing third-place teams to advance. The group stage games will matter—a lot.

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Now for the radical idea. It’s crazy, but so is a 40-team World Cup. Identify the top 12 qualifiers. Each of the five confederations except Oceania is guaranteed one team among that dozen. The remaining seven sides will be selected at large, NCAA tournament style. We can debate later how the 12 are chosen (playoff, ranking, etc), but the race for those spots should spice up qualifying around the world. Draw those elite 12 teams into three groups of four. Then place the remaining 28 teams into seven additional groups.

The first three quartets will feature a host of must-see games. Here, finishing third is enough to advance. Perhaps the depth of quality in those groups and the knowledge that three very good teams will head home early will be enough to raise the stakes in the first round. In the other seven groups, there is no leeway. Only the winners move on.

That produces your 16 knockout-stage teams. It may not work. It’s fun to imagine. It’s too bad we have to.

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Grant Wahl - 40 teams, 10 groups of four, 24-team knockout stage

If I had my choice, I’d leave the World Cup at 32 teams, which is a perfect number. But since the assignment is we have to expand the field and figure out the best way to do it, I would go with 40 teams in 10 groups of four. Keeping the groups at four teams each allows for the final group-stage games to still take place at the same time, which is key.

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The group stage would feed into a 24-team knockout stage. The eight group winners with the best group-stage record would get byes. Two group winners, all 10 second-place group teams and the four best third-place teams would comprise the 16 teams that play to make the round of 16. Once you have your round of 16, the knockout rounds proceed from there.

It’s not perfect like 32 teams, but it does allow final group-stage games to take place simultaneously, and it prevents the situation in Gianni Infantino’s 48-team plan in which 16 teams end up playing only one game at the World Cup.