Traditionalists are up in arms over Fifa’s decision to extend the World Cup finals tournament from 32 to 48 places, and it’s easy to see why. The finals are supposed to represent the very best that international football has to offer, as the elite teams showcase their talents in what is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world.
When Scotland made the ill-fated journey to Argentina for the 1978 tournament, there were just 16 teams at the finals. Now when the finals take place in 2026, there will be triple that amount, representing almost one in four of the global total of national teams. And the finals will host a staggering total of 80 matches in just 32 days. Heaven help those of us who do not care for the game, during that month of wall-to-wall live action.
We are told that the expansion is to make the World Cup more inclusive, but there is no exclusion.
All nations have the opportunity to reach the finals, through the qualifying tournaments which take place every four years. It is an inevitable consequence of sporting competition that the best teams will qualify, and the poorer teams will not.
Where the new Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, has a point is that participation in the World Cup finals “is the biggest promotional tool for football you can have”.
But while that is true, it begs the question of what the purpose of the event is – a showcase for the very best that the sport can offer, or a development exercise where mediocre teams benefit from the exposure but dilute the spectacle.
We have already witnessed the effect of overloading a tournament with also-rans, with the expanded European Championship finals offering too many tedious encounters last year.
However, the decision has been made.
The real question now is not about the standard of football, but the conduct of Fifa, an organisation with a reputation in tatters after widespread claims of financial corruption.
It is estimated that expansion of the tournament will create an extra £521 million in profit, as revenue increases to a colossal £5.29 billion. It is inevitable that this will be looked at with suspicion, and this is possibly the worst time in Fifa’s history to be announcing such a radical change to its flagship tournament and trying to pass it off as a “football decision” when there are such vast profits being made at the same time.
What Fifa needs now is the kind of transparency it has avoided for most of its existence.
Additional profit from the finals must be invested in grassroots development of the game, with a public audit clearly demonstrating how the cash has been funnelled to deserving causes, instead of ending up in the control of questionable delegates or officials.
But even if transparency is attempted – and achieved – doubts are sure to remain.
Fifa has lost what little public trust it had, because of the conduct of officials who grabbed what they could get from the sport and took full advantage of their influence. It is a long way back for world football’s governing body, and today, it has placed yet another question mark against its own integrity.