January 9, 2017

World Cup Expansion Could Tarnish Tournament’s Quality

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FIFA President Gianni Infantino is hoping the body's voting Council will agree on his proposed 48-team expansion of the World Cup tournament.

FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, want the World Cup to be bigger and richer than it already is, even if that means churning out a lower-quality product.

President Gianni Infantino hopes FIFA’s ruling Council agrees with his vision Tuesday, when they will vote whether or not to expand the 2026 World Cup to 48 nations, playing in 16 groups of three teams.

There remains the possibility that no announcement comes from Tuesday’s meeting — Council members are free to demand to know how many qualifying places each continent will receive before agreeing to do away with the current 32-team format. The present model has been successful, as well as popular and profitable since its inception in 1998.

The next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar will operate under the 32-team format.

The proposal of adding 16 slots to the tournament has received “overwhelming” support from FIFA’s member federations, Infantino said. Extra funding that has been promised from Zurich could be secured because of FIFA’s forecast of a 20 percent increase in rights fees paid by broadcasters and sponsors.

“Financially, the 48-team format is the most appealing or successful simply because the sporting element is prevailing and every match is important,” Infantino said. “The decision should not be financially driven, neither in terms of revenue or costs … but the driver should really be the development of football and boosting football all over the world.”

However, the reigning World Cup champions (Germany) are not in favor of the changes. The nation has argued that diluting the number of European and South American teams — who have won 20 World Cup titles since 1930 — could “strengthen the imbalance” seen at some tournaments.

“The (German soccer federation) fundamentally believe that the current 32-team format is the best option,” its president Reinhard Grindel said.

Germany has no delegate attending Tuesday’s meeting, however, Grindel is set to join the FIFA Council in May.

FIFA itself acknowledged the risk of more members creating lower standards in its product, and said so in a letter to members, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The “absolute quality” of soccer, defined by high-ranked teams playing each other most often, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA said, citing 10,000 tournament simulations made to reach that conclusion. Regardless, Infantino promised Council voters more World Cup places and increased funding before his ultimate election last February.

FIFA expects revenues for the 2018 World Cup in Russia to be in the neighborhood of $5.5 billion, this despite the fact that 25 of the tournament’s 34 sponsorship slots remain unsold.

In the letter to its members, FIFA predicted the equivalent of $6.5 billion in revenue from a 48-team tournament, played in the traditional “16×3” format, which would send two teams from each group to a new Round of 32 knockout bracket. There would be 80 matches played, compared to the current 64 matches, that would play in an exclusive time slot. Currently, the 64 matches have 56 broadcast slots.

The “16×3” format, according to FIFA, would require a minimum of 12 stadiums, the demand for 16 additional top-quality training facilities for teams and of course the appropriate amount of lodging required to house everyone.

A North American bid from two or three U.S. states, as well as bids from Canada and Mexico, are currently the favorites in a contest that could begin in the next few weeks.

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