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In getting more teams in its World Cup party, FIFA waters down its punch

On Soccer

(Bernd Weissbrod/EPA)
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The World Cup is growing by 50 percent, but will it be half as good?

FIFA decided Tuesday to fiddle with the planet’s most popular sports competition, increasing the number of teams to 48 from 32 in time for the 2026 tournament. It’s the first expansion since 1998, when soccer’s governing body added eight slots.

Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s first-year president, led the bigger-is-better effort, promoting inclusiveness and offering hope to countries, particularly in the developing world, that otherwise would have almost no chance of performing in a global theater.

“There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup,” he said.

A 48-team format is set. The battle for the new slots starts now.

The 2018 and ’22 tournaments, in Russia and Qatar respectively, will remain unchanged.

In the wake of FIFA’s recent scandals, however, any action taken by the Zurich organization is rightfully greeted with cynicism: More teams, more matches (80 instead of 64) and more exclusive TV slots means more profit at, many fear, the expense of competitiveness.

Infantino countered by saying “the overall quality of football is growing tremendously.” He cited the fact that players from about 70 countries are represented in the English Premier League and that little Costa Rica beat out England, Italy and Uruguay in 2014 World Cup group play.

No one with any passion for the sport wouldn’t want to see Euro 2016 darlings Iceland and Wales joining the World Cup parade. But what would happen once they get there?

The new format calls for 16 groups (instead of eight) of three teams (instead of four) vying for two slots in a single-elimination round of 32. The balance of the tournament will remain unchanged.

A third of the field will go home after playing twice (instead of three times). With a tighter group schedule, the route to the trophy will still involve seven matches. To alleviate concerns expressed by clubs that employ World Cup players, FIFA says the competition calendar will remain unchanged (32 days).

How the additional slots are allocated has yet to be determined, but presumably Europe will gain three tickets and place one team in each of those 16 groups. Africa and Asia are poised to gain the most. CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean, will probably also fare well.

Smaller, watered-down groups, though, will mark the death of the Group of Death, the unofficial designation slapped on the most treacherous current foursome. The prospect of Portugal, Egypt and New Zealand in Group M doesn’t exactly raise anticipatory fervor.

FIFA has also floated the idea of no draws in the group stage. The way to break ties after 120 level minutes is with penalty kicks. For less-skilled teams, often the only hope of toppling a titan is by dragging the match to a series of spot kicks from 12 yards. To meet that end, ugly defensive tactics bubble to the surface.

As U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said, “Today, that’s a big part of football — how you stop the good teams. People will do anything possible to get a result.”

Bruce Arena couldn’t bear the thought of U.S. soccer missing the World Cup

In making the change, FIFA stressed that countries bidding to host the tournament will not, despite the increase in matches, have to provide more than a dozen suitable stadiums, the current maximum. But those stadiums will host more games, which will inevitably take a toll on the surface. Field quality is already an issue in the present format.

Potential host countries will also have to provide additional training centers, hotels and security for the uptick in visitors, and enhanced intercity transportation options. While the number of participating teams will grow, the number of candidates to host the tournament will inevitably decline because of heavier financial and infrastructure demands.

Greater burden on one country to stage the competition will raise the prospects of shared responsibility and expense. Without expansion, the United States was pegged as the early favorite to host the 2026 World Cup. With expansion, the country still has the infrastructure and wherewithal to pull it off alone.

But the call for Mexico and Canada to join the bid will grow louder.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, however. FIFA tried it once before (Japan and South Korea in 2002). The political and logistical dance left second thoughts. Imagine, in the current political climate, the complications of the United States sharing anything with Mexico.

One sure casualty of an expanded World Cup is the entrancing pathway to the World Cup. With an easier road to the tournament for, say, Mexico, would a full squad even be necessary for the qualifier in El Salvador? And would San Salvador remain consumed by El Tri’s imminent arrival?

The raw emotion of international soccer is not typically found in the polished seats of World Cup stadiums; you need money or connections to claim a spot. It reveals itself in the flawed venues of central Africa, in the compact cauldrons of Central America and the flimsy grandstands in the South Pacific, where fans pour all of the their hopes and dreams into the meager possibility of joining the exclusive World Cup club.

Rest assured, qualifiers will endure, but by paving a smoother route to the ultimate destination for bigger teams, FIFA has bruised soccer’s soul. A larger World Cup party isn’t going to repair it.