Connect with us


Wilson: World Cup expansion doesn’t help China – or anyone else

I genuinely hate to appear to stand on the side of the European football establishment (I’ll explain that one further down, there’s a twist!), but a World Cup expanded to 48 teams is overkill and risks devaluing the tournament, making it less desirable to qualify for in the first place.

I genuinely hate to appear to stand on the side of the European football establishment (I’ll explain that one further down, there’s a twist!), but a World Cup expanded to 48 teams is overkill and risks devaluing the tournament, making it less desirable to qualify for in the first place.

From China’s point of view, the expansion is not necessarily a good thing either – word is that Asian slots would increase to 8 which would hardly guarantee qualification given China’s struggles to reach the final qualifying phase in recent times. Indeed, Chinese social media featured plenty of pessimistic comments that missing out on a jumbo-sized edition of the tournament would just increase China’s embarrassment. Joking aside though, the end result for China would be greater expectation to qualify, thus increasing the already high pressure on the players to bottom-of-the-Marianas Trench-like proportions. Besides, if China wants to reach its goals of being a world footballing power, it will need to be able to outplay the likes of Japan and Australia anyway, extra qualifying spots or not.

There are some very fair arguments in favour of expansion, some of which are put very well by some Australian commentators I have a lot of time for. It is true there has long been an elitist attitude present in Europe and even South America and that these places tend to view football from elsewhere in the world with contempt. Certainly it could be argued the current 32-team World Cup, and how the qualifying spots are divided between the confederations, doesn’t really reflect the reality of football on the ground in the 2010s. As football has spread throughout the world to new destinations via globalization over the last 30 years or so, there is now huge passion for the tournament in places with limited chances to qualify.

The whole continent of Africa has to get by on five slots, whilst, Asia, home to half the world’s population, only has 4.5 and don’t forget large swathes of the continent, particularly south east Asia (especially Indonesia), have been in love with the sport for decades and arguably have a stronger football culture than China.

It’s reasonable to say letting an increased number of emerging football countries qualify for the World Cup will help their development and spread the sport. Certainly China could benefit in this way, and Japan, South Korea and Australia certainly have improved their game from regular qualification.

Improving football in new countries is a fantastic function of the World Cup. But, and this is a big but, the priority should always be on maintaining the magic of the World Cup as a sporting content and its ability to inspire billions of people to fall in love with the game, at least for a month every four years. However, suddenly adding 16 new teams really is watering things down and necessitates an awkward 16 groups of three setup which means one team goes home after playing just two games.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but “Group P” just doesn’t sound right.

A line has to be drawn somewhere – it’s impossible to have everyone at the party. The current 32-team format works well. It is symmetrical, easy to understand, and has the right balance between getting the best teams in the world at the world’s biggest tournament, and making sure it is a World Cup and not just Europe plus Brazil and Argentina. You could argue Europe is over-represented. South America even more so – half of CONMEBOL’s 10 members can make it. In an ideal world, Europe and South America would give up some slots and spread the love to other parts of the globe. But everyone knows that won’t happen. So 32 slots is the best answer to a very difficult conundrum. It is certainly a big improvement on the previous  format of 24 teams, last seen at USA 94. This configuration meant it was actually harder to get knocked out than qualify from the first round – a phenomenon which will return in a 48-team edition.

The switch in 1998 to 32 teams came at a time when geopolitical changes had seen a significant number of new countries enter the football scene after the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia earlier in the decade. From the ashes of these political unions rose several sides who made their mark on the world stage – most notably Croatia who finished 3rd at the 1998 World Cup. And also, just to prove that expansion is not necessary for so called “minnows” to make it to major tournaments, former USSR republic Latvia have qualified for a European Championship, whilst most recently, Iceland and Wales graced last year’s edition of the tournament. Before you say that was because France 2016 was expanded, Wales and Iceland both were runners-up in their group and had records which placed them inside the top 16 qualifiers, so it is fair to proffer that they would have qualified for an un-expanded tournament anyway.

Proponents of an expanded World Cup talk about the current format as if the same teams win and qualify all the time. But that’s not quite true. Since the 32-team format came in, two new winners – Spain and France – have been added, an Asia side made it to the last four (South Korea), and every single year there has always been at least one team made its World Cup debut.  This was not a format which was stagnant in any way.

Yes, there are a greater number of World Cup qualifying entrants than before, but quite a few are micro states with zero chances of ever qualifying. I think it’s fair to say there is difference between very small nations who came good, like Iceland (population 330,000) and places which are basically countries the size of a town such as Gibraltar (33,000) and have no realistic hope of ever making it to a major tournament. There are a good number of such teams who, lets be honest, are just cannon fodder and consider just scoring a goal to be a huge achievement. So when you look at the 206 countries who entered qualification for the World Cup in Brazil last time round, how many of these really are of a standard to be competitive even in a qualification tournament?  An expanded tournament risks making qualification less interesting as the top teams will now have to slip up monumentally to not make it.

As it stands every country has a chance to qualify for the world cup – that is what qualification is for after all. It is not the end of the world to not qualify for a World Cup. As a Scotland fan, I know all about that and I have no problem keeping the format 32 teams even if it means I may never see my country at a World Cup again. The integrity and credibility of the competition is more important, and there are only so many teams one can accommodate logistically. Which brings me to my final and most important point which I alluded to at the top.

The European elite hate international football and their agenda is to diminish its relevance so the Champions League takes precedence, a competition they control and earn huge revenues from, revenues which are not redistributed to help develop football to anywhere near the same extent that FIFAs monies are (this is still true despite FIFA’s corruption). The Euro snob media have been sharpening their knives for years on the World Cup, openly questioning its status as the World’s most prestigious football competition and scoffing arrogantly at the heavy defeats of the likes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia in the opening rounds of recent World Cups.

For quite sometime, the big European clubs have been kicking back against their players turning out for their countries, demanding compensation for players injured on national duty, or mysteriously reporting their players as injured and unable to be called up in the first place. It has become de rigueur for players to retire from international football years before they quit their professional career to concentrate on playing for their clubs.

A World Cup expanded to 48 teams, although well intentioned in some respects, will become a bloated and easy target that the European elite won’t hesitate to mercilessly attack to fit their own selfish and narrow agenda. The 32 team World Cup is special precisely because it requires a certain level of excellence to qualify for it, whilst giving a chance for football’s lesser lights to shine on the big stage. It creates a magic and a lore which goes far beyond club football because, unlike the champions league, players aren’t at the World Cup for the money. Messing up its complex balance risks spoiling all that is good about the world’s greatest sporting contest.


UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...



  1. Yiddo Huayi

    11/01/2017 at 19:00

    “A World Cup expanded to 48 teams, although well intentioned in some respects, will become a bloated and easy target the European elite who won’t hesitate to attack it mercilessly to fit their own selfish and narrow agenda. The 32 team World Cup is special precisely because it requires a certain level of excellence to qualify for it, whilst giving a chance for football’s lesser lights to shine on the big stage. ”

    The way I read all the extensive debate and opinions on 32 vs 48 is that many of the afficionados and “good” pundits are of the view that 48 teams will devalue the tournament itself and not actually serve to develop minor countries as they will now have an easier path to the finals. Whereas the ones more closely involved in administrating favour a more inclusive 48 team finals – albeit less vigourously, as well as acknowledging that more $$ to minor football countries will provide much needed development.

    I have to say that I am quite willing to give this new format a go for entirely mercenary reasons:

    1. If it results in Oceania getting one direct entry then I think it will provide a massive filip for youth development in NZ.

    2. I have no idea how NZFootball has pissed away the windfall it got from the 2010 WC but it bloody well has and we really only have one professional club (in the A-League) that is making any real effort to offer a home grown professional pathway development. With Infantino’s lucre there is a real opportunity for NZF to build on this.

    3. Re UEFA – f*ck em. Let’s make the game truly global! If the 48 team format works then it will be harder for UEFA to pack a hissy fit.

    4. Re your point about minor countries qualifying, they are not always sustained – they come good once in a while, but just as quickly disappear from future tournaments.

    5. What is the right number? 32 teams was introduced in 1998 – so that is relatively new. Before that it was anything from 13 to 24 teams. I’d like to give the 48 format a go – if it doesn’t work out then maybe the FIFA elite will have the balls to go back to the tried and true 32. But given how the game is growing I’d like the finals to represent diversity and for the slices of the FIFA dosh pie to be more evenly distributed to all the participating countries.

    • Flyingkiwi

      16/01/2017 at 10:34

      I’m not sure it’s fair to criticise the NZFA for “pissing money away”. Football, in NZ, is a very complex beast. True: there is only one professional team playing in the A League. But, because of that, it’s, virtually, a de-facto national team that plays in Australia every other weekend and, when playing at “home” has to meet the needs of fans around the country by moving about (Between Wellington/Auckland/Hamilton/Palmerston North/Christchurch/Dunedin) AND the B squad plays as a National League team. Sure: they get sponsored (By Huawei last time I paid attention to the shirt) but NZ Football still needs to sink a lot of cash into The Nix. After that; there are a lot of regional leagues that need to be administered.

      • Yiddo Huayi

        16/01/2017 at 18:59

        umm NZF doesn’t sink much if any cash into the Nix (as it doesn’t have much) but it has tried to accommodate the youth development squad by allowing it to play in the domestic premiership.

        It’s not actually that complex. It just has been administered by muppets.

        My point was that even these muppets could do some good with additional FIFA money from WC participation, and I’m sure that other developing nations would benefit from occasional windfalls if they get into an expanded WC finals.

  2. Dylan Shi

    13/01/2017 at 14:50

    I agree that this proposal is utterly awful, but I actually am very cautiously in favor of at least looking at the possibility of expansion. In the long term, expansion is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be done hastily.

    The first thing wrong with this is that it’s just too big a jump. All past expansions have been by a maximum of 8—from 16 to 24 in 1982 and from 24 to 32 in 1998. This one is by double that amount. Why? What’s the rush? Would it not make sense to try a 40-team tournament for at least three or four cycles first?

    The second thing is that 3-team groups are ridiculous. It’s not so bad in the CONCACAF Champions League, but those groups are double round robins so at least teams get four matches, not just two. I guess you might say this proposal is better than the first, in which many teams would have gone home having played only once, but then at least that one would have produced four-team groups afterwards. Three-team groups, where two play one another and the third rests? Scheduling nightmare. Unfair.

    A 40-team tournament with 8 groups of 5 could work, though it would present its own difficulties, like the possibility of dead rubbers. Before expanding even by 8 teams, though, what FIFA should really do is look into expanding intercontinental qualifying. Reduce the number of slots confederations get automatically and increase the number confederations other than UEFA or CONMEBOL can get.

    Ultimately, deciding ahead of time how many slots confederations get is going to be unfair, period. There is not a ranking mechanism enforcing allowances in the fashion of the European or Asian Champions Leagues, and even if there were, there would be the risk of UEFA and CONMEBOL ending up even better-represented than they already are.

    Increase the number of teams who have to qualify intercontinentally, but dump them into a mini-tournament rather than pair Confederation X with Confederation Y. As it stands, the playoffs are a joke anyway, as the two American confederations usually win them unless playing each other, while Europe and Africa spurn them. Poor New Zealand. You have to go back to Australia’s penalty shootout defeat of Uruguay in 2006 qualifying for the last exception. Okay, not so long ago, but the point is, the current playoffs tend to screw the world’s biggest continent while bolstering the impression that CONCACAF is over-represented as 3.5 becomes 4, and who wants to see Ecuador beat up on Uzbekistan anyway?

    If CONCACAF instead had 2+3, rather than 3+1, you would be giving North America the chance to have more slots but not at the expense of Asia or Africa outright. If the teams come through the mini-tournament, great. No one can say they didn’t earn it, and Panama, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are all legitimate teams who could contribute a lot. On the other hand, if it’s just the US and Mexico, tough shit, better luck next time. Keep in mind that a mini-tournament would be both tougher for teams on the edge of the big confederations, like Austria or Paraguay, and a big chance for those from smaller ones who could get hot at the right time.

    I haven’t thought the numbers through, but the challenge would be scheduling, so the number would have to be moderate. You don’t want to add too many games to the international calendar or make small federations travel all over the world for a dozen games. Therefore, the mini-tournament would have to be a single rather than a double round robin, with half a team’s games at home, to be determined by a draw. Possibly two groups, like the last stage of AFC qualifying. The top X teams in the group would enter the World Cup proper. No single elimination.

    This would be the best way to extend more chances to Asia and Africa without simply taking away slots from Europe and South America, which would be unfair, would really risk diluting quality and would never happen anyway. If it worked well and more Asian and African teams qualified with more regularity, you could say that the level of the game worldwide has improved and expand the World Cup in reasonable confidence that you’re not just diluting.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

More in Asia