Fifa World Cup growth will do far more than cater to China and Xi Jinping – 48 teams can only be a good thing
Confirmation of the tournament’s expansion has been met with outrage, but it had to happen and opens plenty of doors for Asian soccer
There are two types of people in the world. Those that get excited by group games at the World Cup and those that can’t wait for the knockouts.
The latter were out in force after Russia hammered (and sickled) Saudi Arabia in the highest-scoring opening game in World Cup finals history.
The keyboard warriors headed to Twitter to point out that it’s a “farce” that the hosts can face such meek opposition when the likes of Italy, the Netherlands and the US are watching from afar.
No team has a God given right to play at the World Cup, although when it comes to the North American 2026 tournament the same people are complaining that it has come pretty close.
Fifa confirmed at its congress on the eve of the Russia tournament that the World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams.
This has sparked outrage and condemnation from the same people, airing their concerns that the quality of the world’s most important football tournament will suffer with so called lesser teams in action.
Money-grabbing Fifa, everything wrong with modern football, and they are only doing it to make sure that China qualify. It’s all been said but is it really the beginning of the end of days?
Russia 2018 has a record five AFC teams – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Japan and South Korea – and a 48-team World Cup will allot 8.5 spots to the Asian Football Confederation, with the half being a play-off spot. It will make AFC qualifying much more interesting and open.
Such a move was always going to have to happen anyway. The first World Cup in 1930 was contested by 13 teams from just three confederations and several of the squads got to Uruguay by boat. Times change.
Even Uefa, the most established and best represented confederation at World Cups, continues to see new members and had to expand its own European Championships to 32 teams in 2016.
People pilloried it as quantity over quality in the build-up but there were no complaints when Wales made the semis and Iceland the quarters.
The quality in the other confederations has also improved over the years. Fifa now has 211 member associations so a 48-team World Cup is still not a quarter of them attending – it’s not as if qualification has been rendered moot.
As for ensuring China qualifies, nothing is certain, but with the investment in Chinese football they should be looking to qualify for a 32-team tournament on merit in the next couple of cycles.
While they have qualified only once in 2002 and that was helped by Japan and South Korea qualifying as joint-hosts, China were still in the hunt for a spot in Russia on the last day of matches despite a disappointing start to their campaign.
They went into the final match day with the possibility of a play-off place, a hope that was extinguished despite victory over Qatar thanks to results elsewhere.
China are the seventh best team in the AFC on the latest Fifa World Rankings, which were updated last week. They dropped two places to 75, just five behind Russia who turned on the style to beat Saudi Arabia (67) 5-0 in Thursday’s opening game.
Were China to get a ticket to North America 2026, the new format would mean that they might go home after two games. The plans for the 48-team tournament see 16 groups of three teams and the top two going through to a round of 32, an additional knockout stage on the existing format.
That won’t put off Chinese fans, though. After 100,000 have headed to Russia for a World Cup they are not even at, they would be sure to head to the North American World Cup in eight years’ time in even bigger numbers.
It’s easy to be cynical and point out that the only numbers that matter in any of this are the ones in Fifa’s Swiss bank accounts but the World Cup is one of the best focal points at bringing people together.
Having more teams there can only be a good thing, allowing more people to fall in love with the beautiful game looking its best.
That will increase football culture and improve the sport, which is good for the game. Xi Jinping’s goal is for China to host a World Cup and become competitive in international tournaments by 2050.
It can’t hurt to have a few more World Cup matches under their belt before they put in their inevitable bid to stage the tournament.
It’s good news for Chinese football but it’s also good news for football fans, providing you fall in the camp that looks forward to the World Cup group stage. China v Trinidad and Tobago in Toronto sounds good to me.
Until then we’ll have to do with Japan v Senegal in Ekaterinburg, the “gateway to Siberia”.