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Soccer fans shouldn’t sweat the 48-team World Cup

There are many reasons to be angry and worried when it comes to football.

Manchester City have been charged with false accounting to cover up breaches of financial fair play. Barcelona, ​​LaLiga’s league leader, faces corruption charges after it emerged that it paid the vice president of the Spanish referees’ committee half a million dollars a year between 2016 and 2018. Juventus, who have already had 15 points taken away This season, he faces both a sports investigation and a criminal investigation for false accounting and misleading shareholders. French league leaders Paris Saint-Germain are led by a guy who is also president of the European Club Association, a member of the UEFA Executive Committee and, in his other hat as president of beIN Sports, one of the biggest funders of the game, and has been implicated in an investigation for “kidnapping and torture”.

So yeah, these are tough times for the game. And all of the above is worth worrying about because unless there is a transparent verdict that everyone understands, one way or another, we won’t have closure, we’ll just have more accusations and lingering mistrust.

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Here’s what you shouldn’t worry about: a 48-team World Cup in 2026. Not now that FIFA has come up with a reasonable format, anyway.

The FIFA Council on Wednesday approved the 48-team format: four groups of 12, with the eight best third-place teams advancing to a new round of 32. It signals the biblical grinding of hair and pulling of teeth.

The quality of the World Cup will be diluted! Someone please think about the welfare of the players! The number of matches is increasing by 60%! This is all about money and greed!

I think it’s a good compendium of the arguments against. If there are other valid reasons No to move to 48 teams, I’m all ears: Hit me on Twitter.

In the meantime, let’s consider the most cited arguments, starting with the dilution of quality. Sure, if you have 48 entrants instead of 32, the “quality” will be watered down because presumably the additional 16 teams won’t be as good as the original 32.

And? Teams from lower divisions participate in cup competitions around the world. Does Wrexham’s presence spoil your enjoyment of the FA Cup? More generally, the World Cup is not about showcasing the most qualitative teams in the game, because, well, the best teams are the club teams. Because? Because they have the funds and the ability to hire the best players and coaches regardless of where they come from and they play and train together all year long.

So yeah, if “quality” bothers you then international soccer is not for you, and neither is lower division soccer and basically all games except Champions League knockout stages, Big Six in the Premier League. , he classic and some other election parties. I’m sorry.

In fact, the World Cup has not been about quality for a long time. It’s the biggest sporting event and it’s about participation, whole countries stop to watch the games, find kinship with your neighbor or colleague who annoys you the hell out of real life but for 90 minutes when your team is playing it becomes in member. from your circle and a guy you want to hug if your country checks.

It is a showcase of football from around the world. And while places in the competition have traditionally been dominated by countries in Europe and South America (in the name of “quality”, of course), it’s only fair that the rest of the planet should have a chance as well. FIFA has 211 member associations, allowing 48 of them to participate in the World Cup means that 22.7% can participate. For most of the competition’s history, that has been roughly the proportion of participating countries. When it went from 16 to 24 nations in 1986, it was 19.7%. And when it went from 24 to 32 in 1998, it was 18.3%. I can live with that, if it means that most fans around the world may be part of a World Cup more than once or twice in their lifetime.

And while we’re at it, a nice byproduct of a 48-team World Cup is more meaningful group games. It is much less likely that someone will be eliminated even if they lose their first two matches. And while it’s true that you’re much more likely to qualify with two wins in your first two games (and therefore want to rest your starters in the final group game), if the organizers are smart, they’ll They will give a great incentive to win the group, such as ensuring that group winners don’t have to travel much (or not at all) in later rounds. That wasn’t a problem in Qatar 2022 considering all the games were basically in Doha, but with a much bigger footprint in 2026 when the tournament comes to the US, travel could be a game changer.

As for the player welfare argument, playing 62.5% more games sounds brutal, right? But really, we’re talking about four teams playing an extra game (and for two of those teams, it’s the third-place playoff that no one but immediate family members will ever remember. Quick! Who finished third in Russia 2018? See?). Under the old format, 24 of 32 teams played four or fewer games. Under this format, 32 of 48 will play four games or less.

Player welfare is not something to be taken lightly, I agree. But a summer tournament preceded by no games for at least three weeks, followed by no games after the tournament for at least another three weeks (more time for teams knocked out before the semifinals, which is the vast majority) isn’t the problem. . The tournament is expected to last 39 days. At most, if your group is one of those that starts later and you reach the semifinals, you will play eight games in 33 days, which already happens to many players regularly during the club season, except that they do not have a month off . before and after.

Which brings us to the greed and money argument. No one is going to argue that a 48-team World Cup will generate more money, simply by playing more games. Yes, FIFA likes to make money. The same goes for Apple, Google and Tinder. The difference is that the vast majority of FIFA’s revenue is redistributed among member associations, more than half of which would not even exist without the annual infusions they receive from FIFA. That’s why they voted for a 48-team World Cup: it makes more money and allows them to, you know, run a federation, tournaments, youth and women’s soccer.

God forbid the world’s poorest countries endorse a World Cup format that allows them to play a sport with a modicum of dignity.

Sure, critics will point to the numerous FIFA scandals of the past and talk about how this amounts to sponsorship and pork barrel politics and gives Infantino or whoever is in the big chair at the time inordinate power to swap funds around. of FIFA by votes of poorer countries. . And yes, we all know about the bribery and corruption that took place in the Sepp Blatter era. (We had a reminder just this week, when A former Fox executive was convicted by a New York court of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to obtain the rights to broadcast the World Cup..)

But it’s a bit like welfare payments or financial aid for college tuition. If people defraud welfare or a government financial aid program, do they just cancel it for everyone? Or does it make it harder to defraud the government by having a more transparent system and increased surveillance?

I have a feeling that at the heart of the complaints about the 48-team World Cup is a kind of basic conservatism and rose-tinged nostalgia for what the game was like when we first fell in love. When, at least most of us, were younger, we were in better shape and had less to worry about. But the world changes and, with it, football.

So please, save your concern and justified anger for other soccer-related matters. The 48-team World Cup will be fine. You’ll love it. Trust me.