The great debate: should the World Cup be expanded

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Should the FIFA World Cup be expanded from 32 to 48 teams, as has been suggested by FIFA president Gianni Infantino?  beIN's two armchair experts put forward the two opposing sides of the argument.

The argument 'for' by Tom Findlay

If you don’t think the world cup should be expanded, the current 32-team format should not sit comfortably with you.

After all, the Cup in its existing guise is a by-product of the very thing you so oppose: expansion, in accordance with the growing number of member nations playing the game. 

Consider that the first World Cup, in 1930, only featured 13 teams. Four years later 16 of the then 80 member nations took their place. That’s how it stayed for 10 World Cups, before the number was increased to 24 in 1982, with Asia and Africa invited to the party.

Oh how Senegal fans loved making the guest list in 2002, when they enchanted the world. Had the World Cup not been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, we would never have experienced that Senegal joyride and many others like it.

One of the teams the African minnow stunned was then defending champion France, which had won its host tournament in 1998 – the first year 32 teams were given the chance to make it.

You don’t hear too many Socceroos fans pining for the days when it was that much more difficult to qualify because there were less teams.

When the number of entrants jumped from 16 to 24 teams, there were 196 registered nations. In 2016 there are a staggering 211 nations vying for 32 places. Only 15 per cent will experience the elation of qualifying for Russia in 2018.

By Expanding the pool of qualified teams the world cup in fact becomes harder to win and therefor more prestigious. It also becomes harder to qualify for, with more meaningful matches and more at stake for a wider number of teams. If you doubt that, ask any one of the Netherlands players who missed out on UEFA EURO 2016 – a tournament that was expanded from 16 to 24 teams.

It’s an apt illustration. Take, for example, Iceland. Derided as a minnow which perhaps should never have been given the chance to make the main event, the tiny nation went on to capture the imagination of the football world, stunning England on its way to a quarter-final appearance.

How many people who rode the emotions that tournament did you hear complaining about its expanded format afterwards? Money-spinning conspiracy theories aside, having more qualification spots gives more teams a chance at making it. In a continental context, every CONMEBOL nation competes in the Copa America, so why shouldn't every nation - or at least 24 of them- be given a chance at EUROS.

By the same token, why not open the World Cup to more teams, increasing the romance and adding to the prestige by making it harder to win. 

FIFA initially proposed a 40-team tournament but had so much trouble working out how the format would work, that it has come back with a revised 48-team set-up, where 16 seeded nations go straight into the group stage and the 32 other qualifiers play off in a one-off eliminator.

Essentially, the crux of the tournament stays the same, but the 16 next-best nations are given one extra chance to make it. This opens the event up to more romance, more drama and more excitement.

As any Iceland fan will attest, there’s nothing wrong with that. 

The argument 'against' by Basil Saab

We’ve seen it before, expanding for the sake of it doesn’t always work out, you need only look at UEFA EURO 2016 to see why this latest proposal is a bad idea.

For the first time, the EUROs went from 16 to a 24 team competition, which left 53 teams vying for 24 places in a watered down qualification stage.

Almost one in every two teams was guaranteed a spot, which took away from the spectacle in qualifiers and Germany centre-back Mats Hummels echoed these sentiments.

"The level at this European Championship was not what we had hoped for," The 27 year-old said.

I’m all for change as needed – I welcomed FIFA’s expansion from 24 to 32 teams in 1998, but there needs to be a compelling case for change and the latest proposal hardly makes for compelling reading.

The only difference in the proposed changes will be an elimination round of 32 teams vying for the remaining 16 group stage spots, before the World Cup resumes as normal.

"It means we continue with a normal World Cup for 32 teams, but 48 teams go to the party," Infantino said.

If it becomes business as usual after this elimination round, then what’s the point adding these superfluous games to a World Cup already packed with fixtures?

It reeks of a shameless grab for cash.

When you take into account that FIFA confirmed unprecedented ticket price hikes for Russia 2018 (with tickets to cost as much as $1480), and the increasing football schedule for players, is there really a need for 16 more games?

It’s not like teams don’t have a fair chance at qualifying for the World Cup. Lengthy FIFA World Cup qualifiers gives countries ample opportunity to make the FIFA World Cup, frankly if they’re not good enough to advance through these rounds, they shouldn’t feature in the world’s most decorated football tournament.