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What a 40 Team World Cup Could Mean for this Popular Football Tournament

FIFA has been the subject of much controversy, with allegations of bribes and investigations of high-ranking officials tarnishing the integrity of the entire sport of football. Unsurprisingly, the global soccer organization is considering what has been dubbed “a very comprehensive reform package.” What is surprising is that this “reform package” wouldn’t just be bent on stopping corruption, but would also change the makeup of one of what is perhaps the world’s biggest sporting event: the FIFA World Cup. Proposals for a 40 team World Cup have been discussed, but what would this mean?

A 40 Team World Cup?

According to a recent report from The Guardian, FIFA officials discussed a wide range of topics at their executive committee meeting on Thursday, December 3rd, including the possibility of expanding the competing fields for future World Cup events to 40 teams. Currently, the final World Cup tournament includes 32 teams—a field decided by a very competitive qualifying process.

40 Team World Cup Germany 2014

For football fans appalled at the thought of any changes to how the World Cup tournament is played, there are several points of silver lining here. First of all, the FIFA executive committee hasn’t made any concrete decisions about expanding the field yet. The Guardian piece says that the idea is being “passed back to FIFA administrators for further consideration,” which means that there is still a chance the World Cup team count could remain at 32 in the long-term.

Secondly, even if FIFA does decide that expanding to a 40 team field is in the best interests of the World Cup and global soccer in general, the change still wouldn’t take effect for a long time. World Cup tournaments are planned very far ahead of time, and the soonest a 40-team field would be implemented would be in 2026. The bidding process for the 2026 World Cup was suspended in June, as allegations of corruption grew louder and louder surrounding FIFA. No country has yet been selected to host the 2026 event.

The Pros and Cons of Expansion

Still, the fact that a 40 team World Cup 1) might not even happen, and 2) would be years down the road if it does, soccer fans are still bound to debate intensely on the subject in the here and now. There are valid arguments on both sides of the table for this particular discussion, and FIFA will undoubtedly have a difficult decision to make when the time comes for a vote.

On one side of the argument, there is the issue of inclusiveness. The Guardian piece noted that FIFA executives hailing from Africa and Asia were particularly supportive of the 40-team idea, and it’s not difficult to see why. Right now, Europe dominates the WC tournament—not necessarily because the continent delivers all the top contenders, but just because it gets the most slots.

At the 2014 World Cup, there were 13 UEFA countries in contention. That number was seven more slots than South America, who had the next highest tally with six. Africa had five teams in the competition, North and Central America had four, Asia had four (including Australia), and the Oceania Football Confederation (which includes New Zealand, Fiji, and other island countries in that region) ended up with zero.

Adding eight more slots to the World Cup would supposedly guarantee more slots to the small football confederations. Such a move would give teams that have never qualified for the World Cup before a chance of making it to the tournament.

The cons, meanwhile, have to do with padding and expense. The World Cup is meant to be a display of the finest international football teams on the planet. Guaranteeing slots for less established confederations would pad the final tournament and lead to a less exciting and less competitive group stage. As for expenses, the extra teams would either demand host countries to stage longer tournaments or build more facilities to account for the additional matches and audiences. For an event that is already incredibly costly to host, the expansion might price a lot of countries out of the hosting market entirely.

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