World Cup Expansion Musings: A Terrifying Window into my Obsession with Formats

Dammit Infantino!!  Why Forty Eight??  Could you find a more infuriating number to cram 7 rounds of football into??

As some of you may know, I am a lover of mentally fiddling with competition formats.  Frankly, I blame Sensible World of Soccer on the Commodore Amiga and its amazingly intricate competition editor for introducing me to this weird fetish.

Then Football Manager came out with a gloriously fiddly editor that was even more in-depth, while watching soccer in North America put me in touch with all manner of oddly-shaped alternatives to the single-table round-robin league structure.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I have spent countless hours in front of a monitor, gleefully re-configuring virtual versions of your favourite leagues and tournaments into unnecessarily complex abominations, pairing assortments of clubs together in ways that Ron Jeremy would consider unwholesome.  The truly odd thing is how rarely I end up actually using them in the games.

It appears that the new FIFA President Gianni Infantino, shares my love of faffing about with things that don’t need fixing.  Yesterday it was announced that our beloved World Cup would from 2026 onward, be expanded from 32 to 48 teams.

“Inclusion” is apparently the motivation here.  I don’t know if Gianni has had this pointed out to him but I bet they’ll get even more viewers, visitors, sponsorship and cash by having sixteen additional countries as well.  I bet he’ll be chuffed to bits when he realises that part.

I’ve no particular issue with adding more teams in principal.  While I objected to the expansion of the European Championship, that was based entirely on the fact that the previous balance felt perfect.  The threshold of reaching the finals prior to that change, seemed to cut off the participants right at the sweet-spot between dark-horses and also-rans.

The World Cup to my mind, has not had such a balance within my lifetime. This is because as well as being a tournament, it’s also meant to be a global celebration of football.  It doesn’t matter that due to Australia leaving the OFC, New Zealand have become a larger-than-average sardine in a cup of pond-water, where it competes against a field of Tardigrades for the region’s half-berth.  Oceania has a (apparently semi-) right to be represented at the World Cup Finals.

Inclusion is a huge part of the tournament.  Well, aside from the part where FIFA selected a host nation that outlaws homosexuality but I digress (RIP Ronnie Corbett – up yours 2016).  Teams from confederations of disparate quality are always going to participate.

My issue is with the actual number of new entrants and the proposed format for accommodating them.  It’s less about there being too many or too few teams, it’s more about the logistics.

Y’see, under the new format, Infantino suggests we start with a group stage.  A three team group stage.  With two teams progressing.  The issues with any three-team group that allows two teams to progress are that:

a) it’s a nightmare for potential tie-break situations

b) with no option to play crunch games without knowing precisely how many points are needed, there’s an opportunity for the kind of contrived half-arsery that West Germany and Austria indulged in, in 1982.

Now personally, if you must have 48 teams, the following two seem the most straightforward, “inside-the-box” methods:

A play-in round prior to the Group Stage

This was actually an alternative that FIFA already explored.  Under this format, the 16 highest ranked teams receive a bye to the group stage.  The rest of the group participants are determined by a single-elimination match at the beginning of the tournament.  The groups will retain the present compositions of 8 sets of 4 teams.  This is by far, the simplest and most intuitive method, while also being very familiar to fans.

A later Group Stage

Under this format, the tournament would be a straight knock-out (48 teams in Round 1, 24 in Round 2 etc.) until the penultimate round.  This will occur once the field has been reduced to 6 teams.  At that point, we have two groups of three, with the group winners moving on to the final.

To avoid shenanigans, this round will be run as follows:

Firstly, there will be no draws. Extra-time and penalties will be used if necessary.

Teams 1 & 2 play one another for the first game.
Team 3 plays the winner of that match.
Team 3 then plays the remaining team.

The team winning the first game can qualify with an additional win. The third team would therefore need a win to keep the group alive.

Of course, game three will be a “dead rubber” if the winner of the first game has already progressed.  Otherwise, the third team will qualify with a victory, while their opponents will need a win to tie the group.  In the event of the latter, the tie will be broken using the following criteria: A win in regulation time trumps a win in extra time. A win in extra time trumps a win on penalties.  If two out of the three teams have the same superior result from this tie, then the winner of the game between them will qualify.

The problems with these two suggestions

An issue that both these approaches share is that they don’t offer more than one guaranteed game per each participant. This is largely considered a “must”.  It’s no fun going through the rigmarole of qualifying for a major tournament, having your newly-formed, 200k population principality, lug fans, players and coaches halfway around the globe, only to have Luis Suarez score eight goals past you, dine on your captain and send you straight home.

Additionally, there’s the quantity of rounds.  If you reach the final in the current system, you’ll have played seven times. This is apparently considered ideal.

The second of my suggestions above, would only result in six games for a team going all the way.  That’s not a disaster but I can see some people grumbling that they’ve been shorted a game.  Probably more importantly from a business sense, that’s an entire round of games gone.  The current set-up has 64 games.  FIFA’s proposal has 80.  This shorter format would have 50.  Somewhere, Gianni just felt a sharp twinge in his sponsorship revenue.

The first of my suggestions (again, already considered by FIFA) requires an additional game, which is apparently one of the key reasons it was rejected.  While the prospects of teams being immediately eliminated are the same as in my other suggestion, the fact that there is an expansive group stage in the second round, makes it feel even more like the losers didn’t truly make the “World Cup proper”.  Just imagining the idea of being dumped out of a preliminary round and seeing your opponents reveling in three group games, feels like salt in the wounds.

So the criteria is actually 48 teams, playing no more than 7 games but at least 2.  If we’re going to come up with a real alternative, it’s going to have to be really  outside the box.  This folks, is the reason for the rage in my opening (that sounds uncomfortable).

I can see why FIFA and co settled on this less-then-compelling “three team group stage”, because making the maths work any other way using traditional “group+KO” set-ups, is en-ragingly frustrating.

My first off-the-wall idea was to run certain segments of the competition as “double elimination”.  I won’t boggle your delicate noggins with warped permutations of those efforts.  This partial diagram which still has 24 teams involved after four rounds should suffice…


Then I thought about using the Swiss System.  I mean sure, it’s primarily used for chess tournaments and they require actual computers to calculate the brackets round by round, but what the hell…?

The Swiss System basically works by having a set number of rounds (a bit like a round robin) but the competitors (teams) don’t actually all play each other.  What happens is, the opening set of games is seeded.  After that set of fixtures, teams are then paired up according to their points.  If you won the first match, you play somebody else who won.  If you lost, you play another loser.  I wondered if that might be an improvement over the existing group stage proposal.  However, that method is specifically used to make sure that the title goes to the best team and gives not a hoot for the position of any other entrant, making the middle of the “table” a random mess.

I suppose it could be employed in brackets to find the best two or four participants before switching to straight KO rounds but it hardly makes for compelling viewing to see a succession of matches between minnows that were trounced in the first and second games.  Then there’s the logistics of not having a clue who is playing who from one game to the next and the lack of drama in the fact that Brunei vs Fiji won’t have any bearing on who progresses.

However, my Swiss dabblings (not to be confused with Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Gross period) did make me think of another approach, based on not having to play every team in your group.

First I tried to dabble with groups of four (making 12 groups).  The top teams would qualify, along with the best four runners-up.  The teams would be ranked, with the top seeds playing the bottom.  There would be two games each.  The idea fails miserably because if two teams go into the final game against each other with 3 points-a-piece then depending on results in other groups, they could simply qualify with a draw.

I guess you could have the second games played concurrently, as is the current situation with the closing group games, however this set-up would require televising 24 games at once, which would be ludicrous.

Also, I have a seething hatred of formats that treat “second place” differently from group to group, with little relation to each others results.

However, what if we went with eight groups of six?  Each team plays just three games.  The groups are again extensively seeded.  I’m thinking we’d actually require six “pots” with one of each in every group.  The top seeds would play the three lowest seeds in their group.  The lowest seed would play the three highest.  The second seed would have a slightly harder schedule than first (probably seeds 6, 5 & 3) and so on.

Just to add some spice to the proceedings, I would make the first rule of any tiebreaker “points won against higher ranked teams”.  This would incentivize or reward “giant-killings”.

Before you hurl your web-browsing device across the room in disgust, bear with me.  There are a few benefits here:

  1. You’ve got your 7 game tournament
  2. Everyone plays 3 times
  3. The “minnows” are guaranteed games against the big guns
  4. Overachievement is both rewarded and exhibits sporting merit
  5. The big guns are kept apart early
  6. Groups are balanced
  7. Group stage is short enough to maintain drama but long enough to be meaningful
  8. Variables in outcomes and option to play concurrent final group games, limits potential for collusion
  9. 8 Groups of 6, cleanly provides 16 (or 8, 0r 32) qualifiers
  10. Weight is added to FIFA rankings

So there you have it.  At best, a new and innovative concept that retains much of what makes the World Cup great, while adding a different twist the event and game we all know and love.  At worst, a deranged scheme that makes Infantino’s suggestion look warm and comfortable by comparison.

Most definitely, a terrifying glimpse into my weird fascination with competition formats.




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