48-team World Cup — a game changer?

Pros and cons imagined as running commentary

The inevitable has happened — a 48-team World Cup becomes reality in 2026. Like all strategic decisions, there will be pros and cons. These are presented in typical football style — as a running commentary.

First Half (FIFA win toss and start)

1" GOAL. Strategically, a nod to expansion is straightforward textbook analysis. If we use the Ansoff Grid, this is market development — new markets for an extremely successful core product).

2" GOAL. FIFA’s goal (no pun intended) is the constant improvement of football. If we broaden improvement to include a pre-requisite like expansion and exposure, then the 48-team format also serves that very well.

5" GOAL. The financial benefits estimate to an additional $1b. No loose change.

Half-time

FIFA exclusively dominate possession and scoring in the first half. Infantino with the hat-trick. The unanimous decision to adopt the 48-team format only confirms what a no-brainer this format is from FIFA’s perspective — financially, marketing wise, and also philosophically.

Second Half (Consumers/Host Nations restart game)

51" GOAL. A 32 nation tournament involves 64 games. The 48 nation tournament, with it 3 groups of 16, will involve 80 games. This will be a significant burden on hosting countries as both the time and cost of hosting will increase. As countries struggle with economic downturns, and in an era where the Olympics is already well-established at the premier White Elephant, the FIFA World Cup threatens to become a competing Junior Jumbo.

62" — GOAL — off the crossbar and on the line. The expanded format will no doubt dilute the quality. Although in recent times, African and smaller European nations are becoming more competitive, any expanded competition by definition dilutes the elite status of a premier competition. On the flip side, relatively weaker footballing nations will get a better chance to be in the limelight. The new allocations will no doubt be some cause for consternation especially the disproportionate (over) representation of CONCACAF. Would have been much better if actual population or proportion of wins in youth competitions by countries/continents (an indicator for the future) was used as a basis.

63" GOAL — but disallowed for Offside. In a way, the 48-team format does not really change anything. I say that because it is a safe bet that even now, no one watches all 64 games in their entirety and live. The tournament only really starts from the quarter-finals so the new format basically only introduces an extra premliminary round which is safe to skip in most cases — unless your country is playing in those rounds and is borderline for survival — which for a 3-team group seems quite bizzare.

95" Penalty claim— denied. In this half we looked at the other stakeholders — countries who host/compete and people who watch and pay money to watch. The third stakeholder, most important or least important one — are the players who actually make the game a spectacle. 48 team means a bigger competition but assuming the increased games in one year will be offset by smaller qualifying rounds (as more teams go through so less qualifiers perhaps). Too much football, which is an issue for players, and increasingly also becoming an issue for viewers with saturation levels of football competitions, will perhaps always only remain a talking point that no one will address seriously.

Full Time

There is only one clear winner — FIFA. It meets its organizational objectives and that out-weight the cons of this move. Some arguments are debatable from both sides but ultimately, and realistically, FIFA is the organizer. It pays the bills and runs the greatest show on earth every 4 years. If it makes sense for FIFA, then the financial benefits will flow through to federations and players. After all, it is their game. For us nothing changes, except perhaps the increased price of securing the TV or mobile World Cup subscription packages.

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