Why I think expanding the World Cup to 48 teams is a good idea

Trevor Steven
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Germany v Argentina: 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final
Increasing the number of teams can improve overall standards in the long term (Source: Getty)

Wembley, October 1987: I remember playing for England as we thrashed Turkey 8-0 in a European Championship qualifier, Gary Lineker scoring a hat-trick.

It was our second eight-goal win in three years against Turkey, who at that stage had made it to just one major international tournament.

Those days are gone. Turkey have reached the semi-finals of both the Euros and the World Cup since the turn of the century, and their games with England are now usually separated only by a goal or two.

Read more: Q+A: Fifa's plans to expand World Cup to 48 teams

Turkey’s progress is just one example of how football has developed across Europe, and it’s something that has to be considered when weighing up whether an expanded World Cup is a good idea.

I believe that it is. The game is growing around the planet – it has to – and we have to look at the change, approved on Tuesday, to a 48-team tournament from 2026 in that light.

The 2026 World Cup may feel unusual, but that event is not the be-all and end-all. It’s a stepping stone on the way to improving the general standard of football around the globe. That has to start somewhere.

Hope for smaller nations

Exposing more teams to the World Cup will mean that they have greater knowledge and experience of playing the very best teams. That can only lift their esteem and make them better.

Turkey, for example, have benefited from the expansion of the European Championship from eight to 16 and now 24 teams, as well as the greater opportunities for their clubs to play in continental competitions.

For countries that don’t usually qualify for it, playing in a World Cup will increase their passion for the tournament, and that should trickle down to boost support for the game there in a wider sense.

Too many countries currently view the World Cup as something they haven’t got much of a chance of qualifying for. That is pretty soul-destroying for them. Expanding it offers hope.

Suddenly smaller nations have impetus to raise their level, and that can bring knock-on improvements to the standard of their domestic competition and investment at grass roots.

Concerns about the plans

I do have some concerns about the changes. Group stage games can be stale affairs even in a 32-team tournament, so having more of them could mean drab early rounds.

Fifa says it can all be completed in 32 days, like the existing format, without reducing rest between fixtures, and I hope that proves to be true because it is of paramount importance to players.

Jumping to 48 teams is also a big leap to make all at once. Potential newcomers only have nine years to get up to the level of the bigger teams. That could mean dilution of quality – in the short term.

In the long term, however, improving the quality of teams further down the pecking order, as this plan should, ought to make for more competitive, and therefore interesting, football matches.

The bottom line

Is it a case of Fifa just trying to grab more money, or president Gianni Infantino trying to justify promises of increasing revenue for the people who put him in power? Perhaps.

But if Fifa’s role is to improve the level of football across all countries and to get more people watching the game, then this is the right step.

The bottom line is this: is it better for the game worldwide? I believe the answer is yes.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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