27 January 2017

FIFA Expansion: Spread of Globalisation or Money Grubbing Scheme? 

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan) & Benedict Chanakira (@bchanakira2)

The world game’s global showpiece is set to expand from 32 to 40 teams as of the 2026 edition, a decision that has divided opinion across the world. Here, two writers with very different opinions weigh in on the debate and offer compelling arguments for both sides of the divide. 

 As of 2026, as many as 40 teams will get the chance to compete for this famous trophy. But is this a positive move, not only in terms of the good of the game, but for the broader geopolitical narratives that are entwined in the global game? 

As of 2026, as many as 40 teams will get the chance to compete for this famous trophy. But is this a positive move, not only in terms of the good of the game, but for the broader geopolitical narratives that are entwined in the global game? 

No matter what you think about Donald Trump, there is no denying that his inauguration speech shook the foundations of the geopolitical landscape across the globe. After a 2016 that was marked by anti-globalist rhetoric, primarily from conservatives in the US and Europe, that speech gave a clear indication that the campaign promise to put “America first” was not going to be forgotten.

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” the 45th President of the United States said. “But we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”  After tearing up the TTP trade deal, mulling over blueprints for his wall on the Mexico border and generally alienating dividing opinion across the world, the owner of the largest house in the global village is boarding up his windows and locking his doors.

He’s not alone. Brexit in the United Kingdom and the rise of right wing politics around the world from the Philippines to France are clear signs that the trust between nations is waning. Even here in South Africa, Pan-African sentiments are not wholly positive.

So what to make of FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 as of the 2026 showpiece event? Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s President, said after the unanimous vote was passed, “We’re in the 21st century and we have to shape the World Cup for the 21st Century. We have to look at football as more than just Europe and South America.”

FIFA, one of the most historically corrupt and morally decrepit organisations on the planet, is seeking to be the great global unifier in an age that threatens to become more exclusionary by the day. After all, football is the global game and nothing brings the people of the world together like a month of sport.

Below two writers with very different opinions argue for and against FIFA’s expansion. Like many points of contention in 2017, both sides of the divide have compelling cases and we leave it to you to decide which side you’re on.

 An expanded FIFA World Cup would see more fans, like these two from the DRC, cheer their nation on participate in an event that includes their national team. 

An expanded FIFA World Cup would see more fans, like these two from the DRC, cheer their nation on participate in an event that includes their national team. 

For Expansion – Daniel Gallan

When Egypt became the first African country to participate in the FIFA World Cup in Italy in 1934, only 32 nations entered the 16 team event. Back then travel was difficult and expensive which deterred many national football associations from participating in faraway lands.  Furthermore, many of the nations that exist today had not yet come into being.

To highlight the rapid growth that our world has experienced over the decades, 203 nations from 6 confederations attempted to qualify for Brazil 2014. Such accelerated growth has seen the World Cup expand over the years. At Spain 1982 the tournament swelled from 16 teams to 24 before France 1988 where the development of the event reached its current size of 32.

Expansion has been a natural part of the World Cup journey. The current arguments voiced by critics concerning a dilution of quality in an expanded tournament were raised in ’82 and ’98. These are not new gripes but outdated worries that did not ring true then and do not ring true today.

For anyone who thinks that a larger tournament with teams who would ordinarily have failed to qualify automatically results in a mediocre product, I’d encourage you to watch the recent European Championship. Iceland and Wales were two of the romantic stories of the tournament but would not have qualified at all if UEFA had not expanded the event from 16 to 24 teams.

I am less concerned with FIFA’s motives and more with their mandate which is to grow the game and give money back to the member associations who need it the most. FIFA has become a synonym for greed and corruption and so it is understandable that any decision made in Zurich is met with trepidation, but this is a new regime under a new management and that in itself is reason enough to be optimistic.

As for the running of the tournament, an expanded competition could see neighbouring countries co-host the event, easing the massive financial burden of playing host to the world for a month. For example, a country like Uruguay could never afford to host an entire World Cup, but if neighbouring Argentina acted as the primary host, little Uruguay would be more than capable of staging some of the early matches.

Logistically the event will last just as long as the current format. Semi-finalists will play seven games just as they have before and the whole thing will be wrapped up in 32 days, just as before.

Ultimately the greatest argument for an expanded tournament lies in the cultural benefits it would bring. If indeed the world’s greatest powers are inching ever closer to a separatist outlook then any excuse to bring more countries together should be encouraged. The beautiful game belongs to everyone and as many people should be welcome to join the party.

 President, Gianni Infantino has stated that his organisation's decision to expand the World Cup is in the best interests of the global game. Some are not buying his line given the corrupt history of FIFA.

President, Gianni Infantino has stated that his organisation's decision to expand the World Cup is in the best interests of the global game. Some are not buying his line given the corrupt history of FIFA.

Against Expansion – Benedict Chanakira

The decision to expand the World Cup is yet another exposure of the organisation’s inept and corrupt underbelly. This event is meant to be the Holy Grail of football in which only the very best teams compete in a highly pressurised environment. Now, however, we will see it filled with mediocre teams playing out average games. We will see more defensive football as sides aim to shut up shop and play for the lottery of a penalty shootout.

More perplexing, the amount of African teams will outnumber those from South America. Some may see this as just reward for the continent based on improvement but it is nothing more than a reward for votes awarded to President Gianni Infantino. With the four extra slots given to Africa, only Europe will feature more teams at the tournament.

Mediocrity and off-field drama from the African nations is a guaranteed by product of this non-football related move. Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have been rewarded despite mediocre performances whilst their failure to develop and improve continues.

The expected surge of revenue for the governing bodies around the world is the strongest reason for the expansion with an added US$640 million projected for the 2026 showdown. This all devalues the tournament and will mean it becomes easier to qualify for a World Cup for some of the weaker nations.

I understand that the World Cup must have representatives from all over the globe but it should above all else remain the pinnacle of the sport. Life is not meant to be fair. This is a competition and if a team never qualifies then so be it.

Super Rugby, once the most competitive domestic rugby tournament in the world, is a prime example of what can happen when you dilute the competition. Poor teams simply clog up space. Once the competition reaches the business end there is exhaustion from the fans that have long since lost interest.

Lowering the pass grade does not develop better students. All that does is push through students who think they are capable of handling the real world. If FIFA cared about the game they have been intrusted to safe keep, they would never have voted for change. 

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