Sport

FOOTBALL WORLD CUP FORMAT

For Fifa and its increasingly bloated competition structure, less is definitely not more

For Fifa and its increasingly bloated competition structure, less is definitely not more
Fifa President Gianni Infantino during the Sky Bet Championship match between Millwall and Norwich City at The Den on 4 March 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo: Henry Browne / Getty Images)

‘These decisions do not take into account the competitive, sporting and economic impact on national leagues, clubs and players, by further cramming an already overloaded schedule. Fifa only takes into account a small group of clubs and players.’

For Fifa, less most certainly does not mean more, despite what the old adage says. For an organisation designed to extract maximum revenues, mostly legal, occasionally illegal, for the task of “running” the beautiful game, more means more.

And under current president Gianni Infantino, who succeeded a short, but equally ravenous line of Fifa leaders, the organisation continues that great tradition of making money.

Fifa’s small but powerful gaggle of top brass, known as the council, gathered in Kigali this week to map out their future of money-mak… er, running soccer and unsurprisingly gave us a plan for more soccer and therefore more money.

The main source of that growth is for the next men’s World Cup to be jointly staged in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It’s a vast geographic footprint that will grow another aspect – carbon emissions, but that’s a topic for another day.

Although the schedule has not been finalised, what was decided in Kigali this week is that the 48-team finals tournament, up from 32 – which has been the case since 1998 – will see 104 matches played instead of the usual 64.

And, ludicrously, it will take 72 matches to whittle the 48 teams down to 32, which is why the tournament will be almost six weeks long, rather than the monthlong event it has been since 1998.

The new format will also stick to drawing four teams in a group, after a proposal for 16 groups of three was dismissed over fears of collusion in the final group game.

Infamously, West Germany and Austria colluded during the 1982 World Cup in Spain to eliminate the wonderful team from Algeria in the final group game of that tournament.

If Germany emerged 1-0 winners over Austria after earlier losing 2-1 to Algeria, both the Germans and Austrians would advance.

After an early goal for West Germany, the two sides virtually stopped playing. They simply kicked the ball around for a further 85 minutes and Algeria exited the tournament. It led to claims of match-fixing, and certainly collusion, and, as a consequence, final group matches now kick off simultaneously to avoid the scenario repeating itself.

Had the 2026 tournament returned to a three-team-per-group second-round phase, a repeat of the “Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (the non-aggression pact of Gijón)” – as the scandalous 1982 game became known in Germany – would be a possibility.

However, the number of groups will increase from eight to 12.

The original plan for the 2026 edition had a total of 80 matches, but the decision to increase the number of games to 104 was approved by Fifa’s council at a meeting on Tuesday.

Traditionally, the top two teams from each group advance to the last 16, but the 2026 edition will also have the eight best third-placed teams moving into the knockout round of 32.

The 32-team 2022 World Cup in Qatar completed its 64 matches in 29 days. The last time Mexico (1986) and the United States (1994) hosted a World Cup, there were only 24 teams.

The tournament has had 32 teams since the 1998 edition, with eight groups of four and the finalists playing seven games each. But teams reaching the semi-finals in 2026 will now play eight matches in total – including the final and the bronze medal match.

“The revised format mitigates the risk of collusion and ensures that all the teams play a minimum of three matches, while providing balanced rest time between competing teams,” read a statement from Fifa.

Lionel Messi of Argentina holds the World Cup Trophy after the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on 18 December 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images)


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Club expansion also planned

Fifa said a 32-team Club World Cup will be played every four years from June 2025.

Confederation champions from 2021-2024 will be eligible to play in the new Club World Cup, which means Chelsea and Real Madrid have already qualified.

Should either club win the Champions League again, a club ranking calculation based on sporting criteria will be used to determine which other team will qualify.

The current version of the Fifa Club World Cup, the annual competition with seven teams, will be discontinued after 2023, with a new yearly club competition approved from 2024.

“This competition will feature the champions of the premier club competitions of all confederations and conclude with a final to be played at a neutral venue, between the winner of the Uefa Champions League and the winner of intercontinental play-offs between the other confederations,” said Fifa’s statement.

Fifa said clubs will have to release players for the World Cup from 25 May 2026, unless they are in a major final such as the Champions League showpiece, for which clubs will have until 30 May to allow players to join their national teams.

“With 56 days, the total combined number of rest, release and tournament days remains identical to the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Fifa World Cup editions,” Fifa added.

Unhappiness

While Fifa’s suits naturally claimed this increase as some sort of triumph – and it will be seen that way by some countries who now have a greater chance of qualifying for the World Cup – more traditional soccer powers are less than thrilled.

The council was barely done with its self-congratulatory backslapping when complaints emerged.

Spain’s top league, LaLiga, were quickly out of the blocks to fire a broadside at Infantino and his colleagues. Whether or not they noticed, is a moot point.

“Fifa continues its malpractice of making unilateral decisions on the world football calendar, showing complete disregard for the importance of national championships, and the football community in general,” LaLiga said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Fifa completely neglects the economic damage these decisions inflict on leagues around the world. Leagues were not consulted about any of the changes presented today, especially about the new annual club competition…

“These decisions do not take into account the competitive, sporting and economic impact on national leagues, clubs and players, by further cramming an already overloaded schedule. Fifa only takes into account a small group of clubs and players.”

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) said they were worried about “physical fatigue and mental burnout” due to the congested schedule, with its CEO Maheta Molango saying the football calendar needs a “complete reset”.

“The expanded World Cup format being announced for 2026 means that, yet again, more games are being forced into an already overcrowded schedule,” he said.

The PFA said they were encouraged to see Fifa had prioritised concerns such as the need for a “minimum of 72 hours between games, a mandatory day off each week and an annual rest period”.

“However, it’s very difficult to see how that aligns with the constant expansion of the domestic and international calendar,” Molango added.

“We know that the current workload players face is having an ongoing impact on their wellbeing… We can’t simply push them until they break.” DM

Additional reporting by Reuters

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