When the first World Cup was played in 1930, 13 countries took part and Uruguay were ultimately crowned champions. Football has grown a lot since then, and over the years more teams have been added to what is to many the greatest competition in the world.
In 1934 the competition expanded to 16 nations and involved elimination games only, with Italy becoming champions on their home soil. In 1950 the tournament didn’t even have a final. A second group phase was played and the table leader, Uruguay, were champions yet again.
Several tournaments and several changes followed until in 1982 the tournament became a group stage followed by a knockout stage with 24 teams taking part. It was 1998 when the World Cup expanded to 32 teams becoming the competition we all know today.
Overall the format has changed no fewer than eight times over the course of 20 World Cups, with more teams gradually added and the format switched. And yesterday another change was announced as FIFA members unanimously voted to add a further 16 teams to the competition, which from 2026 will consist of 16 groups of 3 teams.
This is one of the most drastic changes of all.
Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, says the main reason for the expansion is to give more countries a chance to experience joy of a World Cup. It will give many more fans around the world a chance to join in the party and cheer on their country on the biggest stage.
But an extra 16 nations means the quality is going to be diluted. The World Cup Finals have been reserved for the best nations in the world and 32 teams seemed like a sweet spot where smaller nations or countries with less football development could still qualify if they really earned it, but every game was still entertaining.
With the new format there will be a lot of these lower ranked nations and some games will feel more like World Cup qualifiers than the finals. It also makes it less of an achievement to qualify for the finals as it’s less exclusive.
I do like it when the lower ranked countries make it. Why not? But still it shouldn’t be made too easy! This comes from a man that missed out on one and made it a must to make it to a big tournament before I retired.
In the past, nations like Zaire, Honduras, Senegal, and Trinidad & Tobago have all known that special feeling of qualifying the for the finals, and sometimes they made a few surprises with shock results over bigger nations. But with the new format there will be nations like these in each group, and with just one team from each group failing to qualify for the 2nd round the competitive edge could be missing.
I know there is money involved regarding the sponsorships that come with the World Cup but I always looked at the World Cup as a tournament for the best teams in the world. If you want to be part of it you need to work. Let’s hope this doesn’t kill the quality and we can see all the top players there – we don’t want anyone getting injured because of the duration of the tournament.
Keep us entertained and money will come no matter what. The World Cup is a brand so big no one will be able to stop it from growing.