HomeWorld CupHow to fix the 48-team World Cup

How to fix the 48-team World Cup

January 31, 2017

FIFA announced a new 48-team World Cup is coming in 2026, but what’s the best format for it?

Change is good, or so they tell us. Change is coming to the World Cup, whether we like it or not. Recently FIFA announced it would be expanding the World Cup to 48 finalists beginning in 2026, up 50 percent from the current format.

It might feel like the World Cup has been 32 teams forever, but that’s only been the case since 1998 — and it only hit 24 teams in 1982. As a matter of fact, the World Cup format has changed quite a few times in recent years. In a world with more countries, maybe 48 teams is the way to go.

But that means we need a new tournament format, too. So it’s time to rejigger the system.

The old 32-team format

With 32 teams, the tournament setup is simple: eight groups of four teams playing a round robin, with the top two from each group advancing to a 16-team knockout tournament to determine the champ. It’s clean and simple and easy enough for anyone to understand.

That means a total of 48 group games (six in each group) and then 15 knockout games, a total of 63 games. Every team at the World Cup finals plays at least three games, and the two finalists play seven games each.

A bigger tournament means more games are needed, which is the goal of course. More games means more TV revenue, more ad revenue, more stadium and gear revenue — more games means more money for FIFA. But it has to be more games within reason. Fans won’t watch a summer-long tournament, host nations can’t host for such extended times, and players can’t just play 90 minutes of soccer every few days for weeks on end without, you know, dying.

So how do we make a good tournament format that hits a happy medium?

The proposed FIFA solution — groups of three

16 groups of 3 teams, then 32-team knockout

FIFA hasn’t officially given us their 48-team format yet, but the proposed solution has them trying to stay close to the current format with a set of group games first, then an extra round of knockout play. It would mean 79 total games and the champion would play seven times, just like under the 32-team format.

The format feels familiar and it’s almost certainly the format with the fewest games required — the problem is those ugly groups of three. Sixteen groups of three would mean two of the three teams advance out of each group.

The problem is having an odd number of teams in each group. If Team A plays Team B first, which one has to play Team C next? Team A may have to play Team C on short rest, while Team B gets more rest and knows exactly what result is needed to advance. Even worse, both B and C will know exactly what they’d need to do to advance in that final game while A sits idly by watching — and in most cases, there will be a scenario where B and C can both play to a particular result and advance together, gaming the system. That’s a problem that has plagued soccer for years and the reason the old system had the final group games going off at the same time.

Sixteen group losers also only get two games each in this format, instead of the old format where every team got to play at least three times. That’s 33 percent of the field playing three years of qualifying and training all year together, only to play twice in one week and go home.

It looks like FIFA may force all such group games to end in a win or loss, meaning a lot more games heading to extra time and/or penalties. That may be fun for casual viewers, but it messes with the TV schedule (that matters!) and it adds a lot of random stupidity to a tournament that’s supposed to determine the world’s best team once every four years.

So what other solutions are out there?

Stick with Groups of four

12 groups of four, then 32-team knockout

Wait, that looks great! It’s just like the old format but one round longer, let’s do that one!

Not so fast. Yes, this is similar to the 32-team format in many ways. Every team gets at least three games, and group play would feel familiar. But advancing teams would get wonky. In each group of four, the top two teams would always advance — along with the eight best third-place teams. That’s eight third-place teams from 12 groups, and that gets a bit weird, rewarding teams for blowing out the bottom feeder in their group or for losing by less to the top seed. A few of those teams are going to get shafted.

This format would also mean the really good teams would probably play a lot of boring, safe soccer in group play. Brazil and Germany aren’t getting knocked out in group play if three of the four teams in almost every group advance. They’d end up playing a lot of young players and just lying back in possession, playing for safe draws. We’d miss a lot of good soccer.

Twelve groups of four would mean 103 games, with the finalists playing eight. That’s more than before, but it’s not terrible. This is a decent solution and similar to a lot of Olympic-style tournaments, but is there something better?

Bigger groups

Eight groups of six, then 16-team knockout

This is pretty tidy. Teams are split into eight groups of six each. You could even make sure each group has one team from each federation so it really feels like a World Cup.

The problem with bigger groups is that, well, they’re bigger. Groups of six mean a lot more round-robin games. A group of four takes only six round-robin games, whereas a group of six takes a full 15 games.

This tournament would end up with 90 group games and 105 games overall. It would guarantee five games apiece for every participant. That seems fun! … Right up until the team from New Zealand has lost its first three games by a combined score of 23-to-0 and just wants to go home.

Groups of six would also mean a lot of dead rubbers, useless matches near the end of the group stage that affect nothing. That’s bad for TV and fans and revenue. There would also be fewer knockout games near the end, and it’s nine games for the finalists again. A bit much.

Straight knockout play

48-team knockout, with byes for 16 seeded teams

Now that’s an American solution. This is basically a March Madness style tournament except the top four seeds all get a first-round bye since we only have 48 teams instead of 64.

Wait, that’s not going to work. That means at least 16 teams leave the tournament with only one game played, up to 32 if there are a lot of second-round upsets. It also means only 47 games total in the tournament, which is not going to cut it for the money-hungry FIFA pigs.

Forty-eight teams just isn’t right for a knockout tournament. Hmm…

Expand the World Cup to 64 teams!

16 groups of four, then 32-game knockout

One huge knockout tournament could also work, but we don’t want to send 32 teams home after one game. So why not just double down on the current World Cup format? Sixteen groups of four instead of eight, and then one extra round of knockout play. That’s easy and clean and makes a ton of sense.

At least it makes sense on the surface. With 64 teams each guaranteed at least three group games, this format results in an absurdly long 127-game World Cup. That’s way too many matches, and it would take the entire summer.

It’s also way too many teams. There just aren’t 64 teams worthy of playing in the World Cup. By current FIFA rankings, a 64-team World Cup would include Uzbekistan, Cameroon, Montenegro, and United Arab Emirates. No thanks. It would also render three years of World Cup qualifying boring and pointless for all of the interesting teams.

No, a simple single-elimination tournament will not do. But what if…

Double elimination knockout for the win!

48-team double elimination knockout tournament

We have a winner.

All 48 teams go into a bracket, with 16 of them getting a first round bye. Then the bracket plays itself out until every team but one has lost twice, and that team is the winner. The tournament will last 94 or 95 games, and the champion will play anywhere from five to seven times. Every team in the bracket gets at least two games. That’s equity for all without running the top teams into the ground, so it means more high-level soccer. It also means the entire tournament is knockout, so that draws more interest from the start.

As an added bonus, the byes could go to the top teams from each federation, making qualifying more important as well. The byes split out pretty nicely:

  • 2 CONCACAF (North America)
  • 2 CONMEBOL (South America)
  • 2 CAF (Africa)
  • 2 AFC (Asia)
  • 6 UEFA (Europe, where many more teams make the tournament)
  • 1 OFC (Oceania)
  • 1 host nation

The bracket would be a bit harder to follow at first, but we’d get used to it. How hard is it to understand double elimination?

This is our winner. It’s the perfect 48-team World Cup format.





Howler 2022 Qatar World Cup Takeaways

January 12, 2023

A Day at the FIFA Fan Tent Village

December 23, 2022

Qatar 2022: Where is Everybody?

December 06, 2022

Enter your best email for full access to the site.