In a Monday interview with The Times, UEFA president Michel Platini revealed his preference for a 40-team World Cup—an increase from the current roster of 32—in time for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
The 58-year-old, who has run European football’s governing body since 2007, was responding to remarks made by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who on Saturday suggested the 13 World Cup berths earmarked for European sides be reduced to accommodate increased African and Asian representation.
“Instead of taking away some European [nations], we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup,” he said, adding, “We can add two African [teams], two Asiatic, two American and one from Europe. I support this idea totally.”
Platini’s enthusiasm is unlikely to be shared by many football administrators, fans and stakeholders who have grown quite comfortable with the 32-nation setup.
Nevertheless, his proposal is nothing to fear. And the sooner it moves from the realm of grumbling to practical planning the sooner it can be accepted, even embraced.
Because, like it or not, it’s going to happen.
Since the first World Cup in 1930 the tournament format has changed eight times. In 1934 and 1938, for example, it was a straight knockout competition, and in 1950 the champion was determined through a pair of group stages.
The number of participants has also doubled over the course of the 19 previous World Cups, and it would be both arrogant and ignorant of a rather obvious trend to assume that the current format will be upheld indefinitely.
|World Cup Participants & Format Since 1930|
|1930||13||4 groups; semifinals; final|
|1950||13||2 group stages|
|1954||16||group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal|
|1958||16||group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal|
|1962||16||group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal|
|1966||16||group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal|
|1970||16||group stage; knockout begining with quarterfinal|
|1974||16||2 group stages; final|
|1978||16||2 group stages; final|
|1982||24||2 group stages; knockout beginning with semifinal|
|1986||24||group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round|
|1990||24||group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round|
|1994||24||group stage & 4 best third-place teams; knockout round|
|1998||32||group stage; 16-team knockout round|
|2002||32||group stage; 16-team knockout round|
|2006||32||group stage; 16-team knockout round|
|2010||32||group stage; 16-team knockout round|
As Platini pointed out, the popularity of football continues to increase, and it only makes sense that the sport’s biggest event represents that growth.
“Football is changing and now we have 209 associations,” he said. “There are more countries so why reduce? Forty is not so bad.”
Indeed it’s not, and while the increase in numbers would extend the World Cup by anywhere from three to six days the current format of eight groups followed by knockout stages beginning with a Round of 16 would be left intact.
One side would be added to each group, meaning the number of teams in each bracket would merely grow from four to five.
Of course, Platini likely has an ulterior motive for making the World Cup more inclusive.
Elected to the UEFA presidency on a platform that promised increased representation to the body’s less prominent associations, the Frenchman looks set to mimic his previous approach in an upcoming bid for the top job at FIFA.
Under his watch both the Champions League and Europa League have become more welcoming for sides outside the continent’s biggest divisions, and the Euro 2016 tournament, which will be held in France, will be the first of its kind to include 24 teams, up from the current 16.
Increasing the number of World Cup participants would garner Platini increased support from CONCACAF, the AFC and especially the CAF, whose 54 associations makes it the most vote-rich confederation in world football. And if his initial UEFA campaign is any indication it’s a strategy that would pay off.
A 40-team World Cup is coming. Historical trends and political motivation indicate as much.
But it’s nothing to be scared of.
Football is the most popular sport in the world, and the World Cup is its most prestigious event. Being inclusive and relevant will ensure both continue to thrive.