The phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ could certainly be applied when it comes to some of soccer’s biggest international tournaments.
Take the UEFA European Championship for example; a tournament held every four years, comprised of solely European national teams, in a World Cup style format. From 1996 until this year, the tournament had been made up of the perfectly symmetrical number of 16 teams. The tournament had four groups of four. The top two in each group advanced to make the quarterfinals, which led to knockout rounds up until the final. Simple.
For this year’s tournament, the structure was changed, things were complicated and competition was diluted. The tournament was expanded to 24 teams, with six groups of four, in which a convoluted system of the top four third place finishers in each group, along with the top two, advanced to the knockout round.
The group stage was made up of 71 percent of the tournament’s games, and it only eliminated 33 percent of the tournament’s participants. It was a drawn out and unnecessary formality, especially considering the tournament is jammed in between only a month and a half stretch between the end of the European season and the beginning of training for the following season.
Now, after that success, the World Cup wants to get more inclusive. New FIFA President Gianni Infantino campaigned on the idea of expanding the tournament to 40 teams and has recently gone further in suggesting the tournament could be expanded to 48 nations by 2026.
The idea has received plenty of positive feedback from small or underdeveloped soccer nations that have little to no chance of qualification in the current format, but the World Cup is meant to be exclusive. The tournament is held every four years to add relevance, and its games are meant to epitomize the best quality the sport has to offer.
The idea that is gaining steam under Infantino would alter the tournament not just in the number of teams, but in the basic structure of the group stage. Infantino proposed adding an extra step. The tournament would keep its basic structure of a 32-team group stage, with eight groups of four, and the top two advancing from each group. However, as if three years of qualification is not enough, the new FIFA president is proposing that the bottom 16 who qualify for the 40-team field play in a one-match knockout. The winners would then go on to the 32-team group stage.
Surely the eight additional nations that qualify by virtue of the expansion would relish the idea, but conversely the eight nations who would have been into the group stage, but instead have to play one game to decide their fate, would feel cheated, and rightfully.
A great component to the current World Cup format is that reaching the tournament guarantees a team at least three games in the group stage. The road to the tournament is three years in the making and no country that survives that journey and earns the honor of qualifying deserves to have that all taken away in 90 minutes.
For the fans, the World Cup is as much a celebration as it is a competitive tournament. They deserve three games if they are willing to drop everything in their life and travel across the world.
Beyond that, the players, who are being asked to play more competitive games in their only time off from club action, do not need more games added to the list.
Less is sometimes more in life, and sometimes the best change is no change at all. While the change with the Euros looks like something that will unfortunately be here to stay, the proposed change with the World Cup is something that does not have to come to fruition.
James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.