In getting more teams in its World Cup party, FIFA waters down its punch

(Bernd Weissbrod/EPA)

The World Cup is growing by 50 percent, but will it be half as good?

FIFA decided Tuesday to fiddle with the planet’s most popular sports competition, increasing the number of teams to 48 from 32 in time for the 2026 tournament. It’s the first expansion since 1998, when soccer’s governing body added eight slots.

Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s first-year president, led the bigger-is-better effort, promoting inclusiveness and offering hope to countries, particularly in the developing world, that otherwise would have almost no chance of performing in a global theater.

“There is nothing bigger in terms of boosting football in a country than participating in a World Cup,” he said.

The 2018 and ’22 tournaments, in Russia and Qatar respectively, will remain unchanged.

In the wake of FIFA’s recent scandals, however, any action taken by the Zurich organization is rightfully greeted with cynicism: More teams, more matches (80 instead of 64) and more exclusive TV slots means more profit at, many fear, the expense of competitiveness.

Infantino countered by saying “the overall quality of football is growing tremendously.” He cited the fact that players from about 70 countries are represented in the English Premier League and that little Costa Rica beat out England, Italy and Uruguay in 2014 World Cup group play.

No one with any passion for the sport wouldn’t want to see Euro 2016 darlings Iceland and Wales joining the World Cup parade. But what would happen once they get there?

The new format calls for 16 groups (instead of eight) of three teams (instead of four) vying for two slots in a single-elimination round of 32. The balance of the tournament will remain unchanged.

A third of the field will go home after playing twice (instead of three times). With a tighter group schedule, the route to the trophy will still involve seven matches. To alleviate concerns expressed by clubs that employ World Cup players, FIFA says the competition calendar will remain unchanged (32 days).

How the additional slots are allocated has yet to be determined, but presumably Europe will gain three tickets and place one team in…