The Brewing War Over World Cup Expansion

The powerful European Club Association has come out against FIFA's plan to expand the World Cup

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Dec 15, 2016 at 2:19 PM ET

FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s long-proposed plan to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to at least 40 and probably 48 nations is now facing fierce opposition from the primary supplier of the tournament’s most important ingredient: its players.

The enlarged World Cup has seemed like a foregone conclusion for a while, because what greedy sports body doesn’t want more of everything: teams, ticket sales, sponsorships, and especially games to offer broadcast partners.

On Thursday, however, the European Club Association, which represents the interests of 220 clubs in 53 associations, slammed FIFA’s plan, arguing that the number of games that national team players log each year has already reached an “unacceptable level.”

“We have to focus on the sport again,” ECA Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in a statement. “Politics and commerce should not be the exclusive priority in football. In the interest of the fans and the players, we urge FIFA not to increase the number of world cup participants.”

Rummenigge, it should be noted, is also the chairman of Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich, and there’s probably a mix of investment protection along with purity of sport in wanting to preserve the World Cup’s current structure. Bayern, after all, annually ranks among the top-10 payrolls of world soccer clubs. Its roster sent 14 players to the World Cup (tied with Manchester United for the most), had nine reach the semifinals, provided the core of the Cup-winning Germany squad, and scored more goals than any other club in the competition.

These facts make Rummenigge either a very effective messenger (look at the toll the World Cup already takes!) or a very poor messenger (look at his personal interests!)—take your pick. Regardless, the ECA makes a very good point in noting that 76 percent of 2014 World Cup participants were employed by European clubs. The ECA has already argued for a much larger share of revenue for all clubs that send players to the World Cup, the AP reported, increasing the share distributed from $40 million in 2010 to $70 million in 2014 and now $209 million in each of the next two tournaments.

Of the four proposed World Cup formats to be considered by FIFA in January, Infantino’s top choice is for 48 teams to be split into 16 groups of three clubs; the two top in each group will advance to a 32-team knockout stage. He has stressed that the event won’t last longer than its current 32 days and, importantly, wouldn’t actually add any games to the finalists’ schedule—those countries would still play seven. His argument centers on inclusion of more international federations and regions.

The counter-argument is that 16 more World Cup participants, at 23 players per side, is another 368 players involved in the tournament. Additionally, there will be more total matches—a rise from 64 to 80—and it’s hard to say what strain that might put on travel and rest between competitions. There could also be an increase in qualifying matches. In short, there are a lot of logistics left unsettled.

Fans in those 16 countries who wouldn’t have otherwise qualified will be enthused about an expanded bracket and an extra-round of knockout games adds excitement—although that doesn’t necessarily aid the best team emerging—but everyone else will probably just be annoyed about the diluted group stage competition. The ECA is right. Leave well enough alone.