An obsession with the gigantic so pervades Fifa that the 2026 World Cup is to take 72 games merely to reach the knockout phase, eight more than any previous installment has required in its entirety. While even Uefa is seeking to limit its geographic footprint at next summer’s Euros, restricting groups to specific regions of Germany to cut internal travel, the global governing body is devising a cross-continental epic of such sprawl that even Phileas Fogg might have urged them to think twice.
Vancouver to Miami as a mid-tournament commute, anyone? Or how about Boston to Guadalajara? Each journey requires at least 5½ hours’ flying time, roughly the same as New York to London with a decent jet stream behind. Still, none of this can deter the organizers from spouting their usual pablum about carbon-neutral commitments. “You can fly less and cycle more,” states official Fifa advice. Quite some gall from an organization whose last major tournament, in Qatar, accounted for an estimated 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, more than countries such as Botswana or Costa Rica produce in a year.
Still, let us be grateful for small mercies. At least Fifa has shelved the abomination of three-team groups, which, at Gianni Infantino’s preferred rate of World Cup expansion, risked exhausting the alphabet. For its next shebang, there will be 104 matches across the United States, Canada and Mexico, eclipsing the total at the 1930, 1934, 1938, 1950 and 1954 finals combined. After all, nothing screams concern for player welfare quite like turning football’s greatest show into an unprecedented 5½-week leviathan.
You want to believe Fifa’s calculation is that more games equals more entertainment. But when money is the overwhelming motive, the structure of this World Cup only adds up to more injuries, more mediocrity, more ennui. Ludicrously, it will take 72 matches over a month just to reduce the field from 48 nations to 32. If you thought those goalless affairs in Doha between Denmark and Tunisia or Uruguay and South Korea were grim, just wait until you have endured the sight of Iraq, Mali, Jamaica and North Macedonia – all of whom would have qualified for Qatar under the enlarged system – scrapping it out for third-place group finishes.
The central problem is that 48 is an inelegant number for sustaining the jeopardy with which the groups culminated last December. Where a World Cup of 32 keeps slicing in half neatly until only the champions are left standing, one of 48 leaves the same ugly permutations that have disfigured the last two 24-team Euros. In 2016, Albania were left kicking their heels in Lyon for three days before finally realizing they had been eliminated.
At least the switch to four-team groups precludes the possibility of brazen collusion, as witnessed in West Germany’s prearranged 1-0 win over Austria in 1982. “The non-aggression pact of Gijon,” the Germans called it, while Algeria, who exited courtesy of this cozy alliance, thundered about a “scandal”. But the preposterously outsized event that awaits in 2026 serves few people well outside Fifa, who are chasing £9 billion from the extravaganza.
It does little to benefit the top players in Europe, already facing an engorgement of the Champions League in 2024 from 32 teams to 36, and from 125 games to 189. It threatens to stretch fans to financial breaking point, as they frantically consult Skyscanner for the best routes between Kansas City and Monterrey. And it is hardly likely to be welcomed by parents, some of whom must now take out second mortgages just so their children can complete their Panini scrapbooks.
It is possible to be too Euro-centric about all this. After all, the reactions to a World Cup on steroids are starkly different in Africa, where former Nigeria midfielder Sunday Oliseh said: “For us, it’s heaven-sent. We are a continent of 54 nations. We have always thought that we should be more represented. Infantino is scrupulous about appeasing Africa, mindful that it provides him with a vast voting bloc that will guarantee his re-election as president on Thursday. Why would he care less about the vexations in Europe when it is Africa that helps shore up his job security?
The central flaw, though, in Fifa’s world view is that it sees no virtue in scarcity. Just as it has tried to make the World Cup biennial, denuding much of what made Lionel Messi’s coronation so rare and magical, it now wants to turn the 2026 tournament into an aimlessly protracted qualifying event. The notion of less being more is alien to the Zurich suits, for whom the answer is always to over-saturate and, by extension, to swell their already monstrously large cash reserves. As revenue-raisers, they have few equals. But as orchestrators of suspense and intrigue in their greatest production, they have lost the plot.