How FIFA will kill the concept of the Group of Death from the 2026

Collusion, loss of jeopardy and almost 25 per cent of all eligible teams qualifying: How FIFA will kill the concept of the Group of Death from the 2026 World Cup with the expansion to 48 teams

  • FIFA are expanding the World Cup for the next edition from 32 teams to 48
  • The world governing body has come in for major criticism largely from Europe
  • Gianni Infantino says it is necessary step to bring the tournament to modern day
  • Qatar likely to be the last World Cup tournament with 32 teams competing in it 
  • Click here for all the latest World Cup 2022 news and updates

With the 2022 World Cup still yet to start, it might seem ridiculous to be writing about the one in four years time. But the Qatar and USA/Canada/Mexico tournaments provide context and intrigue to one another in that this winter’s edition will be the final time the four-team group is exhibited at the tournament. 

A staple of every edition since 1934, four-team groups have long been synonymous with tournament football (1950 only had 13 teams after India, Scotland and Turkey withdrew).

Aligning themselves with UEFA, who will move away from the conventional format for the Champions League from the 2024-25 season, critics see the globe’s two major governing bodies as more interested in the balance sheet than competition. 

With Qatar likely to be the last 32-team edition for the foreseeable future – Rob Fielder, author of The Complete History of the World Cup told Sportsmail he believes FIFA are more likely to expand to 64 teams than revert – this tournament could be the last time a group of death is seen for some time. 

Gianni Infantino holds aspirations of expanding the football showpiece even further perhaps 

The reasons behind the decision to expand the tournament seem obvious to FIFA’s critics but more nuanced, perhaps, to those are less inclined to hammer the ever-controversial governing body. 

‘We are in the 21st century, and we should shape the World Cup for the 21st century. Football is more than Europe and South America; football is global,’ FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino said of the move upon the council voting it through in 2017. 

‘For the Good of the Game,’ FIFA’s slogan reads. 

Confederations tend to vote in blocs with FIFA appealing to those particular regions in a number of ways

In the face of mounting criticism from – particularly – Europe’s biggest clubs, the governing body sought to cultivate a scenario in which it appeared those wholly against the move was against the global expansion of the game. 

Indeed, the way in which tournaments are voted for and awarded, with countries tending to vote in blocs rather than together, is likely to have had an impact on the decision, believes Fielder. 

‘I think really it comes back to money. I mean, I think I think I think it’s money in directly and indirectly so I think really what FIFA is all about bottom line people talk a lot that corruption,’ he says. 

‘I think there is obviously there has been corruption but I think [past and present FIFA presidents] like Sepp Blatter and Gianni Infantino probably to an extent before Joao Havelange, they weren’t corrupt in a money sense necessarily, because if you’re the president of FIFA, everything you’re doing for every waking hour is on expenses, your need for personal enrichment is very low.’

This has led to a system developing at FIFA where they look to appeal to confederations rather than individual countries.

The FIFA President has overseen the largest single expansion of teams in World Cup history

Blatter’s appealing to confederations in the developing world, most notably perhaps Africa’s footballing establishment, is emblematic of that fact.

Distributing more funds to countries in Asia or Central Africa, for instance, benefits FIFA in that it gets their votes for what they want. The expansion of the World Cup provides confederations with more permanent spots – Asia will receive eight places plus one for 2026, up from five for 2022. 

Owing to the expansion, Fielder believes there will be a few ‘weak sides’ progressing from the Asia section of qualifying. Whether or not one believes this is a good thing perhaps comes back to whether the World Cup itself should be a development tool or the qualifying rounds to reach it should act in that sense.  

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) will see its places almost double from five to nine, with a chance of their being another team involved through the new play-off system. 

UEFA’s spots at the next edition will only rise to 16 from 13. Meanwhile Conmebol will only receive an additional two places, in effect. Though 60 per cent of South American federations will qualify, significantly more than any other continent. 

FIFA claim that they are bringing the game into the 21st century with the further expansion

Impact of the move

The quality of the tournament, particularly at the group stage, is likely to be diminished by nature of there not being 48 elite national sides. Indeed, the quality of some games at this month’s tournament will not be of the highest level, but a further 16 sides are set to be added. 

This year’s edition, of the eight groups there is at least one former finalist or winner within it. Indeed, only Group A and Group F are shorn of a former champion and the Netherlands and Belgium head up the bookies odds in each of those sections. 

From 2026 onwards the dilution of the group stage from four to three is likely to have a marked impact on the quality exhibited. 

Each group at the 2022 edition of the World Cup has at least one former finalist or winner

With the number of groups doubling, from eight to 16, the best federations are likely to be split up. Indeed, they will likely not meet until the latter stages with a round of 32 being inserted for the next edition. 

The tournament, critics suggest, is thus in danger of being saturated at the start with pointless rounds of teams who are far too good facing off against sides they will almost always beat. It has been compared to the early stages of the Europa League, a tournament which has seen its popularity suffer from the rigamarole of the opening rounds.  

First and second place in each group will advance to the round of 32, with only third place in each section going home. Jeopardy is likely to suffer. 

The World Cup could perhaps be in danger of going the way of the European Championship and progressing too many sides

‘I think particularly the big problem you’ve got with any tournament, like the Euros at the moment,’ Fielder says. ‘If you’re progressing two-thirds of the teams out of the group you’re spending a huge amount of time [before] the tournament effectively goes back to square one again where we’re currently at with the World Cup having 32 teams.’

The group stage, as with any major tournament, is unlikely to prove a total non-event. Indeed, four of the last five World Cups has seen the reigning champions eliminated, including the 2018 edition in which Germany were knocked out of a group containing Sweden, South Korea and Mexico. 

However, the era of sides with ‘genuine ambitions’ of making the latter stages being drawn against each other from the outset will likely grow to be a dying memory after this tournament. 

Loss of jeopardy and quality

Every World Cup has seen exhilarating group stage finishes. Since 2002, there have been a few notable games. Uruguay 3-3 Senegal in 2002 in Suwon was one of the great modern era games. Two sides that did not go into the World Cup harbouring realistic ambitions of going deep served up a great exhibition of tournament football. 

Quite aside from the six goals, what made it so dramatic and engrossing was the jeopardy attached. Of course, there will be outliers to the rule, but with more than half of the teams advancing in 2026, drama on the final round of fixtures in the initial stage will seemingly be few and far between.

At the 2014 edition, Georgios Samaras’s last-gasp penalty for Greece against Ivory Coast sent the European side through at the expense of the West African nation. This drama cannot exist within the confines of a three-team group. 

Diego Forlan scores for Uruguay against Senegal in 2002 – the kind of game FIFA stand to lose

Or indeed, more recently, one of the most dramatic final group stage rounds came in 2018 when Germany, Sweden, South Korea and Mexico all went into the day with genuine hopes of making the next round. 

Fielder accepts that there were will be instances this forthcoming World Cup where big games ‘on paper’ won’t be the case in practice. Examples of such in the past might include England against Belgium in 2018 where who finishes first or second matters but not at the same magnitude as when those two countries met in 1990. 

However, there will be far more instances of such meaningless fixtures from 2026 onwards, he says. 

Georgios Samaras celebrates after scoring a crucial, last-minute penalty at the 2014 World Cup against Ivory Coast

‘I think as well the big thing is it takes away all the jeopardy of the group stage, because you can end up with effectively at the moment 16 teams who wouldn’t typically be qualifying. And the high likelihood is they’re going to be the ones who get knocked down,’ Fielder says. 

The move to three-team groups has been linked to a potential increase in collusion between sides. It has been suggested that there could once again be an instance of the Disgrace of Gijon, when Austria and West Germany played out a game safe in the knowledge that a 1-0 win to West Germany would see them both advance. 

A study in the Journal of Sports Analytics from 2020 said groups of three could lead to ‘unfairness’ and ‘schedule imbalance’. Of course, with an odd number of teams the last round of group stage fixtures – traditionally all held at once per group to avoid such issues – will not be able to be held together.

England vs Argentina in 2002: a group-stage match up between two sides with genuine aspirations of lifting the trophy that is unlikely to take place in 2026

‘Using groups of three raises several fairness issues, including the risk of match fixing and schedule imbalance. In this article we examine the risk of collusion,’ the introduction to the study reads. 

‘The two teams who play the last game in the group know exactly what results will let them advance to the knockout stage. Risk of match fixing occurs when a result qualifies both of them at the expense of the third team of the group, and can seriously tarnish the tournament.’

Quite aside from the dangers of collusion, studies pointing towards a reduction in jeopardy, with perhaps only half of the games in any one particular group mattering, might concern supporters. 

Exciting editions of the World Cup, since 2002, when every champion barring Brazil in 2006 has been eliminated in the groups are likely to be extinguished from the 2026 edition. With two thirds of teams emerging, the excitement of a big team falling early is significantly reduced. 

Including 2002, every reigning champion has been eliminated at the group stage barring Brazil in 2006

Jeopardy is the name of the game in football, hence the outright rejection of the attempted Super League heist, at least in England last year. 

In essence, then, FIFA’s attempt at expansion could backfire in that the teams they promote who would not otherwise have qualified are sent home before the tournament has even got underway. 

Quite aside from money then, questions hang over FIFA and what they stand to gain from the expansion.  

FIFA’s role in the game, and their power, has diminished with the increased popularity – and thus financial might – of European football, most notably the Champions League. 

All of the world’s best players now play on the continent while the money is hyper-focused on a select few major European clubs. The Premier League’s hegemony is only seeking to widen the gap.

Aleksander Ceferin (left) and Gianni Infantino (right) – two of the most powerful men in football – in deep conversation in 2018

The World Cup, despite this, remains the sport’s centrepiece and the sport’s governing body are seeking to protect this status. It has been argued Arsene Wenger’s attempts at a biennial tournament, something Saudi Arabia, a potential joint host for 2030, supports is indicative of such. 

‘I think a huge amount about football administration is about the different power bases that exist. There’s a power struggle between UEFA clubs and FIFA and the World Cup is what FIFA have got and it’s only once every four years and they’ve seen their power in that regard dwindle as the power of the Champions League and UEFA has grown,’ says Fielder. 

‘I think they are looking for ways to level the playing field in that regard.’

Precedent exists for an expansion of the World Cup. From 1998 it went to 32 teams, a move Fielder admits he was – along with, he believes, a lot of European viewers – he was opposed to it on the grounds that it would dilute the quality. 

‘And in fairness, the format of the World Cup at the moment has actually worked really well. It’s probably got better,’ he says. ‘I think that it has probably prompted the rest of the world to catch up a bit.’

The likes of South Korea (semi-finalists in 2002), USA, quarter-finalists that same year, Senegal likewise; Ghana a penalty away from the semi-finals in 2010 while Costa Rica came within a penalty shootout defeat of reaching the semi-finals in 2014. The rest of the world has begun to catch up.

That expansion grew the World Cup by eight teams, however. Double that are set to join from 2026. By the time the qualification process for that tournament rolls around, around 25 per cent of those competing will end up playing at the World Cup itself. 

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