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How to make a 40-team FIFA World Cup work

Everyone knows the key to the World Cup is a catchy slogan. (AP Photo/Keystone, Patrick B. Kraemer)
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17th November, 2013
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The World Cup is the biggest sporting tournament on the planet and when I heard UEFA president Michel Platini wanted to increase the participants from 32 to 40, I think I pulled an eye muscle when I rolled them.

At first glance his ‘idea’ looked exactly what it is, political posturing to garner votes for the upcoming FIFA elections.

I initially dismissed the possibility of it happening because surely common sense says the current format is almost perfect and ‘if ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

Having said that, FIFA haven’t exactly been dishing out a lot of common sense lately. Think Qatar 2022 and you get the picture.

Another indication why this idea of Platini’s could actually be realised is the fact that the European Championships have recently been increased to a 24-team competition.

The theory is that more teams means more football, which means a better all around package right?

For TV companies the answer is yes but, for the fans of attacking, open football, a 24-team competition is a disaster.

The World Cup used to have a 24-team format which last occurred in USA 1994. What this system inherently does is reward mediocrity and produce negative football.

The way it works is there are six groups of four teams, with the top two progressing and the four best third place getters making up the 16. Yes that is right, you can finish third in a group of four and still progress. This makes the A-League top six system actually look acceptable.

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The mathematics of a 40-team World Cup essentially remains the same as 32-team World Cup. 8 x 5 = 40, with the top two progressing. Each team gets four games but here lies the problem for the drama-obsessed fan.

I can see this format producing a lot of dull games and increasing the amount of dead rubbers.

The saying goes that the World Cup really starts in the knockout stages. This is because you have to have a winner and the games are so much more exciting.

An idea kept nagging at me. What is a way you can get the World Cup to really start from that first whistle?

No more teams playing for the draw against the big teams. Australia v Germany was a good example of how not to do that.

Then it occurred to me. Instead of eight groups of five, have 10 groups of four.

The equation is this: 10 groups winners progress and the best six runners up make up the “Round of 16”.

Now you have a format where second place might not be good enough and you have to shoot for top place as your first strategy.

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Can you imagine the increase in attacking dramatic games this format will produce?

There will be nothing to be gained from trying for the 0-0 draw because you have to win, and if you can’t win you have to score goals trying. The reason for this because the “second place table” is decided by points and then goals.

Any coach trying to pull a “Pim Verbeek” against Germany or something similar will never get a job anywhere else. The sheer stupidity of trying for a draw in a World Cup will be career suicide akin to getting your team relegated.

A 40-team World Cup can make the biggest even bigger. The system they use is what decides if it better or worse, attacking or defensive and dramatic versus boring.

FIFA, if you do increase the number of teams to 40, be bold and choose the format that will produce the most goals and more drama.

Click here for the full draw of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.