Thrilling Qatar 2022 Group Stage Shows FIFA Needs To Reconsider Plans For 2026 World Cup
A single late goal in the final round of matches in any of the Qatar 2022 World Cup groups could have changed which teams reached the knockout stages.
Had Iran’s late penalty claims been given, then Iran, not the USA, would have faced the Netherlands in the next round. Group C was on course to be decided by fair play and the number of yellow cards until Salem Al-Dawsari’s 95th minute goal for Saudi Arabia gave Poland a better goal difference than Mexico. In Group E, all four teams spent part of the final 90 minutes of action being in a position to qualify and a position to be eliminated.
Late goals by Ecuador, Denmark or Belgium would have changed the top two in their respective groups. And Group H was turned on its head when Hwang Hee-chan’s 92nd minute goal meant South Korea pipped Uruguay to second place in the group.
But the group stage of the next World Cup could be devoid of such drama.
The 2026 World Cup will be the first to include 48 teams.
This will mainly increase representation from Africa and Asia, whose countries at this World Cup have seen their best ever group stage. But the expansion makes it difficult to create a logical tournament structure.
Currently, 32 teams can be divided simply into rounds of 16, then eight, then four, then a final two. This isn’t possible with 48 teams. When planning the expansion of the tournament, FIFA came up with several suggestions, but eventually settled on having 16 groups of three teams, with the top two sides qualifying for the knockout rounds.
That proposed structure is filled with flaws.
Firstly, it means that the final group games cannot be played simultaneously. This increases the chances that some teams could simply play for a draw or accept a narrow defeat, knowing that such a result would guarantee them qualification.
Such a situation occurred in the 1982 World Cup when West Germany and Austria knew ahead of kick-off that a 1-0 win to West Germany would guarantee both sides’ progression at the expense of Algeria. Subsequently, West Germany scored after ten minutes, and from then on, neither side really attempted to score.
The match, known as “the Disgrace of Gijon” after the city it was played in, saw FIFA change its tournament structure so that the final group games are played simultaneously. This won’t be possible with three-team groups.
The other problems are that some teams will only get to play two games at the World Cup, making them a minor part of the tournament. The fewer games mean there is an increased likelihood of tiebreakers being needed, and there are likely to be situations where Team A wins their opening game by a large scoreline, then rests players for the second group game, meaning that should teams B and C draw, then whoever plays Team A second has a huge advantage.
With the knockout stages starting a round earlier with 32 teams, more teams are likely to play defensively and look to win matches on penalty shootouts. The World Cup winner will likely be the team that is best at penalties rather than the team that is best at soccer.
The latest suggestions to improve this three-team group format have included things like pre-match penalty shootouts for bonus points, which would further encourage defensive soccer and risk turning the tournament into a joke.
Another possible option could take inspiration from the new format for the UEFA Europa League where teams that finish top of the group get to skip the first knockout round, which in the Europa League involves the second-place teams and the teams that finish third in the Champions League groups.
This solution would make four-team groups possible. It adds an extra game to the current 2022 format for those teams that don’t get to skip the first knockout round, but guarantees that each team plays at least three games and that the final group stage game can be played simultaneously.
The 48-team World Cup doesn’t quite go into 16 teams as easily as the Europa league though, and to get the numbers to fit, each group could no longer be a stand-alone group but would have to be compared with teams in other groups.
For example, the eight teams who finish first in their groups and have the most points or best goal difference could get a bye to the second knockout round, and the four teams that finish first in their groups but have the worst record could play in the first knockout round with all the teams that finish second.
Alternatively, all twelve teams that finish top of their groups could go into the second knockout round, and the eight second-place teams with the best results could compete in the first knockout round.
Neither of those solutions is perfect, but both would at least allow FIFA to keep the four-team group structure rather than try to implement the flawed three-team group structure.
While FIFA has already made a decision on the three-team group structure, the reports of possibly using penalty shootouts in group stage matches shows that people within FIFA are aware the currently planned format is flawed.
There is still plenty of time before the 2026 World Cup for FIFA to go back to the drawing board and look at all possible solutions so that the group stage at the first 48-team World Cup is as exciting as the group stage of the final 32-team World Cup.