Andrew Gourdie: Russia proves we're ready for a 48-team Football World Cup

Russia 2018 has convinced me that FIFA might've got this one right, writes Andrew Gourdie.
Russia 2018 has convinced me that FIFA might've got this one right, writes Andrew Gourdie. Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: How good has this World Cup been? Russia 2018 will go down as one of the best we've ever seen.

We had five goals in the tournament opener, an unexpectedly strong performance from the hosts, a shock early exit for the defending champions, 37 matches before our first nil-nil draw, a record number of late goals. I never want it to end.

But tomorrow it will, with the possibility of a first-time winner when Croatia take on France in a final few would have predicted.

Well after a month of glorious football I'll predict this: the World Cup will be even better when it expands to 48 teams in 2026.

I never thought I'd say that after FIFA's decision in January to break with the format that's been in place since 1998, opting to go for an expanded 48-team tournament from 2026. But Russia 2018's convinced me that Fifa might've got this one right.

Above all else, what's made this a truly great World Cup is that it's been impossible to predict. There have been upsets everywhere you look: Mexico beating Germany, Croatia thrashing Argentina, South Korea knocking out Germany, Spain sent home by Russia. Every four years you might be lucky to get one example of David knocking over Goliath, or at least going toe-to-toe with the big fella, like the All Whites did with Italy in 2010. But four? This has been one out of the box. Aside from the final, these are the matches that help define World Cups. They're the results that live long in the memory.

Russia made it to the quarter-finals.
Russia made it to the quarter-finals. Photo credit: Reuters

And if there's one thing we can take from all of this, it's that the gap is closing at the highest level of international football. Teams are getting better, and they're getting smarter. In this modern world, football has become a truly international game. Players from all countries, all over the world, have a presence in the biggest leagues on the planet. The money in the game allows smaller nations to tap into better coaching resources.

It's easier than ever to be able to watch the best players, the best teams, analyse them in order to not just match them, but beat them. That's what we've seen at Russia 2018. There have only been two truly lopsided games at the tournament - Russia beating Saudi Arabia 5-0, and England knocking half a dozen past Panama. Russia and England. It suggests to me that teams have had a plan when it came to taking on the heavyweights of the game, and it often worked.

It's putting a serious dent in the argument that an expanded World Cup will lead to more lopsided results. There might be one or two more, but on the evidence of what we've seen in Russia, there's also a good chance we'll see more upsets.

Andrew Gourdie: Russia proves we're ready for a 48-team Football World Cup

Just look at some of the nations that missed out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Italy. The Netherlands, United States, Chile. You cannot tell me there's no room for more teams.

It will certainly improve New Zealand's chances of getting to the World Cup every four years, without question. But look around the Confederations, and you'll see the calibre of teams on the fringes. In Europe, the Netherlands, Italy and Wales are all ranked ahead of Croatia. In South America, Chile are ranked ninth, Paraguay 32nd. In Africa, World Cup regulars like Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon missed out, and they're all ranked lower than Congo. Syria's the next spot down on the Asian rankings - what a story that would be. The quality is there. 

And at the end of the day, why shouldn't we have a bigger World Cup? Given FIFA has 211 member nations, a 48-team tournament isn't the crazy idea it's been made out to be. Unlike cricket which, in a move that is sure to inhibit global growth, has decided to downsize its men's World Cup to look after a cosy club of traditional nations, Football is growing and improving and simply running out of reasons not to expand its showpiece event to include more of its members.

And let's face it: an extra 16 teams and an extra 16 games doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. This month-long festival of stunning football we've witnessed in Russia has left me in no doubt that a bigger World Cup will give us an even better World Cup. 

Andrew Gourdie is Newshub sports presenter and RadioLIVE Sunday Sport host.

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