The World Cup group stage has been annoyingly great; enjoy it because it’ll never happen again

Date published: Thursday 1st December 2022 8:34 - Dave Tickner

Belgium vs Morocco - Abdelhamid Sabiri celebrates his goal

The long-standing 32-team World Cup format has delivered an exemplary group stage that neither FIFA nor the hosts deserve, but this is the last World Cup where that’s the case.

We’ve looked at the obvious flaws with the 48-team format for 2026 and beyond, and had a lovely time down a rabbit hole discovering how the World Cup having a crappy format is in fact wildly on brand…

 

Right, now let’s get it out there straight away that there is an awful lot wrong with this World Cup.

Even if we park every single one of the off-field concerns and controversies – which we shouldn’t – we’re still left with two key words that make this World Cup wrong for purely footballing reasons and those words are ‘November’ and ‘December’.

But, annoyingly, there must be some acknowledgement that despite all the honking great big wrongness this is, if we put on the cosy, comforting blinkers and look only on-field, a World Cup that has got a huge amount right.

A combination of factors have combined to deliver an excellent football tournament that neither the hosts nor FIFA deserve. The lack of a clear favourite helps, as does the presence of a genuinely crazy number of all-time great players having their last crack at it amid the emergence of a new generation of talent announcing themselves. The kick-off times are also absolutely deliciously perfect from a selfish western European perspective: it has in lots of ways been absolutely great.

And it’s also the last ever World Cup where that is going to be the case, so it really is worth trying to enjoy it if you can.

Having tarnished the 2022 World Cup so horrifically off the field in pursuit of grubby coin, FIFA are going one better next time and ruining the on-field action too because there are still a few more pound/dollar/euro notes to be wrung out of this quadrennial cash cow.

Because the overarching thing that makes this World Cup work – and the thing that is about to be absolute bollocks after this – is the format. We took it for granted and we shouldn’t have, but there is literally no other sporting event on earth with a format to match the 32-team World Cup.

It lands absolutely in every sweet spot you could ask for. Inclusive enough to be a truly global event without diminishing the achievement of qualification, long enough to give everyone a fair go without becoming arduous or dull. There are almost no dead rubbers, and simultaneous group games in the final round – while denying us the sweet, sweet nectar of the 10am football to which we’ve all become accustomed and entitled – minimise the risk of any funny business and collusion between teams.

The format produces an equal number of qualifiers from each first-round group and sets up a straightforward, easily understood last-16 bracket where you are (at least theoretically) rewarded for winning your group. It’s simple, it’s easily understood, it’s elegant and it’s fair.

If you get knocked out after three group games then, well, there was always something you could have done about it yourselves.

And if you put your fingers in your ears and ignore everything else, this has been a really fun group stage. After the first two rounds of games there were only three teams definitely through (none of them yet certain to top their groups) and two teams definitely out. Absolutely every match in the final set of games has something on it for someone.

Ecuador vs Senegal

The first day of final-round action featured two ‘knockout’ games in Ecuador v Senegal and USA v Iran where one late goal would’ve swung qualification the other way, while Wednesday promises another such cracker in Group D’s Australia v Denmark as well as an absolutely smashing all-comers’ bunfight in a Group C blown wide apart by Argentina’s defeat to Saudi Arabia.

Anything could also still happen in Group E, while Croatia v Belgium looks like a Golden Generation Eliminator between two ageing heavyweights in Group F as long as Morocco don’t commit a daftness against Canada.

Groups G and H look slightly more predictable, but there are still a pair of huge decisive games in Serbia v Switzerland and Ghana v Uruguay.

It’s beautiful, and it’s played out ideally. There have been enough shocks to keep everyone entertained between the assorted goalless draws, but for the most part the biggest teams are all going to be there in the knockouts when the dust settles. And while the odd big gun crashing out catastrophically early is always good for the soul, you don’t want too much of it. You can maybe have a little Germany going out in the groups again as a treat.

So not only is this a great format, this specific tournament has also been a great example of precisely why it’s a great format. And that’s a bit of an issue for FIFA. Probably not at the forefront of their minds right now – there’s other stuff going on – but down the line people will remember this and they’re going to compare the 2026 group stage to this one.

And they’re going to realise that the 2026 group stage is – and I’m aware there are some technical terms coming up here, but do try to stay with it – utter f**king sh*t.

Expanding the tournament for 48 teams – and get ready, by the way, for a load of absolute bumwash about ‘growing the global game’ like this isn’t a decision based utterly on short-sighted ugly greed – has taken this beautiful group stage and turned it into an utter mess.

The World Cup had to go through a messy 24-team period on its way to 32, and it wasn’t ideal. That format puts a load of third-place teams through who frankly more often than not don’t really deserve it and makes the last 16 less cleanly predictable after the initial group-stage draw. It’s why we’d cheerfully back a 32-team Euros. It’s only 12 extra games, Europe’s strength in depth is plenty good enough, and you get a much better tournament at the end of it.

We mention all this because the proposed 48-team World Cup is much worse than a 24-team tournament.

And they’ve picked a really bad 48-team format. Sixteen three-team groups has vast numbers of awful possibilities. First, it’s unwieldy. It’s 48 matches – the same as the current group stage – but knocks out only a third rather than half the competitors.

It’s also absurdly lopsided. There are all manner of ways for teams to benefit or suffer that are outside their own control. A third of teams, for instance, will play no part in the opening round of fixtures and have to play their first game against a team who have already played and will know precisely what they need to do to qualify. One team per group will play in the first and third round of games and get a lovely little break between games in the middle. And one team will play in the first two games and better make damn sure they’ve done enough to qualify without having to rely on a particular result in the final round of games between teams who will at best know precisely what result they need and in at least some cases precisely what result sends them both skipping merrily through.

One solution mooted to the entirely self-inflicted and massive problem of final-game collusion that’s just been introduced in a format that makes simultaneous final games impossible is to have all group-stage draws settled like knockout games.

This might iron out a few wrinkles but takes away from the group-stageyness of it, while raising the admittedly hilarious possibility of a team deliberately losing a penalty shoot-out in order to eliminate a particular team or position themselves in a potentially easier section of the knockout bracket.

It’s such a bad format that we still wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them panic and end up doing 12 groups of four in an XL version of the 24-team 1986-1994 format with eight of the third-place teams going through. It’s messy, but does at least have World Cup pedigree and is less vulnerable to descending into pure farce.

It would be nearly a hundred games, though; it’s almost like 48 teams is too many for a good World Cup whichever way you slice it.

But here’s the other thing: a World Cup having a terrible shit nonsense format in no way undermines its World Cup status. Indeed, it’s surprisingly on brand.

The current, good World Cup format has been unchanged since France 98 when it went from 24 to 32 teams and settled into this now established elegant structure. But 24 years of an unchanged non-daft format is actually far more unusual for the World Cup than doing something mental with the format every decade or so.

While the 24-team efforts with their third-place fiddles aren’t great, they’re at least a recognised format and as we know still in use today for the Euros.

So you do have to go back to 1982 for the last time the World Cup format was a bit mad, but before then it was wildly, preposterously common for the greatest sporting event in the world to just be played under cover of daftness.

The 1982 tournament was the first to face the tricky problem of trying to whittle 24 competitors down to a suitable number for a knockout bracket. They eschewed getting to 16 or eight in favour of a double group-stage to leave just four.

The top two from each of the six first-round groups shuffled into four groups of three in the second round, with only the winners of those groups making it to the semi-finals. This format is a touch less fiddly than some third-place teams making a last 16 but is also altogether too much group stage and not enough knockout. It all takes too long to arrive at the serious stuff.

It also shafted England, who swept all before them in the first group stage – including eventual semi-finalists France – before a couple of goalless draws in round two sent them packing. Up to you whether you put that in the positive or negative column for the format as a concept.

The great England-less, Dutch-despair World Cups of the 1970s were also a bit odd, looking back. Despite the apparent benefit of featuring 16 teams and thus having a really obvious and ideal format readily available, they too had second group stages for the eight teams who finished first or second in the first-round groups. There weren’t even semi-finals in those World Cups, and that’s just plain nutty.

The four World Cups before were the last period of sanity until the now-ending current era. In 1958, 1962, 1966 and 1970 we had four sensible World Cups with 16 teams doing a normal group stage followed by quarter-finals and so on and so forth.

It must have felt strange having such balanced and sensible World Cups, because the 1950s really is the golden age for nutty World Cup formats. We admit to absolute ignorance of quite how silly these old World Cups were. It absolutely isn’t talked about enough.

Let’s put that right here and now. The 1954 World Cup is ingenious for having the obvious format staring it in its stupid 16-team face and almost but not quite going with it. Four groups of four followed by quarter-finals and the rest sounds like it’s just going to be pretty sensible, doesn’t it?

Oh my sweet summer child. It was not sensible. Instead of having everyone in the group play everyone else like a boring normy group stage would, everyone only played two games instead. Each four team group had two seeded teams and two unseeded teams, and you played your two games against those that you weren’t. That is, the seeded teams played both unseeded teams but not each other, while the unseeded teams had two theoretically harder games and no easier one.

You almost have to admire the sheer gall of how unfairly loaded that is. You’re already seeding the group stage, and then handing the seeded teams an even bigger advantage by giving them easier fixtures. It’s magnificent. But they weren’t done there. If a game was level at 90 minutes, they didn’t just get a point each like you probably think they did. Oh no, they played extra-time for a laugh, despite the fact a draw is a thing that happens in football quite a lot and outside of knockout games isn’t a problem. And we know they know this because if there still wasn’t a winner after extra-time then they called it a draw. We can see absolutely no logic for that beyond shits and giggles, and on this basis we admire it hugely.

Yet the 1954 World Cup was a paragon of formatting virtue in comparison to its predecessor. Now it wasn’t entirely the tournament’s fault that it went quite so wrong, but still.

With assorted late pull-outs and withdrawals the 1950 World Cup shrunk from a 16-team event to a 13-team event. Now that’s awkward to make work, but you’d still think you’d make the best of it.

You’d go one group of four and three groups of three, wouldn’t you? Best you can manage at short notice. Not the 1950 World Cup. No, they stuck with the original groups as drawn and just crossed out some teams and fixtures.

With only group winners progressing, the now irrevocably lopsided format left the following:

In Group 1 you had Mexico, Yugoslavia and Switzerland trying to upset Brazil. All four countries were inside the best 21 teams in the world at that point on the retrofitted Elo Ratings. In Group 2 you had England, who famously made a bollocks of it against the USA but also faced Spain and Chile.

Group 3 had only three teams in it, but what teams they were. Again, retrofitting the rankings tells us that Sweden, Italy and Paraguay were all among the top 10 teams in the world at this point.

Maths fans will have already worked out how many teams were left in Group 4. Two. Two teams.

While everyone else slugged it out, Uruguay were able to reach the final four and ultimately set off on their second world title by winning one match. Against Bolivia. Uruguay won 8-0 against a team retrospectively ranked 63 in the world.

It’s all good fun. And all shows that the 2026 format may well be awful but has all manner of precedent. More than two decades of unchangingly sane formats marks the break from tradition.

Maybe we should applaud FIFA for their bold restoring of the natural order by making the World Cup a hot mess.

But make sure you enjoy the next few days. We’ll never see their like again.

READ NOW: The big nations’ worst World Cup finals performance: Roy’s England, Pele’s Brazil…

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