A single late goal in the last round of matches in one of the groups of World Cup 2022 in Qatar could have changed which teams reached the knockout stages.
Had Iran’s late penalty claims been asserted, it would have been Iran, not the USA, who would have had to play the Netherlands in the next round. Group C was on course to be decided by fair play and the number of yellow cards up to 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 last 90 minutes qualifying and being eliminated.
Late goals from 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 turned 92nd Minute goal meant South Korea edged Uruguay to second in the group.
But the group stage of the next World Cup could be free of such drama.
The 2026 World Cup will be the first to feature 48 teams.
This will notably increase representation from Africa and Asia, whose countries enjoyed their best-ever group stage at this World Cup. But the expansion makes it difficult to create a logical tournament structure.
Currently, 32 teams can be easily divided into round of 16, then eight, then four, finally two. That’s not possible with 48 teams. When planning the expansion of the tournament, FIFA made several suggestions, but ultimately settled on 16 groups of three teams, with the top two teams qualifying for the knockout stages.
This proposed structure is full of shortcomings.
First, it means that the final group matches cannot be played at the same time. This increases the chances that some teams could simply play for a draw or suffer a narrow loss, knowing that such a result would guarantee them qualification.
One such situation occurred at the 1982 World Cup, when West Germany and Austria knew before kick-off that a 1-0 win over West Germany would guarantee both teams progress at Algeria’s expense. As a result, West Germany scored after ten minutes and from then on neither side really tried to score.
Known as “The Shame of Gijon” after the city in which it was played, FIFA changed its tournament structure so that the final group matches were played simultaneously. This will not be possible for groups of three.
The other issues are that some teams will only play two games at the World Cup, making them a minor part of the tournament. The fewer games, the more likely it is that tiebreakers will be needed, and there will likely be situations where Team A wins their opening game by a big score and then rests the players for the second group game, meaning Teams B and C should draw, then whoever plays runners-up against Team A has a huge advantage.
As the knockout phase starts a round earlier with 32 teams, more teams are likely to play defensively and try to win games on penalties. The world champion will probably be the team that is best at penalties and not the team that is best at football.
The latest suggestions for improving this trio format include things like pre-game penalty shootouts for bonus points, which could further encourage defensive football and make the tournament a joke.
Another possible option could be inspired by the new format of the UEFA Europa League, where teams finishing first in the group can skip the first knockout round, which in the Europa League involves the second-placed teams and the teams that finish third are involved Champions League groups.
This solution would allow groups of four. It adds an extra game to the current 2022 format for those teams unable to skip the first knockout round, but guarantees that each team plays at least three games and that the last game of the group stage can be played at the same time.
However, the 48-team World Cup doesn’t go into 16 teams as easily as the Europa League and to adjust the numbers each group could no longer be a separate group but would need to be compared to the teams in other groups.
For example, the eight teams that 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 occupy, but have the worst record, could play in the round of 16 with all runners-up.
Alternatively, all 12 group winners could advance to the second knockout round and the eight runners-up with the best results advance to the first knockout round.
Neither of these solutions is perfect, but both would at least allow FIFA to keep the four-team group structure, rather than trying to introduce the flawed three-team group structure.
While FIFA has already made a decision on the three-team group structure, the reports on the possible use of penalty shootouts in group stage matches show that the people within FIFA are aware that the currently envisaged format is flawed.
Before the 2026 World Cup, FIFA still has plenty of time to go back to the drawing board and examine all possible solutions to make the group stage of the first 48-team World Cup as exciting as the group stage of the last 32-team World Cup.