With the possible exception of the Olympics, the World Cup is the most culturally significant sporting event on the planet. It has inspired troubled nations, and it even halted a civil war, in the case of the Ivory Coast. The tournament’s combination of infrequency, worldwide appeal and top-level athletic quality have made it a global phenomenon, and in an environment in which seemingly every sporting event is increasing its pool of competitors, it seems inevitable that the World Cup will be following suit.

The Union of European Football Associations has already expanded the European Championship field from 16 to 24 teams, and in response to FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s desire to dilute the general dominance of European qualifiers in the World Cup, UEFA president Michel Platini has proposed expanding the World Cup field from 32 to 40 teams, adding two teams each from Africa, Asia and the Americas, and one from each Oceania and Europe.

I have written before about my distaste for widening tournament fields, with particular criticism directed toward the MLB playoffs, but when the scope of a sporting event extends as far beyond the actual game, as does the World Cup, the notion of expanding the tournament field is a much more intriguing point of debate.

The sports fan in me detests the idea of expansion. One of the reasons that the European Championship has been traditionally so great is that the 16-team field featured few patsies for the superpowers to steamroll; the group stage was always an absolute war, with at least one favorite falling before the knockout rounds. The expansion to 24 teams will effectively eliminate this tournament-wide fear of early elimination. The World Cup is already diluted from a pure talent perspective, with the 14 slots allotted to Europe already cutting out top-32 caliber teams within the region in favor of weaker teams out of Asia and North America. Adding more teams to the field — particularly with an emphasis on weaker regions — simply magnifies these flaws. The tournament is called the World Cup Finals for a reason; with qualification involving 209 teams and dragging on for over two years. Whittling the final field down to 32 teams rewards the teams that survive this grueling process.

Despite the significant flaws in the expansion plan, there is a rather important cultural dynamic that makes a larger field much more palatable in the World Cup than it is in the European Championship. In the Euros, the focus of the tournament is pure competition; there are no frills, and the host nation is remembered not for cultural flair, but for their administrative qualities. The World Cup is an entirely different spectacle. Post-tournament montages focus just as much on the fans and patriotism as they do on the actual match highlights, and when I look back at previous World Cups, the impact of the previous World Cups, the impact of the host nation on the feel and atmosphere of the tournament is always at the front of my mind.

The South Korean spectators were among the highlights of the tournament when they hosted in 2002, expressing adulation and respect when watching other team, and unbridled passion and excitement as their nation embarked on an improbable run. I remember the post-game victory slides performed by the South Korean players as vividly as any play on the pitch. Whilst the knockout rounds are irresistibly enjoyable for their tense atmospheres and high quality of play, the early rounds are just as rewarding for their pure optimism and sense of global community.

I remember watching the first match of the 2010 World Cup in my cafeteria at school, and everyone cheered as if the U.S. had won a game when the host nation South Africa notched the first goal of the tournament. For a brief period of time, the actual soccer was overshadowed by the joy of seeing less prominent players and nations get their turn in the spotlight, and as fans, we got lost in the moment.

The prospect of expanding the World Cup field is extremely risky; the tournament is fantastic as is, combining the joy of watching the underdog get a shot on the big stage with a compactness that rewards the grueling qualification process and facilitates a high level of play. FIFA’s monetary motivations and corrupt track record also do not inspire confidence when considering major changes to a long-established tradition. On a sporting level, the system should be left alone, but when we consider the ways in which the World Cup transcends sports, expansion does not seem so egregious. If expansion can inspire hope and pride in a few more nations — even if only for a few weeks — then it’s an idea worth discussing.

Darius Majd is a junior in the College. The Sporting Life appears every Tuesday.

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