Belfast Telegraph

Why a 48 team World Cup would be even better than 2018 tournament: Michael O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is convinced a 48-team World Cup would make the tournament even better.

The 2018 finals, in which 32 nations were involved, finished on Sunday with many labelling it the best World Cup ever, leading to suggestions that Fifa's idea to increase the numbers was unnecessary and would dilute the quality on show.

O'Neill has a different view.

Fifa have already decided that the 2026 World Cup finals hosted by USA, Canada and Mexico will have 48 countries and they haven't totally ruled that scenario out for the 2022 tournament in Qatar, which will be unique because it will begin on November 21 and end on December 18 due to the intense heat in the Gulf state during the summer.

With an expanded World Cup, Northern Ireland would obviously have a better chance of qualifying.

O'Neill is well aware of that but it is not the only reason he wants to go from 32 to 48.

"A lot of people are against the 48-team World Cup but I actually think it will work really well," he said. "It will create even more interest because you will have more participants, which is a good thing.

"The way they are going to do it I believe is to have 16 groups of three and then you go straight to knockout with 32 teams.

"There would be an extra round of knockout, and the sooner you get to knockout football the better in my view."

O'Neill would also welcome another change, whereby there is a new draw after the group stages thus avoiding what happened in this World Cup when a defeat for England against Belgium worked to their advantage, giving them an easier route to the semi-finals.

"To be fair, Russia put on a brilliant tournament," said O'Neill. "There weren't too many negative things coming out of this World Cup which was great, but one of the things I didn't like was the way people were talking about which half of the draw was better to be in and plotting their way to the final that way.

"When you get into a scenario where it is not in your interests to win a match I think that compromises everything a little bit.

"It is very difficult because of television and because the sides all play at different times, but there is an element of me which thinks let's draw the knockout stages after the group stages with, for instance in a 32-team tournament, the eight group winners in one pot and the eight runners up in another.

"They would have to stretch the tournament a wee bit to be fair about it because in this World Cup some of the teams were finishing their groups four days before other teams. Every team would need a suitable level of recovery."

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