A Better 48-Team World Cup Format

HIGHLIGHTS
  •  48 teams
  •  8 groups of 6 teams
  •  Each team plays 3 matches in group stage vs:
       —  1 Top Tier team
       —  1 Second Tier team
       —  1 Third Tier team
  •  Top 2 teams from each group advance to knockout round of 16
  •  Number of tournament matches increases by 24 to 88 total
  •  Tournament completed in roughly same number of days

MOTIVATION

I like having 8 groups with top 2 teams advancing to the knockout round, while having exactly 3 matches per team in the group stage. Here’s how that could be accomplished — with some variations discussed below.

SIX POTS

Start with seeding all teams into these six pots: 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, and 3c. There are two Top Tier pots (1a and 1b), two Second Tier pots (2a and 2b), and three Third Tier pots (3a and 3b). In the group stage, each team, regardless of which pot they are in, will play against one team in a Top Tier pot, one team in a Second Tier pot, and one team in a Third Tier pot.

Teams from each pot will be drawn into groups A through H. Computer technology will be used during the draw to ensure geographic diversity.

GROUP SCHEDULE

For each group, here is the schedule:

  • First round of group matches: 1a vs 1b; 2a vs 3a; 2b vs 3b.

  •  Second round of group matches: 3a vs 3b; 1a vs 2a; 1b vs 2b.

  •  Third round of group matches: 2a vs 2b; 1a vs 3a; 1b vs 3b.

The third round of group matches would be played concurrently.

DISCUSSION

1. Pots. In the format listed above, there are 6 seeded pots. However, a smaller number of pots could be used. For example, 3 pots of 16 teams could be used, and part of the draw would be used to determine which teams get the “a” slot and which teams get the “b” slot for the schedule. However, I believe it’s important to separate the top 8 teams from the second best 8 teams, so I think 4 pots is better than 3 pots. In the 4 pots example, the pots would be 1a, 1b, 2, and 3. Pots 1a and 1b would each have 8 teams, while pots 2 and 3 would each have 16 teams — and the teams in pots 2 and 3 would need to be drawn into the “a” and “b” slots for scheduling. Overall, I prefer 6 seeded pots.

2. Schedule: Intra-tier matches. In the format listed above, the matches between each pair of top tier teams (i.e. 1a vs 1b) is scheduled as part of the first round of matches. Meanwhile, the matches between each pair of third tier teams (i.e. 3a vs 3b) is scheduled as part of the second round of matches; and the matches between each pair of second tier teams (i.e. 2a vs 2b) is scheduled as part of the third round of matches. Mathematically, these could occur in any order, but an order does need to be chosen. I chose this order for sporting reasons: (1) having a top tier lose or draw in the first round of matches makes the rest of the teams in group have a more competitive chance of advancing; (2) having a third tier team win in the second round of matches increases the likelihood that at least one third tier team still has a chance to advance going into the third round of group matches; (3) having the two second tier teams play each other during the third round of group matches — when all the matches are played at the same time — has a good likelihood of both teams being mathematically in contention to advance and thus resulting in a competitive match.

3. Schedule: Inter-tier matches. In the format listed above, the matches between teams in different tiers (i.e. 2a vs 3a) has the “a” team play the other “a” team, and the “b” team plays the other “b”. However, there are several alternative approaches. In the format above, with the a/a and b/b, it is arguably the most simple approach. Each “a” team plays the other two “a” teams and one “b” team (the “b” in its tier), while each “b” team plays the other two “b” teams and one “a” team (the “a” in its tier). One other potential benefit is that the biggest opportunity for a blowout would be 1a vs 3b — and this match is avoided, which is good for sporting reasons. Another approach would attempt to have each team plays one “a” and one “b” from different tiers. Mathematically, however, this cannot be fully achieved, as the most number of tiers which can have one “a” and one “b” is two — so there would be one tier where each team would have to play either two “a” or two “b” teams. Another approach would embed sporting reasons, for example, it may be that having 2a play 1b (and 2b play 1a), and giving an advantage to 2a (and a disadvantage to 2b) may result in a more competitive match (2a vs 1b), but it would also result in a less competitive match (2b vs 1a).

4. Comparison with alternative 48-team formats. As of this writing, my understanding is that two other 48-team formats are receiving the most discussion: (1) a 16-match single-elimination round to reduce the field to 32 teams who would then become 8 groups of 4 teams; and (2) 16 groups of 3 teams. In the first of these two, 16 teams would go home after playing only one match. In the second of these two, 16 teams would go home after playing only two matches. In the format listed above, all teams would play at least three matches.

5. Comparison with existing 32-team format. In the format listed above, there are many similarities with the existing 32-team format. These include: (1) 8 groups; (2) top 8 teams are seeded; (3) each team plays 3 matches in the group stage; (4) top two teams from each group advance; (5) knockout round matches (e.g. A1 vs B2) are known and scheduled in advance; (6) knockout round involves 16 teams. The overall tournament would involve 24 additional matches, all in the group stage; and the overall tournament could be played in roughly the same number of days.

6. Geographic diversity: During the draw, computer technology can be used to determine all possible remaining combinations. Should the remaining combinations require one or more teams be immediately assigned to one or more groups, that assignment would be completed before the regular draw resumes.

7. Dead rubbers: During the third round of matches, if team 1a, team 1b, and either team 2a or 2b is still mathematically able to advance, then all three third round matches could impact the final group results. This schedule should reduce the frequency of dead rubbers.
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SUMMARY

A 48-team World Cup can continue the tradition of having each team play 3 matches during the group by using 8 groups of 6 teams with the top 2 from each group advancing to a knockout round of 16 teams. By having each team play 1 Top Tier team, 1 Second Tier team, and 1 Third Tier team in its group, the format attempts a fairness in “strength of schedule”. Pairing the two Top Tier teams in the first round of group matches and pairing the two Second Tier teams in the third round of group matches is intended to create an environment that reduces the frequency of dead rubbers while offering a higher quality and higher excitement of play.

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