Devalue pool stages and expand knockouts: Why World Cup formats seem to be getting worse

England's captain Eoin Morgan (C) - Devalue pool stages and expand knockouts: Why World Cup formats seem to be getting worse
The enlarged World Cup format in cricket means teams can lose three games – as England did in 2019 – and still win - Getty Images/Glyn Kirk

Take the best countries in the world. Bring them together for a few weeks of high-stakes sport. Congratulations: you have organised a World Cup.

Ostensibly, designing the structure of a World Cup could hardly be simpler. Yet swathes of sports fans have long learnt that this is not true. Too often, there are vast stretches during a World Cup when nothing of consequence seems to happen at all.

Rugby’s World Cup has been compelling so far on the field. But it is essentially a tournament played over weekends only that lasts for 51 days: England are now in the midst of a 19-day period during which they will have played one game, against Chile. The drawn-out tournament is one reason why, as Telegraph Sport reveals, the Rugby World Cup could feature 24, rather than 20, teams from 2027. Cricket’s World Cup, which is about to begin, has only 10 teams, yet still lasts 46 days; the format for 2027 is also changing, expanded to 14 sides.

Football’s World Cup, of course, remains the gold standard. Last year’s competition was a vindication for the cut-throat 32-team format - and all packed into 29 days, about the optimal duration of a tournament. This year’s Women’s World Cup reaffirmed the virtues of the structure. Yet the format for the 2026 Men’s World Cup is being revamped, replaced by an enlarged - and altogether more complex - 48-team format.

Revenue maximisation is a common thread

Designing a World Cup is essentially an exercise in managing trade-offs. For every game to matter as much as possible, the tournament should be a straight knockout, the sports economist Victor Matheson explains. But this format would entail half of teams playing only a single game.

Knockout sport is the essence of World Cups: occasions where there are no second chances. Yet this can make administrators uneasy: teams from the most lucrative markets might go out too early. As rugby debates which 24-team model to choose, it would do well to adopt a format that maximises knockout rugby –  a short group stage of three games each, followed by last-16 matches –  rather than a bloated group stage.

For all the myriad formats, revenue maximisation is a common thread between World Cups. It is just that, in different games, the desire to earn as much as possible manifests itself in different ways.

Football’s expansion to 48 teams will lead to the tournament becoming more lucrative. The extra 16 places disproportionately benefit countries from North America and Asia - drastically increasing the chances of the United States, China and even eventually India qualifying.

In cricket the impulse to maximise revenue has led the sport in a different direction. In 2007, cricket adopted a 16-team format; India were knocked out in the opening round, after three games, to the despair of broadcasters. About three-quarters of cricket’s revenue comes from India; catering for this market has been more lucrative in the short term than growing elsewhere. This explains why the current format comprises just 10 teams, guaranteeing all sides nine matches.

More teams increases risk of uncompetitive games

The enlarged format means that the initial stakes are too low, and the competition comprises just three knockout games. Teams can lose three games - as England did in 2019 –  and still win the tournament. A side could also, as Afghanistan did in 2019, lose nine games out of nine, playing the majority of their matches when already eliminated.

“You want every game to matter,” Matheson says. “Having a full round-robin causes problems because you can get quite a few meaningless games.” Switching the next Cricket ODI World Cup to 14 teams at least acknowledges the need to grow. It will also create a snappier group stage: two pools of seven, with six games each, before the top three sides progress to the Super Six.

More teams comes at a cost, too: the risk of more uncompetitive games. Yet, while the occasional mismatch remains, football suggests that allowing more teams in a World Cup strengthens the game’s depth. Every time expansion has happened in football’s World Cup, it has been resisted: Stanley Rous, the Fifa president until 1974, used to argue that the standard of play in Africa and Asia was not good enough to allow both continents even one guaranteed representative in the World Cup.

For all the inspirational impact of World Cups, perhaps even more important is investing enough in new frontiers between tournaments. With its global qualification structure, football has been doing this for decades. To improve the spectacle in their World Cups, cricket and rugby needs to provide more opportunities for emerging nations to play giants in between World Cups.

Rugby faces a unique challenge: players must now be given a minimum of five days off between games. While this rule extends the competition, it also protects the tournament’s integrity. In 2015, four days after toppling South Africa, Japan had to face Scotland, who were playing their first game. Japan trailed 12-10 shortly after half-time but, exhausted, then conceded five tries.

A good World Cup’s greatest trait is jeopardy

The integrity of World Cups can be undermined in different ways. Not playing the final group matches concurrently creates scope for teams to collude, even if only tacitly - as in the notorious disgrace of Gijon in 1982, when West Germany scored early against Austria and both teams seemed content with the 1-0 score, which sent both teams through.

Football adopting a 48-team World Cup format will now create a risk of a repeat. Alongside the top two from each four-team group, eight of the 12 best third-placed sides will also advance to the last 32. As the academics Alex Krumer and Mario Guajardo have shown, information asymmetry –  where teams playing later know exactly what they need do to qualify –  will give sides who happen to be in groups that conclude later an unfair advantage, as they will know the bar that they have to clear to qualify in third.

Cricket’s refusal to stage group matches concurrently gives teams a similar advantage. A side playing last in their group will know exactly the victory margin that they require to advance in the event of teams being level on points. This year India play the final group game against Netherlands, the lowest-ranked side in the competition. In the 2022 T20 World Cup, India played the final group game, against Zimbabwe. In the 2021 T20 World Cup, India played the final group game, against Namibia. You might just detect a pattern here.

This speaks to a wider desire among sports administrators: to rid games of the uncertainty on which they are built, ensuring that the biggest teams from the most lucrative markets play as much as possible. Yet the glory of sport lies in its brutal haphazardness: Germany, football world champions in 2014, were eliminated after three games in 2018 and 2022. Administrators sometimes give the impression that they want to rid tournaments of the right teams going out at the wrong times. They would do well to recognise a good World Cup’s greatest trait: jeopardy.

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