48 Crash: FIFA “Reinvents” The World Cup

by | Jan 13, 2017

The EU referendum campaign polarised opinion sufficiently to forget that two people of similar political faith could easily vote differently on the complex economic issues involved. One close friend, who became so partly due to politics, voted “Leave” and remains a close friend. So I hope not to lose friends by suggesting that Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s idea of 48-team World Cup finals from 2026 onwards, is, on balance, taking everything into consideration, overall, not entirely preposterous.

Still reading? Good. I’m not out-and-out backing the idea. But some opposition has been a knee-jerk reaction to it BEING a Fifa presidential idea (not, per se, a bad stance to take). While other opposition (hello, European Club Association) could be the entry in an illustrated Thesaurus for “rank hypocrisy.” I would have joined a chorus of disapproval but for believing, correctly, that what needed to be said would be said, and said far better, by others. Two things adjusted my view. Martin Samuel’s Daily Mail newspaper opposition, founded on his trademark mix of ill-researched, if well-written, claptrap and xenophobia. And the actual merit of the proposals.

Of course, some “merits” are co-incidental by-products of Fifa’s dash-for-cash and Infantino’s dash for 2019 presidential election votes. Just as disgraced predecessor Sepp Blatter’s cash-for-votes sometimes hit targets which deserved development funding. Extending qualification prize money to 48 nations is at least a redistribution of wealth based on sporting criteria, not abuse of patronage. Keeping the 32-team format was NEVER an option for Fifa’s decision-making Council. An excellent report by Graham Dunbar of the Associated Press news agency noted on December 23rd that Fifa had “detailed how it could expand the World Cup in a 64-page analysis of five options…sent this week to…Council members.”

Dunbar suggested: “Retaining the 32-team format is on the table” and the analysis acknowledged that “the highest absolute quality would be achieved under the current format.” Yet a December 19th circular to “Fifa members” from Fifa Secretary-General Fatima Samoura, headed Fifa World Cup format proposals, said: “Fifa has selected (four) expanded formats for consideration and analysis” with no mention of the status quo. It referenced “the report prepared by the Fifa administration entitled An Expanded Fifa World Cup. Analysis and Findings” on “the format options for a 40 or 48-team World Cup.” And it confirmed that this was what would “be discussed at the Fifa Council meeting in January.” Infantino’s preference was clear. The BBC even called the “16 groups of three” format the “Gianni Infantino plan.” Last month, Infantino claimed national associations were “overwhelmingly in favour” of “his” proposals, leaving no doubt how Fifa Council members with the remotest career aspirations should/would vote.

His plan was, probably by design, the least crackpot expansion option, although it could only be properly evaluated alongside the current format, which Dunbar called “a proven and popular success.” This demonstrated how football people adjust to nonsensical format changes. Many criticisms of Infantino’s plan merely echoed those of past expansions, themselves undertaken for near-identical political and financial reasons. As Rory Smith wrote this week in a New York Times newspaper article on “seeing the upside” of the new format, these past expansions “met with acrimony from those, primarily in Western Europe, who saw their privileged position under threat. The tournament’s appeal was predicated on its air of exclusivity. The new inclusions would not be up to scratch. The competition would lose its lustre, and with it would go the fans.”

Samuel complained that qualification would be a “cakewalk” if 16 of Uefa’s 54 teams could advance. “England have gone soft,” he wrote, blaming their wretched 2014 finals display partly on “a succession of easy qualifying campaigns, when even third place of six does not equate to elimination.” Germany and the Netherlands, first and third respectively, somehow avoided this pitfall. And the notion that Fifa have, or even should have, a f**k to give about England going “soft” was…quaint. Samuel stylishly hit some obvious right notes, suggesting the World Cup “will expand and expand, until China are almost certain to be in, because there is nothing Fifa love more than a dictatorship with a few quid.”  But logic dissolved when he equated the Olympic 100m final to the World Cup finals.

Finals, he wrote, “should be all about the best. Only seven sprinters get to stand on the start line with Usain Bolt, because heats and semi-finals narrow the field to the most outstanding. In the heats, inferiors get their turn. But not in the final.” Of course, Olympic heats and semi-finals serve the identical purpose to World Cup finals group games. And the Olympics, a genuinely global event with entrants of all strengths, is no more “about the best,” than World Cup finals have ever been. Samuel’s Anglo-centric ignorance would be stunning if it wasn’t so common. “Tahiti versus Curacao. This is not a fixture that shouts elite competition,” he wrote of a potential 48-team finals’ fixture, adding gormlessly and disrespectfully: “This is a holiday dilemma for windsurfers.”

Curacao are above Norway and Finland in Fifa’s, admittedly insane, rankings, seven places behind Scotland and possibly a more entertaining finals’ prospect than, say, Switzerland, a team which played in the 2010 finals “as if trying to extinguish the concept of hope,” as comic Andy Zaltzmann wrote in the Independent newspaper. The easy, ubiquitous joke was that Scotland still wouldn’t get out of their group. But the serious suggestion was that the extra 16 qualifiers would lower the finals’ quality.

Samuel and others cited the 24-team Euro 2016 as evidence. Yet poor tournaments have taken all shapes and sizes. A dreadful eight-team Euro finals in 1980. A tedious 24-team Italia ’90. A foul-ridden, corrupt 16-team Argentina ‘78. Irish state television (RTE) pundit Eamon Dunphy rightly said Euro 2016 had better stories than football. But it HAD stories, many, though by no means all, written by the tournament’s expansion. And while World Cup finals are not the ideal place to give “mediocrities” the experience of meeting “quality” opposition, the 48-team finals, in the absence of worthwhile alternatives, is a step in that right direction. Critics have yet to answer Peter Staunton’s question on international football website Goal.com: “How else are teams supposed to improve?” The idea is not to include “mediocrities” but to improve them beyond mediocrity. International cricket journalists acknowledge this principle and criticise authorities for making their World Cup too elitist.

Infantino told the BBC’s Richard Conway “the actual quality could rise, because many more countries will have the chance to qualify so will invest in their elite football as well as grassroots.” And he claimed that “you will see better and more competitive games, the quality of competition will not be diluted.” This starkly contradicted Fifa’s own analysis. Yet what harm is there in an arguably temporary dip in “actual quality” if sixteen more nations can benefit aspirationally and financially?

The European Clubs Association objected to “commerce” being the “exclusive priority in football” and basing decisions “on political reasons rather than sporting ones.” Although it is only mid-January, the Guardian newspaper’s David Conn secured the “Understatement of 2017” award by calling this stance “not a great look.” Criticism of the political and some of the financial motivation is deserved. Yet the new format is not universally detrimental. Even the supposed over-prioritising of “commerce” has a context. The World Cup remains Fifa’s major source of income by millions. The problem with using the extra estimated $1bn revenue to “buy” presidential election votes exists independently of any finals’ format.

Objections to three-team groups seem muddled and largely already extant. Samuel cited “unwieldy groups of three,” which suggested a phobia of odd numbers…or ignorance of what “unwieldy” means. Mind you, this came amid references to “bloated competitions” and “tacky penalty shoot-outs at the end of every match,” neither of which will happen under Infantino’s format. There were genuine concerns, though. Infantino said the new format required the same number of stadia (12) as the old but overlooked the requirement for an extra 16 training bases, which would probably rule out a number of potential host nations.  Would there be too many finals’ matches for nations reaching the “business ends” of tournaments? And would tournaments last too long, detrimentally impacting upon TV ratings and the lucrative and fundamentally vital broadcast deals?

The new format doesn’t exacerbate the latter two problems, Infantino would hardly punt it if it even potentially lowered broadcast revenue. But it offers “improvements”, such as every group match having significance, if you believe group-winning means an easier first knock-out round draw (clearly assumed in Uefa’s Champions League…especially by Arsenal). This significance, however, is predicated on every match having a positive result, thereby avoiding final-match collusion, via penalty shoot-outs if necessary. And this idea, when goal difference potentially determines group standings, does not appear thought through. Three-team groups could produce, say, three one-one draws and one shoot-out win each. In such unusual but sub-freaky circumstances, the relative merits of shoot-out results would require quantification. Should, for example, an 8-7 win be better than a 5-4 win, as it would be in “normal” goal difference terms? The 5-4 win could include no misses, while the 8-7 might follow several. If the score is 5-3 with the losers having one penalty left, is that penalty taken?

The effect on confederation qualifiers appears equally ill/non-thought through. A headline objection is that 60% of South America qualifying, instead of the 50% who all-but-once reached 32-team finals, renders the qualifiers less dramatic and broadcast-worthy. But this is a by-product of geography. And if part of the solution to this “problem” is merging the North, Central (Concacaf) and South American (Conmebol) qualifiers, is that necessarily a bad thing? The Confederations’ leaderships have united in opposition, perhaps fearful that it would lead to the confederations’ merger and a dilution of their personal power. However, Laureano Gonzalez, a Conmebol vice-president, talked of “a suggestion from Gianni Infantino to unify the Conmebol and Concacaf qualifiers.” Done deal, then.

Support for and opposition to the proposals has come from predictably motivated sources, though I’ve yet to see support as sneeringly buffoonish as Samuel’s opposition. The New York Times has run supportive articles, perhaps mindful of the USA’s pole position in the race to host 2026. In addition to Smith’s article, James Montague wrote In Soccer’s Hinterlands, World Cup Expansion Opens a Door, for the NYT, quoting extensively from pro-expansion coaches of “smaller” footballing nations and… er… Bob Bradley (recently Egypt’s manager, before you ask). Netherlands-born coach Thomas Rongen had his mind changed by his experience with American Samoa. Having once taken the Samuel-esque view that “the best should play the best,” he now says “The game is the world’s game. Smaller countries deserve an opportunity to belong,” adding deliciously that: “A few games might need a mercy rule (but) that is the beauty of the game.”

Staunton also wrote on Goal.com of “a certain snobbishness in the assertion that opening the tournament up to new and developing football nations will somehow dilute the quality,” and asked “Are fans on all continents not equally entitled to savour the atmosphere that a World Cup can bring? Besides, won’t the best team win it anyway?” Even on-line news organisation Christian Science Monitor weighed in. Kirk Bowman, a soccer and global politics professor at Georgia’s Institute of Technology, noted eye-catchingly in David Iaconangelo’s article How Fifa’s World Cup expansion may make the games more global than ever that “If [African and Asian countries] can generate another $1bn off human capital provided by European teams, then they’re getting a big win.”

The problem with the above discussions is that Fifa’s Council simply didn’t have them. And the 32-team format was only a benchmark when it suited Infantino. It remains true, as Smith acknowledged in the NYT, that “with anything FIFA does, it is wise to locate the self-interest and work backward from there.” Yet the knee-jerk dismissal of the new format is a problem too. Money-grabbing and nakedly political though World Cup expansions always are, one flawed format has simply replaced another. And why shouldn’t any new format increase aspirations and finances of nations worldwide. It is a WORLD Cup after all.

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