WHAT exactly is FIFA up to with regards to the World Cup? Is it hell-bent on destruction of what is supposed to be the premier football event on the planet?
Only this week in Dubai, FIFA President Gianni Infantino claimed the FIFA federations are all in favour of expanding the World Cup to 48 teams. Doubtless they have been won over – especially in the developing football worlds – by the promise of greater representation at the big event.
Infantino justifies his pursuit of self-induced obesity by citing the encouraging example of Costa Rica in 2014, but this is more a reflection of the poor showing of teams like England and Italy rather than any sustained progress of the Costa Ricans, however pleasing it might have been. Infantino seems to overlook a dilution of quality in favour of the financial and commercial potential of a bigger tournament.
Naturally, the suits of UEFA, CONMEBOL, AFC, CONCACAF, OFC and CAF may be reluctant to disagree with the top man over his plans for fear of losing benefits. But football has many stakeholders, not just the administrators who dine-out on the back of the game. FIFA officials are akin to career politicians – they make decisions based on preserving their own position by winning votes and support. From Joao Havelange’s ousting of old-time schoolmaster Sir Stanley Rous (a relative of GOTP) to Sepp Blatter’s stubborn and questionable reign, FIFA has been characterised by high finance, underhand dealing and political intrigue. Trust has been severely damaged and will take years to repair. Hopefully, Infantino is better than his predecessors, but the suggestion of 48 teams smacks of vote-catching and opportunism.
It does appear that football is not polling the right constituents when it comes to making plans for the future. In this age of spin and devious marketing, if you ask the people you know who will back you, you will come up with the answer you want. Talk to most football fans and it is a fair bet that they would be against a bigger World Cup. Why? Recent international competitions have mostly been damp squibs – too many weak teams, an overlong calendar and a plethora of meaningless fixtures, for which exorbitant ticket prices have been charged. If there is one thing that should be about elitism it is the composition of the World Cup – it doesn’t need to be an exercise in democracy. As we have reported before on Game of the People, major football tournaments have become more about the “event” rather than the football itself – just see how many “event management” people seem to be involved these days.
Corporate sponsors are likely to be enthused by a larger competition as it will extend their visibility across the globe. There is some delusion here, though, for most attendees pay little or no notice to the list of “official providers”. The logos are merely part of the wallpaper that gets pasted around the cities hosting games. If the sponsors do pervade the senses, it is because it is enforced. However, like it or not, the corporates probably have a louder voice than any supporters group today.
And what of the clubs? Surely they are totally against it. The argument of club versus country has been long lost by the national associations as the “super clubs”, glitzy by-products of TV broadcasting and the UEFA Champions League, heavily influence the agenda. Clubs are already hampered by the plethora of summer and mid-season tournaments that disrupt their campaigns – the next one being the African Cup of Nations – and they will also have to contend with the 2020 Qatar experience and the threat of realigned domestic programmes. Nobody will, quite rightly, feel too sympathetic about a little more stress for multi-millionaire hired hands, but the end product – which is what spectators pay for, after all – may suffer. The winners will be the TV companies, who will delight in a 48-team competition and all the peripheral income that comes with it.
What will be the benefits of having 48-teams? It is hard for anyone to look beyond FIFA’s insatiable appetite for money.
The FIFA in-house analysts believe that the best way to expand and maximise income is by introducing such a format. Infantino believes that this would increase interest for the competition in new markets – many of whom voted for the new FIFA president.
In a lengthy document that outlines the various options for the World Cup, Infantino’s preferred option is 48 nations spread across 16 groups of three. This would involve penalty shoot-outs to decide any drawn games. The groups would effectively eliminate just 16 teams – in other words, two of the three in each group would go through. From thereon, the World Cup would be a knock-out – one of the attractions of the Infantino plan. Here’s a run-down of the various options that will be voted upon on January 10 in Zurich:
|First stage||Second stage||Total number of games||Notes|
|48 teams||16 x groups of 3||Round of 32||80||USD 6.5bn revenue projection. 35-day tournament.|
|48 teams||Elimination round of 32 to determine 16 teams to be added to 16 seeds||8 x groups of 4||80||USD 6.32bn revenue projection. 39-day tournament.|
|40 teams||10 x groups of 4 (winners and six runners-up)||Round of 16||76||Lop-sided first stage qualification.|
|40 teams||8 x groups of 5||Round of 16||88||The weakest format with too many games.|
|32 teams||8 x groups of 4||Round of 16||64||FIFA acknowledge that this format has the highest absolute quality of performance.|
If anything, the World Cup needs slimming down. The optimal competition number is 16, but that will never appeal to the TV moguls. But if the qualifying stages became more global, there could still be significant mileage for the broadcasters. We all know, though, that once the horse has bolted….
There’s another aspect of a 48-team tournament that will have to be considered. Location. If the first 48-teamer is likely to be 2026, who can accommodate such a concept? The US, of course, which will offer a competition that is bound to be a financial success. In 2030, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the first Jules Rimet World Cup, FIFA should award the competition – either as co-host or outright – to little Uruguay. Now that would be a challenge. Listen to everyone, FIFA, has to be the message.
How the figures have stacked up:
|Total FIFA revenues||USD 4.8bn||USD 3.7bn||CHF 2.9bn||CHF 2.7bn|
|TV rights||USD 2.4bn||USD 2.4bn||CHF 1.7bn||CHF 1.6bn|
|Marketing||USD 1.6bn||USD 1bn||CHF 714m||CHF 840m|
|Hospitality||USD 184m||USD 120m||CHF 260m||CHF 105m|
|Licensing||USD 107m||USD 55m||CHF 92m||CHF 80m|
|Expenses||(USD 2.2bn)||(USD 1.3bn)||(CHF 881m)||(CHF 2.6bn)|