WE ALL know that FIFA is a political beast and that FIFA grandees are all fully paid-up members of the self preservation society, but in this time of populist movements and tales of the unexpected, we should not be surprised that football’s worldwide controlling body has voted to increase the size of the World Cup by an astonishing 50%.
This latest FIFA decision will probably be looked upon, in hindsight, as the moment Europe lost its place as the most influential segment of world football. As we have said before, football eventually mirrors society and economics. Europe’s time has passed, it is no longer the growth engine it once was in the global economy. It is a somewhat troubled region and the most significant financial clout these days is coming from Asia Pacific and the Middle East. The decision to expand the World Cup to an unmanageable four dozen may well be aimed at pleasing the crowd – the mob with full wallets and sponsorship potential. It may, equally significantly, be the moment that we started to hand over the keys to the football kingdom to the United States.
A 48-team competition requires a venue that can comfortably play host. That rules out most of Europe on an individual basis, Africa, Asia and South America. Apart from a couple of joint hosts, the only nation that can handle such a tournament is…the United States. And the penalty shoot-out at every stage, including group games, will absolutely play to that audience. What price the FIFA World Soccer Cup?
Cynicism aside, Gianni Infantino and his acolytes may just be trying to be ultra PC after a period when FIFA’s credibility has been shot to pieces. By embracing all, Infantino can win friends in all corners of the world by handing-out extra places for the developing regions. It will not be UEFA that greatly prospers from the extra 16 places, more likely Asia and Africa will be the beneficiaries. FIFA knows where the bread is likely to be buttered in the future.
This won’t improve the quality of the competition, far from it, but it will promote the inclusion agenda and also make global TV broadcasters happy. Most World Cups since 1986 have been disappointing, lacking in invention and energy and increasingly, a case of style over substance. A 48-team format is not going to improve that, but it will win votes for Infantino when he comes up for re-election.
Taking a different view, was it not time to expand the World Cup to reflect the far greater numbers seeking qualification? Consider that the 2018 World Cup qualifying stages, which are now in progress, include no less than 210 teams from six confederations, with 31 places up for grabs – less than 15% of the members can qualify. Compare that to 1986 when there were 121 teams gunning for 22 berths (18%), 1970 when 14 places from 75 were available (19%) and 1950 when 14 slots from 36 were on offer (39%). Let’s assume there will be 46 qualifiers for 2026 from 210, that’s 22%, far more than 2018. There’s an argument that a bigger World Cup is serving a greater percentage of FIFA’s members, but there is also justification in championing a more sophisticated and diverse qualifying regime that actually reduces the size of the competition. And if that sounds like elitism then you’re right – World Cups should be about pitting the very best against each other, not box-ticking exercises.
However the 48-teamer manifests itself, it is clear that football is no longer the only consideration for the World Cup. It is possibly all about “the event” and a new type of audience. I met a lot of people at Euro 2016 and invariably, people talked of the atmosphere, the buzz and just “being there”. “The greatest football experience of my life,” was how one millennial described being in France. “The stadiums, the crowds, the fan parks…fantastic.”
It’s nice to see happy people, but what of the football itself? Euro 2016 was a dull tournament, ending in anti-climax, unless you were from Lisbon or Porto! UEFA, doubtless, considered it a success. From a football perspective, it was a damp squib.
And if we are not careful, this is the shape of future World Cups. Lots of smiling faces, cartoon characters, fan engagement and “official partners” all over the place, all playing their part in a “successful” event that just happens to have some football being played every day. If that’s the way future generations want the competition to go, then so be it, but when Jules Rimet started this wonderful project 87 years ago, it was all about putting the world’s best footballers on the field of play. They didn’t need kick-off countdowns, Mexican waves and DJs. The entertainment was purely on the pitch.