The World Cup will exist forever; sometimes change is good

Fifa Council have voted unanimously to expand the tournament to 48 teams from 2026

Former Argentina soccer star Diego Maradona calls expanding the World Cup an 'excellent idea' after playing a game at FIFA HQ in Switzerland. Video: Reuters


Fifa has been here before. Accused of trying to fix something that is not broken, criticized for abandoning the tried and tested for the unwieldy and unwanted, told it is sacrificing quality for quantity, warned that it is greed that tends to kill off the goose that lays the golden eggs.

More than once, in fact: In the late 1970s, when its upstart new president, João Havelange, vowed to end Europe’s hegemony on World Cup places and include more teams from Africa and Asia. In the 1990s, when he repeated the trick, expanding the tournament from 24 to an apparently cumbersome 32.

Both decisions were 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, Fifa was told. The new inclusions would not be up to scratch. The competition would lose its luster, and with it would go the fans.

Ever since Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s current president, in October raised the specter of another expansion, in 2026 — to 48 teams from the current 32 — the complaints have been the same. His air of quiet confidence ever since suggests he knew what the outcome will be, too. The World Cup’s history is littered with spurts of growth. What happened when Fifa’s governing council met in Zurich on Tuesday was simply the latest.

As a rule of thumb, with anything Fifa does, it is wise to locate the self-interest and work backward from there. Such is the price the organization pays for decades of boiler-room horse-trading, of cash-filled envelopes and thinly veiled nepotism, followed by years of dawn raids and arrest warrants and corruption charges. Few are predisposed to believe it is capable of acting, as the slogan goes, for the good of the game.

In this case, it would be relatively easy, too. The prime beneficiary of Infantino’s plan would appear to be Infantino himself: Expanding the World Cup, particularly to benefit the countries of Africa and Asia and the Caribbean, is an act of patronage straight from the playbook written by Havelange and perfected by Sepp Blatter, whom Infantino succeeded. It would place much of soccer’s developing world in Infantino’s debt, cementing his position and securing a power base.

Infantino is not the only one, however, who would do well from an expansion. Fifa sent a 65-page document to its council members in recent weeks, analyzing five possible options for future World Cups: the current 32-team format; a 40-team competition consisting of eight groups of five or 10 groups of four; a 48-team tournament with a play-in round before a 32-team group stage; and a 48-team tournament with 16 groups of three teams and an extra knockout stage – the option that was unanimously passed in Zurich.

Though the document explicitly stated that Fifa must make a decision purely for “sporting” reasons, rather than commercial ones, it is hard to believe it is a coincidence that the model adopted is also the one that is projected to swell Fifa’s coffers by as much as a billion dollars.

That is an extra billion dollars that could be rerouted to confederations, and on to member nations, across the world. It is money that would be used, in theory, to bolster infrastructure and improve facilities, to spread a little of the wealth generated by the world’s biggest sporting event to every corner of the globe. That is, after all, how all Fifa money is spent, in theory.

And yet that does not adequately explain Infantino’s confidence. He has heard the usual rumblings of discontent from the European Club Association, the body that looks after the interests of the biggest professional teams in Europe, and even from Germany’s soccer association, the DFB, suggesting that there are considerable problems with all of the proposed models, and he has batted them all away.

“There are only upsides,” Infantino said last year — implying that was not only sure he ha the support, but that he is in the right, too.

In his technical report from the 1966 World Cup — one of the old-style tournaments: 16 teams, dominated by Europe and South America, with just one team from Asia and, after a boycott, none from Africa — Switzerland’s coach, Alfredo Foni, wrote that the tournament “will have attained its aim only when the five continents are effectively represented, football being the most universal of sports.”

That is what the alterations of the last 40 years have aimed to do: address the longstanding imbalance between soccer’s traditional powers and its emerging nations. It is — whether for the right or the wrong reasons — what Infantino’s measures are intended to build on.

There are 54 member nations of Uefa, Europe’s confederation. Thirteen of them, as well as Russia, as host, will qualify for the 2018 World Cup. There are 56 member nations of CAF, the African governing body. There are only five spaces available to them. Asia’s 47 national federations have only four guaranteed spots, as many as are allocated to South America, which boasts only 10 members.

Though the concentration of quality in Europe and South America is unquestionably far higher, the idea that the World Cup should be only for the very best teams is one that has traction only in isolated spots. Elsewhere, it seems elitist; exclusive in its most pejorative sense.

It is hard to argue that either Africa or Asia is “effectively represented” at the World Cup. The tournament, in its current guise, struggles — in Foni’s words — to “attain its aim” of showcasing a universal sport.

That is not to say that there are not problems with the newly adopted model. The qualification process in Europe and South America, certainly, will be stripped of what little drama it currently has, though many might observe that that is no great loss. Fifa itself has acknowledged that having an odd number of teams in each group is less than ideal; the suggestion that tied games in the group stages might be settled by penalty shootouts is anathema to most fans.

And by abolishing simultaneous kickoff times, the risk of corruption in the final group games is undeniably increased. It does feel messy and drawn out compared with the neatness of the current tournament format.

The fine detail, of course, will be harder to iron out. One proposed model would see Europe given 16 guaranteed spaces, Africa nine, Asia eight, North America and South America six apiece and Oceania one, with two others decided through intercontinental playoffs.

There is, though, a consensus that the time has come for another change, that the World Cup must start to reflect the world — both real and sporting — of the 21st century, not that of the late 20th. That is what the World Cup does: It expands and grows and blossoms and becomes something else. The World Cup has not existed as it is forever; nor should it expect to. There was nothing wrong with the 32-team format. But sometimes, hard as it is to admit, Fifa is right to change.

(New York Times service)

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