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World Cup will suffer for FIFA’s misguided expansion

Photo credit: AFP.

When the small Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago qualified for its first World Cup in November of 2005, the nation’s Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared a national holiday.

That same year, when the African country of Cote d’Ivoire qualified for its first finals, the country’s Civil War ground to a halt as its President agreed to open peace talks. The conflict ended for good shortly after the following year’s tournament ended.

For small countries, like Trinidad and Tobago, which has never returned to the sport’s showpiece event, and the Ivory Coast, which has now competed in three straight finals, that’s the power of World Cup qualification.

But with today’s news – FIFA’s unanimous decision to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting with the 2026 tournament – it might not be anymore.

The finals themselves will suffer. No one wants to see the United Arab Emerites play Germany, and the proposed group format – which would see two teams advance from groups of three – is a nightmare.

But a primary concern here is that a bigger World Cup will ruin qualifying. It will dilute the significance of qualification for smaller countries, but it will also, for all intents and purposes, erase the pressure of qualifying on bigger footballing nations.

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While the breakdown of bids per confederation is yet to be finalized, the expectation is that CONCACAF will, starting in 2026, send six or seven teams to the World Cup.

The drama of the Hexagonal? Forget about it. Starting for 2026, even if CONCACAF sent every team that qualified for the Hex to the World Cup, it’d still be short on its quota.

For bigger countries, it’s going to be nearly impossible to miss the tournament.

If 2018 were a 48-team Cup, two losses qualifying – like the two the US suffered in November – would be merely a blip, not a crisis the magnitude of which finally forced US Soccer President Sunil Gulati to fire manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

The incredible saga of Mexico’s qualification for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, sealed only when Graham Zusi scored for the US in Panama City on the final day of qualifying? Under the new format, El Tri would have skated in with room to spare.

That’s an incredible sporting loss. World Cup qualifying, as it currently happens, is one of the greatest spectacles in the sport. Going forward, it will be so diluted as to be unrecognizable.

It’s also going to hurt countries like the US on the field. Qualifiers currently account for some of the most competitive, high-stakes football the team gets during a four-year World Cup cycle.

Games in Columbus, or Mexico City, or San Pedro Sula, or San Juan aren’t going to be the same if there’s nothing truly on the line.

This will be true for nations all across the world, and it’s especially a shame when you consider that qualifiers are the highest-profile games that national teams play on their own soil and not in host countries.

Many of the great World Cup moments over the years have come before the knockout stages in the finals. The bar should be high to make it to a World Cup. It should be even higher to advance from the World Cup group stage.

Furthermore, the drama in a tournament like the World Cup is derived in large part from how small each team’s margin for error is. This update does not adhere to that truth.

Expansion, in itself, is not always – and often isn’t – a bad thing. The expansion that took the World Cup from 24 to 32 teams ahead of the 1998 tournament in France was a great success.

But where the format for 32 teams was straightforward and logical, the proposed format for 48 teams is awkward at best. The idea of adding penalty shootouts to the end of group stage matches is a joke.

FIFA, as usual, has not covered itself in glory. The governing body’s own research confirms that adding sixteen more teams to the tournament will negatively impact the quality of play. It’s pushing ahead with its plan nevertheless.

It is also likely no coincidence that the expansion announcement comes so soon after a Presidential election in which Gianni Infantino scored an upset victory by promising to increase revenues and make the World Cup more accessible to smaller nations.

When Infantino won, the general expectation was that he’d in turn increase the size of the World Cup, and in turn, the size of the financial pie. The World Cup already accounts for 80% of FIFA’s revenue, and the expansion is expected to net an extra $1 billion in 2026.

This is how politics have always worked at FIFA, and it’s certainly a boon for Infantino politically. But, considering the recent past, it’s not exactly easy to believe that all the new money will find its way into the proper coffers.

The expansion of the World Cup – which, in a purely sporting sense, was as close to perfect as any tournament in the world – is purely a money-grab.

There is no other way to look at it – and no other reason why anyone who suffered through an expanded Euro 2016 in which the champion, Portugal, didn’t win a single group game, would support World Cup expansion.

Money rules. Especially at FIFA. And, as a result, the crown jewel of the sports world is likely to suffer immensely.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. daniel

    January 11, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    then why dont we just have a cup with just european and south american teams then??? oh,thats right,ITS CALLED THE WORLD CUP. its not just about only the best teams,its about the world.

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