Since when has FIFA listened to what the fans want?
Their decision to push on and expand the World Cup Finals from 32 teams to 48 is diluting the competition as a whole, and will most likely mean that the European Championships, the Copa America and possibly the Cup of African Nations will have more meaning in terms of prestige. The Asian Cup is still regrettably a fair way behind these competitions.
There is already and argument that there is too much football being played and making the World Cup bigger by increasing the number of teams by 16 is going to lend weight to that argument. Many of the early group games will have little meaning with there being 16 Groups instead of eight. If teams are seeded, as they usually are, and then results go as one would expect, for the Top ten ranked teams the early games will be little more than warm up games.
It was in March 1996 that qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals in France commenced and they concluded in November 1997. For the first time in the history of the competition the group stage was expanded from 24 teams to 32, with eight groups of four.
It is interesting to look at how the bottom teams in these eight Groups have fared since the change.
1998 – two teams that finished last in their pool games failed to win or draw a single game. Five of the last placed teams drew one game and Cameroon drew 2 games. None of them won a single game.
2002 = Three teams who finished last in their pool failed to record even a draw. Three teams managed a single draw, while this time around two teams managed to record just one win in their three games, Poland and Ecuador.
2006 – In Germany four years later three teams failed to pick up a single point in their Group games and five teams only managed a single point courtesy of one draw. So no wins from the eight teams.
2010 – there were four teams in South Africa who only managed one draw in their three pool games. Serbia won one of their games, while defending Champions Italy managed two draws and North Korea and Cameroon failed to pick up any points.
2014 – The results for the bottom teams in each pool did not make better reading in Brazil where once again three teams out of the eight failed to pick up a point and five could only manage one draw from their three games.
If you look at the last tournament to consist of 24 teams, USA 94, two last placed teams in the pools failed to pick up a point in Greece and Morocco. Cameroon and Bolivia managed a draw each, Norway a draw and a win and Colombia a solitary win.
All in all since the tournament went to 32 teams it makes pretty depressing reading. In the 120 games played by the bottom placed teams over five tournaments only three wins have been recorded by the 40 teams. Which means that 37 teams have failed to win a game in 117 attempts! Hardly statistics to warrant increasing the size of the World Cup Finals.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been the man behind the move, and has continually said that the move is to make the World Cup “more inclusive”. Cynics believe that he is simply trying to stay true to promises made in the election for the FIFA Presidency where he promised the influential African nations more qualification slots at the World Cup.
Infantino would be well aware that he could not take any World Cup Finals berths off of the Europeans, even though there are now more nations attempting to qualify in Africa than there are in Europe. So the only chance he possibly had was to expand the competition.
To justify such a decision he has laid on the table the expected profits to be made. FIFA has been hurt financially in recent years with the scandals surround the FIFA Executive. According to FIFA research, it has been predicted that revenue will increase to UKL5.29bn for a 48-team tournament, which would mean a potential profit increase of UKL521m. If that profit is to be shared once again by the fat cats at the FIFA trough.
Campaign group New Fifa Now has not surprisingly described the expansion of the competition as “a money grab and power grab”. Infantino has countered by saying that “It’s not at all a money and power grab, it is the opposite, it’s a football decision.”
What has to be seriously considered is the potential impact on fans, players, teams and leagues. Despite there being nine years to go until the new format becomes applicable, the major concern is the qualification process will be diluted.
This could have a huge impact in a region such as Asia where if more Qualification spots are granted, and the qualification process is continued along similar lines, more games will become irrelevant, or expected foregone conclusions. Which could impact heavily on the numbers attending games and therefore on the revenue generated for the relevant associations. Also such games will have less television appeal.
Also sadly, qualification will cease to be the prestigious achievement that it was. Many will say that increasing the tournament to 32 teams has already lessened the kudos of qualification.
If however FIFA does away with qualification via the Confederations and opts to have a global pool to ensure that the best 48 teams are contesting the finals rather than a set number from every corner from the world, then there may possibly be some appeal.
However it still comes down to a numbers game. There are 212 FIFA associations across six Confederations. So with 48 places at the World Cup Finals that would mean that 22% of the FIFA Associations would qualify. This is almost up to Australian standards where in the AFL eight of the sixteen teams qualify for the finals, and in the A-League six of the ten teams make the finals!
The allocation of places has yet to be determined, and further discussions will follow across the confederations, but it has to be hoped that a proper consultation process will be carried out with all before any decision is made. By all, it is important that it is not just the various Associations and Confederations, but also the fans, television stations and media.
There is already a strong resistance to this move by FIFA and so it has to be managed carefully. If FIFA adopt a dictatorial position the game may see, as has already been suggested, a number of the Associations breakaway and form a new rival governing body for the game. It has been talked about a fair bit in the past five years as the scandals from the corridors of FIFA have come thick and fast, this could be the straw that breaks the camels back.
The clubs in the top leagues will not want the tournament to be extended as that will meant their top players playing more games. With Infantino claiming that the whole tournament will be concluded in 32 days they will also be concerned that the quick turnaround between games will impact on their assets; let alone the standard of football. Players themselves may well be concerned too about recovery times.
The top nations will want to protect their status as a top football nation and will be unlikely to welcome an increase in the teams, and run the risk of being toppled by a team ranked in the forties. They will also look closely at the commercial viability of the new format of the tournament.
The fans will be more interested in the integrity of the competition.
It was almost understandable in 1982 when the tournament was expanded from 16 teams to 24. This was many felt the right number of teams to be competing at a World Cup finals and the integrity and quality of the games was not affected; Barring West Germany v Austria in ’82.
The jump to 32 was promoted well and saw more places granted to Asia and Africa, but as the statistics have shown with only three wins from 120 games by the last teams in the pool games in five tournaments the quality may already be being affected.
If we break down the teams that came last after the group stages of the 40 teams over five tournaments over half came from Asia and Africa. The breakdown is as follows: Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF)- 6 teams eliminated at the Group stage, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) – 10 teams, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) – 13 teams, Confederation of African Football (CAF) – 10 teams and South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) – 1.
So is this a guide as to who should be given extra places? Does this confirm that 32 teams are enough?
It would appear in the aftermath of the announcement by FIFA yesterday that many feel this will be detrimental to the game as a whole and once again has been based on financial greed and possible election promises rather than on what is best for the game as a whole. Interesting times lay ahead for the FIFA President and his Executive in pushing this through to a reality.