Building up to a 48-team World Cup

In Russia, 13 countries represented by Asia, Africa and Central and North America mustered just 10 wins. The rising levels of inequality are a worry for the competitive balance, but a 48-team format may alleviate that concern by offering smaller teams the chance to play against the world’s best and develop.

The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha has been refurbished ahead of the 2022 World Cup.   -  AFP

The ending was biblical. In the downpour, Vladimir Putin had a brolly, one he didn’t want to share; French President Emmanuel Macron and FIFA president Gianni Infantino wore wetsuits, and Croatia’s head of state Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was in full campaign mode. As the thunder rumbled and the fireworks faded in the low-hanging mist above the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium, the skies were crying: they lamented the tournament’s end, Croatia’s defeat and all those who had fallen in the past four weeks – the Brazils and the Germanys, and my dear friend and Brazilian colleague Alexandre Abreu Gontijo, who passed away on the eve of the final.

Did they also rue the end of the World Cup as we know it? Long before that showpiece match, football’s global constituency had decided – somewhere in between France’s swashbuckling victory over Argentina and Belgium’s breathtaking first-half counterattacking against Brazil – that this World Cup was not just good or great, but simply the best. Indeed, Infantino praised the tournament as the best ever – football administrators tend to do that every four years.

The final mirrored the tournament: compelling and mildly crazy, but not superb. Nerve-shredding and engaging, but not of the highest quality. The video assistant referee and the set pieces were the determinants. Collectivism trumped individual flair and skills, even if there were moments of unfettered genius, including the ultimate teenage kick from and for Kylian Mbappe. However, as France prevailed, the established order survived after a soul-stirring four weeks. On the Eurasian border, Kazan had become the graveyard of the greats, with Germany, Argentina and Brazil all exiting Russia in Tatarstan.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who backed the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup, applied a tried-and-tested formula: expand and cash in.   -  AP

 

Those results revealed a more level playing field: the superiority of the traditional powerhouses shrank as the B-grade teams, including England, Belgium and the finalists, often resorted to playing on the counterattack. At the international level, the Barcelona model has been replaced by the Atletico Madrid philosophy. It’s simply the best strategy for smaller teams to go toe-to-toe with the elite sides. The competition made, arguably, for the best – neck and neck with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – 32-team format World Cup. Les Bleus won the first edition of the current format as well, on home soil in 1998 as Zinedine Zidane headed France to eternal glory against Brazil.

The World Cup has a long history of expansion. In 1930, 13 countries travelled to Uruguay for the maiden edition of the tournament. Gradually, the World Cup became bigger. FIFA, the governing body, has always backed its expansionist approach with a single rationale: world football needs more inclusiveness. That line of argument has been consistently at the heart of FIFA politics ever since Dr Joao Havelange, FIFA’s godfather and football’s first true autocrat, dethroned Stanley Rous as the organisation’s president in 1974. Havelange secured the game’s prime job on this ticket, and so did Sepp latter. Infantino has continued the tradition, delivering on his election manifesto promise to benefit smaller nations across the globe when early in 2017 FIFA expanded the World Cup to 48 teams for 2026 when the new format will be introduced.

The decision was aggrandising to both the World Cup and FIFA. A 48-team World Cup was projected, at the time, to bring in $6.495 billion in revenue and a profit of $640 million in 2026, when the new format is to be introduced. The United States, Canada and Mexico, awarded the hosting rights for the World Cup at the FIFA Congress on the eve of the Russia World Cup, have subsequently promised an even bigger El Dorado: a profit of $11 billion, all for the good of the game and for football’s development around the world.

Infantino, who backed the North American bid, applied a tried-and-tested formula: expand and cash in. It’s a foolproof manner of consolidating his power base in the vote-rich confederations and ensuring the financial future of FIFA, but does the development argument hold up on the field?

This was again a Euro-centric World Cup, at least in the outcome. All four semifinalists came from the old continent, reducing a global sporting competition to a European championship. In the last eight, Brazil and Uruguay represented South America, which last won a World Cup in 2002. Ever since, Europe – with Italy, Spain, Germany and France as winners – has been dominant.

Japan advanced to the round of 16, where it lost to Belgium.   -  AFP

 

It’s then that the South American confederation, CONMEBOL, is beginning to fade, rendered toothless by Europe’s financial power and industrialised recruiting model. Asia, Africa and the CONCACAF, grouping Central and North America, have never really challenged the ‘EuroSA’ hegemony.

In Russia, 13 countries represented these three regions, but they mustered just 10 match wins. Mexico and Japan advanced to the knockout stages, but were both eliminated in the round of 16. The rising levels of inequality in the global game are a worry for the competitive balance, but a 48-team format may alleviate that concern by offering smaller teams the chance to play against the world’s best and develop. Yet the dilution-of-quality argument is a stinging one: is it difficult to see what the performances of Panama and Saudi Arabia at this World Cup and the teams ranked below them in their respective regions at future World Cups add?

Qatar will host the next World Cup. In recent months, speculation has mounted whether West Asian country may host a 48-team World Cup after all, putting further pressure on it, as it has been geopolitically isolated by neighbour Saudi Arabia. CONMEBOL was keen on having more of its member associations at the World Cup and prodded FIFA with a proposal to expand the World Cup as early as 2022 to its new format. Infantino has entertained the idea and last week he kept the door ajar for an expanded 48-team tournament in four years, but the Qatari organisers have expressed confidence that the final decision over the number of participants will stay with them.

Irrespective of the format, Qatar has a tough act to follow. The World Cup no longer is the pinnacle of the sport, and yet in Russia it felt just that. The World Cup is the game’s ultimate thrill.