FIFA risks qual­ity of World Cup to bring more teams to party

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Dur­ing a 17-year FIFA pres­i­dency packed with mad­cap ideas and pol­icy on the hoof, not even Sepp Blat­ter ul­ti­mately tin­kered with the World Cup for­mat.

Blat­ter in­her­ited a 32-team World Cup when he en­tered power in 1998 and left — pre­ma­turely in dis­grace — with that struc­ture in­tact.

Gianni In­fantino, though, has barely put his feet be­neath the pres­i­den­tial desk be­fore over­haul­ing the big­gest en­tity un­der his con­trol: the money-spin­ning ex­trav­a­ganza that funds FIFA’s largesse and unites the world’s fans around tele­vi­sion screens.

Be­fore the first an­niver­sary of his elec­tion win, In­fantino’s rul­ing Coun­cil rub­ber-stamped his flag­ship man­i­festo pledge on Tues­day. From 2026, 16 more teams will be in­vited to the World Cup party.

Is it un­nec­es­sary in­ter­fer­ence with a suc­cess­ful for­mat? Or an im­por­tant move to en­sure FIFA’s main event grows at a pace with its swelling mem­ber­ship? That de­bate will con­tinue long af­ter the 2026 tro­phy is handed over, most likely in a swel­ter­ing Amer­i­can sta­dium.

What’s cer­tain is that a big­ger World Cup will gen­er­ate more cash — nearly $1 bil­lion in ad­di­tional rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to FIFA es­ti­mates. And there will be ad­di­tional places for un­der-rep­re­sented con­ti­nents like Africa, which only has five slots in Rus­sia in 2018 while Europe will have 14 fi­nal­ists de­spite be­ing sim­i­lar-sized con­fed­er­a­tions.

De­spite those ben­e­fits, there are many who have crit­i­cized the ex­pan­sion, par­tic­u­larly among the sport’s power na­tions. Their dis­mis­sive re­sponse risks giv­ing the im­pres­sion of an elite try­ing to mus­cle out the up­starts and pro­tect their gilded sta­tus.

Reign­ing world cham­pion Ger­many has been at the fore­front of the op­po­si­tion. For­mer Ger­many cap­tain Michael Bal­lack tweeted: "Ir­re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sion by #FIFA !! It’s an at­tack on #Foot­ball !!"

Quite why, Bal­lack didn’t find the space to ex­plain.

Even be­fore the FIFA Coun­cil de­ci­sion, Ger­many coach Joachim Loew was com­plain­ing about top play­ers be­ing "phys­i­cally and men­tally at their lim­its."

"You have to be care­ful that you do not overdo things with too many games," Loew said, seem­ingly un­aware that the 48-team for­mat adds no ad­di­tional bur­den for play­ers be­cause teams can still only play a max­i­mum of seven games.

Ger­man fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Rein­hard Grindel said: "My main worry is that the at­trac­tive­ness of the matches will suf­fer."

The Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship ex­panded from 16 to 24 fi­nal­ists for the first time last year and pro­duced sev­eral te­dious and in­stantly for­get­table games. The more lim­ited teams have be­come adept at de­fen­sive tac­tics de­signed to frus­trate more tal­ented op­po­si­tion and that can pro­duce stul­ti­fy­ing games. Watch­ing a team soak­ing up pres­sure, hop­ing to pounce on the break, is not ideal when try­ing to at­tract and re­tain TV view­ers.

And the new for­mat en­sures there will be fewer early eye-catch­ing head-to-heads be­tween lead­ing sides. With the tour­na­ment start­ing with 16 groups of three, the po­ten­tial 16 Euro­pean fi­nal­ists will be sep­a­rated. So there won’t be a re­peat of games like the group stage of 2014 when Ger­many played Por­tu­gal and Eng­land met Italy.

Maybe a new­comer can in­ject some fresh ex­cite­ment into the tour­na­ment in a way the tra­di­tional power na­tions can­not. In this decade, Eng­land has pro­duced drab, unin­spir­ing play de­spite a fresh crop of young play­ers.

"The gen­eral level of foot­ball is in­creas­ing all over the world," In­fantino said. "In­creas­ing the size of teams that can par­tic­i­pate in the World Cup will in­crease the in­vest­ment in foot­ball devel­op­ment."

This week’s World Cup vote was the cul­mi­na­tion of 14 months of public dis­cus­sion by In­fantino. The for­mer UEFA gen­eral sec­re­tary used his first in­ter­view as a FIFA can­di­date in Novem­ber 2015 to re­veal to The As­so­ci­ated Press his vi­sion of a 40-team World Cup. It turned out that a cleaner for­mat would be achieved with 48 teams.

So the num­ber of games leaps from 64 to 80 but the tour­na­ment is still com­pleted in 32 days and within 12 sta­di­ums.

Why tin­ker at all with the World Cup? Be­cause sport evolves.

It’s why the World Cup was cre­ated in the first place in 1930 — al­most six decades af­ter Eng­land and Scot­land played the first of­fi­cial in­ter­na­tional game.

It’s also why the tour­na­ment hasn’t re­mained re­stricted to the 13 teams who con­tested the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion in 1930.

Ex­pan­sion of the sport’s big­gest event is sign of the game’s vi­tal­ity. And, what­ever grum­bling there is, the top play­ers still don’t want to miss out.

The World Cup win­ner will have to win a tour­na­ment with 48 teams from 2026 Photo: AP

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