Fifa de­ci­sion is NZ’s gain but the world’s loss

Taranaki Daily News - - Sport - ANDREW VOERMAN

OPIN­ION: Fifa’s de­ci­sion to ex­pand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 start­ing in 2026 means one of world sport’s great­est events is likely to be­come a shadow of its for­mer self.

And while the change may ap­pear to be good for New Zealand foot­ball, in that it will surely open up a di­rect route for a team from Ocea­nia to qual­ify, that is scant con­so­la­tion.

Many on­look­ers in this coun­try will be lick­ing their lips to­day, sali­vat­ing at the prospect of see­ing the All Whites at the World Cup once again, even if it takes an­other nine years.

But if they do get there, and it’s no sure thing, it will be a World Cup in name only, noth­ing like the one fans from all around the world look for­ward to ev­ery four years at present.

As it has been since 1998, the 32-team World Cup is a thing of sim­plis­tic beauty. It takes two weeks for ev­ery­one to play ev­ery­one else in their four-team group, then half of them ad­vance to the knock­out stages, and the other half go home.

The knock­out stages then take an­other two weeks them­selves, and so in the space of a month, one na­tion is crowned the world’s best.

From 2026 on­wards, it prom­ises to be a bloated, ugly mess.

Start with the fact that it will take 48 games to re­duce 48 teams to 32, with two teams from ev­ery group of three ad­vanc­ing to the knock­out stages.

Then con­sider that with three­team groups, there will be un­bal­anced sched­ules, with some teams get­ting more rest than oth­ers; and a de­cent chance that those play­ing in the fi­nal group match may have ei­ther al­ready qual­i­fied or be able to ar­rive at a re­sult that suits them both.

Even with 32 teams, there are al­ways a hand­ful who stand no chance of even mak­ing a splash, let alone win­ning the thing.

Adding 16 more just like them will do noth­ing ex­cept di­lute the qual­ity.

There will be more coun­tries, es­pe­cially in Africa and Asia, that get to go for the first time, but the event that at­tracted them in the first place will be los­ing its lus­tre.

For the first time, Ocea­nia will be guar­an­teed a place at the ta­ble, with its cur­rent half a place very likely to be­come a whole one, but while many will con­sider that place ‘‘cast in stone’’ to go to New Zealand, as for­mer All White Brian Turner put it when speak­ing to Fair­fax Me­dia on Tues­day, for­give me if I’m not so cer­tain.

Ex­pand­ing the World Cup to 48 teams will mean big changes for the struc­ture of world foot­ball, so there’s ev­ery chance the qual­ity of the Pa­cific is­land na­tions might change too - and my hunch is that it will, for the bet­ter.

Un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, when the All Whites start out along the long and wind­ing path to­wards the World Cup, they know there’s a great chance that at the end of that jour­ney, in the in­ter-con­ti­nen­tal play­off, there will be an op­po­nent they only have a slim chance of beat­ing.

When the likes of Pa­pua New Guinea, New Caledonia and the Solomon Is­lands start out along that path, they know that too, and they know they have an even slim­mer chance, so slim as to be nonex­is­tent.

But they also know there’s an­other dif­fi­cult op­po­nent they have to deal with first - us.

When the 2026 qual­i­fiers be­gin, it will be only us, though, and so, in a rel­a­tive sense, their task will have be­come a whole lot eas­ier. You only have to look at the last two Ocea­nia Na­tions Cups, or Novem­ber’s qual­i­fy­ing draw in New Caledonia to know that we’re not in­vin­ci­ble.

It is the dream of ev­ery young foot­baller to go to a World Cup, and two gen­er­a­tions of New Zealan­ders have been lucky enough to have it be­come a re­al­ity, the first in Spain in 1982, the sec­ond in South Africa in 2010.

Turn­ing it from a dream to re­al­ity has been al­most in­con­ceiv­able for the rest of Ocea­nia, but with ex­pan­sion con­firmed, it just be­came a whole lot more likely.

The All Whites al­ready have a tar­get on their backs when­ever they play in Port Moresby, or Noumea, or Suva, and when this new era ar­rives, it will only grow larger, be­cause the po­ten­tial re­ward will be all the more greater.

If any of them do ever get there - New Zealand will re­main heavy favourites - it will be a spe­cial day for them and they will cher­ish it.

Partly be­cause, rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent though it may be, it is still the World Cup.

And partly be­cause they won’t know any dif­fer­ent.

The same can’t be said of us, be­cause we have 1982 and we have 2010.

The team of 2026 may well go on and join them.

But when they get there, they will look around, and I’ll bet they’ll be won­der­ing, at least a bit, what ex­actly all the fuss was about.

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