Rory Smith: grow the World Cup

Rory Smith is a Four­fourtwo colum­nist and chief foot­ball cor­re­spon­dent at the New York Times. This month: why big­ger is bet­ter for foot­ball’s top prize

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The mo­ment from 2016 that will stay with me the long­est is not the sight of Le­ices­ter City’s play­ers, cap­tured on Chris­tian Fuchs’ mo­bile, cel­e­brat­ing the least likely league ti­tle win in English his­tory while to­gether in Jamie Vardy’s – just as im­prob­a­ble, really – sur­pris­ingly nice kitchen. It is not the sight of Wes Mor­gan, Cham­pi­onship stal­wart, lift­ing the Premier League tro­phy. Nor is it the sight of Clau­dio Ranieri stand­ing proudly along­side An­drea Bo­celli, in­struct­ing those in the King Power Sta­dium to bask in the sheer power of Nes­sun Dorma. With­out doubt, they are his­toric mo­ments – mo­ments that took the breath away – but they’re a close sec­ond.

For all of the emo­tions Le­ices­ter sum­moned, led by the sense that we were wit­ness­ing some­thing unique, some­thing that we will re­count in many years to come (“Grandad, tell me again about the time Nathan Dyer won the Premier League”), there was one mo­ment in 2016 that, in its pu­rity, edged it.

When UEFA de­creed, back in 2009, that they would be ex­pand­ing the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship from 16 to 24 teams, they were ridiculed. More teams would di­lute the qual­ity, we were told. That was what it made special: only the elite were al­lowed in. With no room for er­ror, you had to hit the ground run­ning.

Now, they said, the com­pe­ti­tion would drag on end­lessly. The group stages would be mean­ing­less; stripped of drama, all re­ward and no risk. And the last 16 would be full of mis­matches, with the game’s gi­ants tak­ing on tin-pot statelets. Al­ba­nia? What do they know about foot­ball? Wales? Be se­ri­ous.

And then, on June 27, Ice­land beat Eng­land and the world was never quite the same again.

That night might be an un­wel­come mem­ory to many, but if you put pa­tri­otic con­cerns aside, it also show­cased much of what it is that makes foot­ball so special: the un­pre­dictabil­ity and the ro­mance, and the feel­ing that no, ac­tu­ally, this can­not pos­si­bly be hap­pen­ing; the courage and dar­ing of Ice­land’s play­ers; the eu­phoric ma­nia of Gud­mundur Benedik­ts­son, the Ice­landic TV com­men­ta­tor who sud­denly had to find words with which to de­scribe the im­pos­si­ble. And then, when the flash of light­ning had earthed and the haze had cleared: there was the thun­der­clap.

There is a cynic inside all foot­ball sup­port­ers; an in­stinc­tive desire, par­tic­u­larly in this era of man­u­fac­tured drama and con­fected hype, to scoff and de­ride the new and dif­fer­ent. That cynic had lit­tle to say about the thun­der­clap. It was a demon­stra­tion of unity, of spirit, and came dressed up as some sort of Vik­ing rit­ual. What more could you want? Le­ices­ter was more mirac­u­lous, but this was more mov­ing.

It was also a vindication. The ex­panded for­mat of Euro 2016 had not brought the dragged-out dis­ap­point­ment many had pre­dicted. True, the foot­ball was not al­ways of the high­est qual­ity. True, not ev­ery game was thrilling. At the same time, though, the new setup meant that most teams went into their re­spec­tive fi­nal group games with some hope of qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

Most of the most dispir­it­ing sides were from es­tab­lished na­tions – well done, Ukraine and Swe­den – and most of the up­lift­ing ones, such as Ice­land, Wales and even Al­ba­nia, were from the new wave. It’s true sev­eral would have earned a place au­to­mat­i­cally, but they would not have ap­proached qual­i­fi­ca­tion with such be­lief had the mar­gins been as fine as usual.

Ex­pand­ing tour­na­ments, then, is not al­ways a bad thing. We should know that by now: af­ter all, there were only eight teams in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship as re­cently as 1992, and 24 in the World Cup in 1994.

It is right that, as the world changes, tour­na­ments adapt to re­flect that. There are more coun­tries in Europe now, fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, so there should be more teams in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship.

Like­wise, the stan­dard in Africa, Asia, North Amer­ica and Ocea­nia has in­creased suf­fi­ciently to make the sug­ges­tion from FIFA’S pres­i­dent, Gianni In­fantino, that the World Cup should ex­pand to 40 or 48 teams at least have a sem­blance of logic to it.

FIFA are ex­pected to vote on the changes at an ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee meet­ing in early Jan­uary. When Eng­land come to de­fend their World Cup tro­phy in 2026 – yes, Greg Dyke, we re­mem­ber – they may find they have to do so in a sub­stan­tially larger tour­na­ment: one with a pre­lim­i­nary qual­i­fier be­fore the group stage, for ex­am­ple.

Should they de­cide on change, FIFA will hear all of the crit­i­cism that was di­rected at UEFA: that the new tour­na­ment will be bloated, de­val­ued, faintly chaotic. That may well prove to be true. In­fantino doesn’t seem to have a clear idea what an ex­panded World Cup would look like, or how it would work.

But it is worth re­mem­ber­ing Ice­land, Wales, and the oth­ers. Per­haps a World Cup with 40 teams in it would pro­vide us with more mo­ments like those – mo­ments of power and mean­ing and beauty. And per­haps, in that case, it would be worth it.


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