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
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.
ICELAND WERE A VINDICATION OF THE DECISION TO EXPAND EURO 2016. A 40 TEAM WORLD CUP COULD WELL BE WORTH IT