The World Cup is expanding. But is it such a good thing?
On Wednesday, FIFA announced a decision that pretty much every pundit, player, supporter, and official saw coming:that the World Cup would be expanded from 32 to 48 teams. The lion’s share of additional berths would go to the Confederations of Africa, Asia, North America, and let’s suppose Oceania who will be receiving their first-ever automatic bid.
Now as has become policy for whenever FIFA makes a decision like this the first and immediate reaction is to denigrate the decision. Perhaps it is the number of indictments of elected officials in recent years or perhaps it is their recent decision to award World Cups in Qatar and Russia, two beacons of human rights.
No matter the reason FIFA does not have exactly the best record in recent years at making decisions for honorable reasons. They may claim noble motives but history has proven there is almost always a catch. The loosening of seats seems to be a move that will benefit large markets in Asia and Africa. Make of that what you will although it should be noted that all FIFA members get an equal share of the revenue generated from the World Cup. So it is not as if China will be the only country profiting from this deal.
But from a footballing perspective there is a lot to like about this deal. But to find this deal appealing a myth has to be broken: that football during the World Cup is often very good. Think long and hard about this for a second and think about how many World Cup matches you have watched where a quality game took place.
Leave all of the pageantry aside and think about the actual game itself. For as much as Americans love to remember Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in World Cup 2010 we forget the simple matter that the game was quite dire. A nice moment for sure and certainly an important moment in U.S. Soccer history but a poor game.
So the watered down hypothesis doesn’t hold because the tournament is already watered down. It is watered down by players playing in multiple different competitions every year for both club and country and by officials who want to move the competition to exotic locations.
Let’s also end the myth that the World Cup is the true measure of what the best football team is in the world. No, that is the UEFA Champions League where teams spend billions of dollars to compete for the top dollar. When World Cup sides are having difficulty paying their players (or simply not choosing to) that should lower the expectations of supporters as to the measure of the tournament. But alas the colors of one’s country still carry more value than a club crest. The World Cup is a spectacle, a grand cultural event, and a pretty decent soccer tournament.
But the best? No.
And that is okay.
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The big question that FIFA have to ask themselves is: just who is the World Cup for? Is it for the fans of the countries of Europe, South America, and a select few here and there? Or do they have a responsibility to expand and open up opportunities for other countries as well? It is something that not too many other sports organizations have because they do not operate on the scope of FIFA.
Outside of the Olympics no other organization really works in as many places as the footballing organization. Those from larger countries might not like to hear it but the smaller countries have a voice in this decision-making process. As a bloc they work much more effectively to steer FIFA in a direction that at least on the surface gives them greater opportunities for noble reasons.
If we look at this deal from the lens of what it can do for the global game there are certainly some things to like. This deal gives teams particularly in Africa and Asia greater opportunities to not just make a token World Cup appearance but to build their programs and their identity. It will also give players more of a chance to show what they can do on a larger stage. The World Cup bump may not be what it once was for players but it still carries some value.
The current model as it stands does not give a country like say Japan the chance to win as say a Gibraltar. That Asian sides have to go through multiple different levels of qualification while Gibraltar has to go through one round shows the fallacy of this supposed flawless qualification system.
It is not flawless, it has never been flawless, and it only works for a handful of sides. In 2014, Mexico sleepwalked their way through CONCACAF qualifying and still somehow barely managed to qualify. Meanwhile Egypt had to play through a civil war, two rounds of difficult qualification then face Ghana of all sides to qualify. A bit disproportionate?
There is also the cultural aspect that those opposed to this move seem to be missing. What has made recent World Cups so much more interesting than those in the past is the variety of teams that have come to play. It is a chance to watch football from different parts of the world that one might not necessarily get a chance to see on an everyday basis.
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Globalization has certainly helped in terms of bringing in new players from foreign countries. But still every four years there seems to be one new or exciting team or player that takes the tournament by storm. That will not change under this new model because it hasn’t changed any other time the World Cup has expanded.
In the end, FIFA’s past indiscretions have damaged any credibility in their decision-making. Whether expansion was made for the greater good of the game will be determined down the road when the organization faces another crisis. In the meantime let’s think about some of the supporters who now have a chance to dream that their country may finally make the World Cup.