FIFA’s mad ideas for changing the World Cup format
Four ideas for a changed World Cup were put forward in Singapore on Thursday, and of course, representatives of the national federations from Asia, Oceania and Europe backed the worst possible one: a tournament with 48 teams in 16 groups of three. “The big, big, big majority is in favour of the 48 teams with the 16 groups of three,” a happy Gianni Infantino said.
The FIFA president would have expected as much. The expansion to 48 teams and a system that guarantees at least two games for every participant was always going to prove hugely popular. More teams equals a better chance to qualify, a better chance to take part, to make money. Looking at it dispassionately, you could say that the representatives of the federations were duty-bound to support that format. It’s manifestly in their own interest to maximise their sporting and financial opportunities.
There is a general case to be made for wider participation, too. FIFA’s membership has swelled from 85 members in 1954 to 201 in 2016. As membership numbers have risen, more and more countries have missed out under the current format of 32 teams, introduced in 1998. It’s understandable that they want to take part, especially after seeing UEFA expand their Euros to 24 teams this year.
Faced with pressure from both sides, from associations who want in and clubs who don’t want longer tournaments, the 16-group idea was dreamt up to placate everyone. The new tournament, Infantino said, would still be over in 32 days and lead to maximum of seven games, for the four semi-finalists.
Nevertheless, it’s a proposition of rank stupidity. Countless corruption scandals and rabid commercialism have not diminished people’s appetite for the World Cup but a system that potentially undermines the sporting integrity of the competition might well do it, finally.
And here’s the problem. Under the Infantino proposal, a typical group of three at the 2026 World Cup could look like this.
- Argentina (first in the FIFA rankings)
- Netherlands (22nd)
- Senegal (33rd)
In the first game, Argentina and Senegal play out a cautious 1-1 draw.
In the second game, the Netherlands beat Senegal 2-0.
In the third game, Argentina and the Netherlands… need a point each to go through at the expense of Senegal. What would the result of such a game be, you think, in all likelihood?
FIFA lowered the possibility of collusion significantly when they ensured that the last round of games in groups of four were played simultaneously from 1986 onwards. Since then, we’ve had - with the exception of 2002 - quiet tournaments, with no real on-the-pitch foul play and certainly no repeat of the shameful shenanigans of West Germany v Austria in Spain 1982.
By turning the clock back to the bad old days, FIFA risk making the group stages a giant turn-off. It’s one thing if the preliminary rounds are boring because almost everybody goes through - see Euro 2016 - but quite another to see games that aren’t games at all, as the expediency of the right result precludes any attempts at winning.
On Friday, Times reporter Martyn Ziegler revealed that FIFA were considering penalty shoot-outs for every group game to avoid the scenario above. No more draws then. But what happens if the three teams each win one shoot-out? Or if they each win one game 1-0? The group stage will be rendered absurd.
Such purely sporting concerns are unlikely to cut much ice with Infantino and the federations. FIFA only listens when money talks. So it’s down to the TV companies to pick up the phone and dial Zurich, urgently, ahead of FIFA’s Council meeting on January 9th, when the format change will be voted on. Broadcasters should make it clear that they won’t stand for this madness.