Thought Trails: A World Cup with 40 Countries?
“We need more African and Asian [countries in the World Cup]. But instead of taking away some European, we have to go to 40 teams. We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American, one Oceania and one from Europe.” - Michel Platini
Eric: My initial, even visceral reaction: “No! Stop ruining the game!” And I think that’s well-founded, considering the fact that Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter would be at the core of this effort. Should we trust them to act in the best interest of fans and the game in general? Hahahaha, I’m not answering that question. But rather than immediately reject and dismiss the notion, let’s talk about the bit of substance behind this idea.
Maxi: Exactly. People seem to zero in on this notion that a larger World Cup will necessarily dilute the talent level, but as we’ve seen during this qualification cycle, there are certainly teams who would add color to the World Cup, that are simply not going to make the cut. Portugal? Sweden? Maybe Mexico (ugh)?
At this point, Blatter and company have been focused on this idea of promoting soccer to those markets where the sport doesn’t maintain a cultural tradition. Whether it’s South East Asia or specifically the United States in the 1990s, there’s nothing inherently wrong in specifically marketing the sport and the World Cup as a way to grow the game. That said, going to 40 teams doesn’t exactly hit the mark. Sure, Israel or Armenia might be able to sneak into the World Cup, but does that really accomplish much in the way of expanding the sport, besides opening the gate to a few already soccer-obsessed fringe countries? In other words, if we accept that expanding the World Cup is a method to grow the sport, are an additional 8 teams the best way to accomplish that goal?
Eric: It all comes down to how these extra spots are distributed, for me. Are there excellent, soccer-loving nations in Africa missing out on Brazil next summer? Sure. Would an extra spot for Asian countries really dilute the talent in a World Cup? Not really, though there are problems when North Korea is consistently considered a power. Are a couple of South American teams more deserving of being with the best than in CONCACAF of Asia? Probably. I’m not against expansion, though 8 is a huge leap. Qualifying for the World Cup is special, and while some countries may expect to be there every time, fans understand that there’s always a possibility of missing out. Does a sense of entitlement increase with expansion? Doubtful. But at the same time, it would be a tragedy if fans stop celebrating the fact that their side has the opportunity to compete in the biggest tournament in sports.
Maxi: As you said, it really comes down to the allocation method. Two additional spots in Europe are unlikely to change the way that fans currently perceive the qualification process. Talented teams will still have to go to a playoff, and a number of squads will miss out. That said, if Concacaf had an extra spot, Mexico would have strolled into the World Cup on the back of their worst performance in decades.
That said, inter-Confederation bickering will always be around, no matter the number of teams in the World Cup. Is this where I start campaigning for a wildcard tournament in which all the bubble countries take part? Probably. Unfortunately, I think part of the cynicism comes from the perception that this is only a way for FIFA to further line their pockets.
E: Which, again, is a legitimate perception. If Iceland and Armenia can slip into the World Cup, will stadiums actually be filled for their matches? It’s possible, but based on what we saw in South Africa, many of the matches that didn’t feature superpowers were barely half full. When the world’s biggest spectacle isn’t selling out, there’s a problem that needs to be solved. Again, that’s a multifaceted issue. Could two relatively obscure nations sell-out a 60,000 seat venue in Germany? I wouldn’t bet against it. But in Russia or Qatar? Sorry, there’s just no way.
M: Following that train of thought, and I don’t want to take this too far, but 8 additional teams are sure to extend the length of the tournament. An extra match-day for each group?
E: That seems to most reasonable way to do it. A World Cup-winning team only plays 7 matches as it is. I’m not sure extending to 8 is particularly unimaginable, and if it increases the number of opportunities for nations to get points and progress, I’m sure many fans would be completely for it. There’s nothing worse than your side losing on matchday 1 and knowing you need to rely on others to advance.
M: And while attendance concerns are something that should always be taken seriously, especially in terms of the burden placed on the hosting nation, the World Cup is primarily a televised tournament. Besides pre-match infographics and color in the terraces, the tournament is made for those at home. So long as a match impacts advancing, fans will watch.
Besides, the concern over two “minnows” playing one another is something that only privileged fans obsess over. Privileged in the sense that fans assume their teams will advance to the next round. We constantly talk about soccer as being a sport that can build communities and relationships, and that focuses upon inclusivity. If we’re to take that seriously, is it really that wrong to let a few more fans enjoy a few games?
E: I’m all for inclusivity, and there’s nothing worse than a fan who only supports a Brazil or Spain because they know their country has no feasible chance of going to the World Cup. But can the tournament retain an elite - in terms of quality - status with that many teams? Ultimately, the best will always rise to the top. We’ll still have Germany vs Spain or something along those lines in the semis. Adding teams may prevent Groups of Death, but won’t prevent marquee match-ups. The privileged fan is an interesting paradox. Do they want to watch quality matches? Of course. Will they be intrigued by sides that not many know much about? Absolutely.
More teams means more potential storylines, which any writer will appreciate. In fact, there are so many journalists I know who cherish the opportunity to follow a side that hasn’t been beaten to death by hyperbole and excessively repetitive storylines. Still, we can’t overlook the less romantic reasons for bringing this format into existence. Cash rules this sport.
M: More games and more teams means larger television contracts, more localized sponsorships and overall, a slightly larger revenue stream to FIFA that won’t be transparent in any way. If we can agree that a few more teams won’t damage the credibility of the tournament, I think it’s important that fans demand transparency to accompany any changes.
Where will FIFA’s additional revenue go? Those countries that sneak into the tournament? Where will their income go? At a functional level, the issue that accompanies those extra teams is that a portion are liable to have revenue simply disappear when it should be reinvested. So fans need to demand reform, but is that a realistic goal?
E: I guess this is a two-step process. Step 1: Reform. Until that happens, everything will be met with relentless skepticism. As we’re discussing this, there’s a clear path towards using extra teams and extra revenue as a way to support the smaller footballing nations. But to think that increased revenue will lead to increased distribution is idealistic to the point of ignorance. It’s difficult to do with the current state of the game’s governing body, but we need to circle back on the question here, in itself: Is adding 8 teams to the World Cup really detrimental for anyone outside of football purists?
Players will play in more games over their careers, and goalscoring records will likely be broken because of that. But can we get past that and think about the larger opportunity?
M: To put it as simply as possible: 8 additional teams doesn’t make that much of a difference, besides causing a bit of a vehement response because of change. A few extra games? A few extra teams? Greater potential for upsets? Sign me up.
From my perspective, the World Cup has always been about the diversity that exists amongst fans of soccer. Making that community a bit larger could be wonderful.
E: “Could be” is the key. Sponsors won’t stop FIFA if they’re getting more exposure. Expanding the World Cup has to be an extremely nuanced and delicate process, and unfortunately none of that is guaranteed with FIFA at the helm without legitimate checks and balances in place. The execution could be brilliant, but without transparency there’s little reason to think it will simply, in Platini’s words, “make more people happy.”
Eric and Maxi are behind these Thought Trails. You can follow them on Twitter at @BeardEric and @FutbolIntellect. Comments below please.