Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Day the World Cup Died?

Hyperbole is often unnecessary garnish to get people to turn their heads, I get that. Even with this situation, the hyperbole is probably not needed. But some situations call for a little extra garnish, and when the inevitable yet still head-scratching news that FIFA is expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 in 2026, maybe the garnish became necessary.

The World Cup has constantly expanded, and despite what many will think, the tournament has only been at 32 teams since 1998. Only seven World Cups will be played with that amount of teams, even though 32 seems like the perfect number. But when the almighty dollar speaks, and politics scratches a certain itch, change is certainly inevitable. Many fans around the globe are wondering this: is the World Cup that we've all come to know and love now dead?

More teams, especially those that have never been able to reach the World Cup, have now a better chance than ever to reach the final tournament, even if their stay there will be pretty short. Largely, those teams are going to come from Africa and Asia, which is a political base that helped Gianni Infantino win election as FIFA President. It's not bad that new teams finally make the tournament, since from those two federations specifically, nine of the 10 qualifying teams were the same in 2010 and 2014. Smaller nations in the Caribbean too could finally return to the tournament since their path in CONCACAF has been blocked by the US, Mexico and Costa Rica in recent cycles.

What about the format? There will be 16 three team groups, and the top two in each will advance to a 32 team knockout stage. That means the amount of games each team can play doesn't change, although in theory, some of them now mean more and mean more earlier, even though the format is really wonky. And since far more than half of the teams that qualify for the tournament make the knockout stage, teams playing mediocre, heading for 0-0 soccer do get rewarded for that. FIFA's own research says the quality of play at the tournament will be diluted, and that's fairly obvious considering worse teams are now entering the fray. And with this process, qualifying for the tournament around the world becomes even more diluted than it is now, especially for teams like the US and Mexico, who barely play enough high stakes games to begin with.

Hopefully, the extra money FIFA is going to make off this expansion actually goes to expand and grow the game around the world, particularly the women's game. And when this money does get distributed to each of the many federations around the world, the average person can know where the cash is going instead of watching greedy executives use it for their own gain instead of the sport's gain. There are other issues too, such as asking even more of the nations who are hosting the tournament (sans the US, China, etc.) and the like, but what the average fan cares about is the quality of play, and the immediate knee-jerk thought is that expansion = dilution.

If FIFA can pull this off, and there's every reason to believe that they can't, then this will be a success. With every expansion of the World Cup (and the Euros), the same concerns come up, and eventually the watching world comes around and becomes settled with the new number. There's no reason to think that won't happen here if FIFA can allocate the extra 16 qualifying slots right and settle on the other details.

There are plenty of reasons to hate this new World Cup expansion, and they're all legitimate. But until we see it in action, and we have nine years of speculation and hand-wringing before we do, every argument is theoretical.

So the World Cup isn't dead as a spectacle... yet, at least. Trusting FIFA to get something right is hard to do, but with so much at stake beyond just money, the world has to hope that they do get this latest expansion right.

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