Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Eleven
I’m writing this on the way to Zagreb for the second leg of Croatia’s World Cup play-off against Iceland. Last week I was in Amman for Jordan’s first-leg defeat to Uruguay. When it comes to games at this stage of the process, when you see what the proximity of the World Cup means to nations like Jordan and Iceland who have never been there before, who have probably never dreamed of being there, it’s hard not to be contemptuous of those who roll their eyes at the very notion of international breaks. Yet in the juxtaposition of the yawning English or Spanish fan and the excitement of the Jordanian or Icelander lies the main problem facing the World Cup.
On the one hand it is too big. The tournament itself drags on for a full month, featuring 64 games of which, in a good year, perhaps 10 or 12 are meaningful in terms of deciding who wins. It can now only be hosted by a tiny handful of wealthy and/or vast nations, and even they find their infrastructure creaking under the strain of hundreds of thousands of additional visitors and face being left with white elephant stadiums. For the bigger nations, qualifying is a dull slog round increasingly familiar outposts, and tends to end up being decided by a pair of games against the next biggest side in the group (England’s campaign this time was rare in featuring three other decent sides, and even that ended up being settled, if not comfortably, then at least without England ever having to produce a genuinely top-class performance). If many fans are bored by international football, it’s not without reason.
And yet, the World Cup also seems too small. There are constant complaints from the African and Asian confederations that they should have greater representation. The argument that it’s not fair that only a tenth of their members qualify when half of Conmebol does is ludicrous, an embarrassing special pleading that ignores how utterly Conmebol nations have outperformed CAF and the AFC at every tournament – and the World Cup is, ultimately, a competition, not a charitable centre for football education. But it probably is true that playing better sides will help a team develop (up to a point; there’s no evidence San Marino have developed at all with their regular hammerings — there has to be at least some equivalence of ability). That said, playing in a World Cup, for all it may do in offering experience and raising profile and interest is only part of the issue. CAF and AFC evangelists like to point to the example of the USA’s development since 1990, as though that tournament magically transformed them from minnows to being in the world’s top 20. It may have helped, but MLS and associated infrastructure development has far more to do with it. Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, UAE and China provide equally compelling arguments that a World Cup qualification does next to nothing to improve the standard in the long-term.
So there are three basic issues: a bloated finals format, weariness at the familiarity of qualification, and an impetus to spread to joy a little. There is a solution, one that could have profound benefits for everybody other than those who have a vested interest in milking the finals tournament for every penny. Which is to say, there is no chance of this happening, however much sense it may make from a purely footballing point of view.
It is possible to both spread the tournament wider while at the same time streamlining the finals tournament. A 16-team finals works, as the Euros have proved (even if Uefa are now ruining it). Quality is concentrated, almost every game matters and even relatively small nations can put on a three-week tournament. Reducing the length of the tournament by a fortnight would give national managers an additional week to prepare and give players an extra week’s break before the new season. It benefits national team and clubs.
So that’s the making it smaller. The making it larger comes at the previous stage. Run qualifying over two phases: the first regional, the second global. That would have two advantages: firstly, that the 16 teams at the finals would all have earned their right in a global market over the previous two years. They would be, as far as possible, the host plus the best 15 of the rest. And secondly, it would provide far more of those games that are supposedly so key in the educational process to twice as many teams. Not only that, but half those games would be played at home: it would genuinely take the game to fans everywhere. There may be an increase in travel costs and there may need to be some stadium redevelopment, but neither of those are insurmountable issues: Fifa, after all, has enormous cash reserves. And, besides, how much better for the development of the global game to develop one stadium in a number of nations rather than 12 in the same country, of which the majority are wholly unnecessary?
Stage one is to select a host. This has not proved entirely simple in the past, but if the IOC can reform itself, so too can Fifa. Let’s, for the sake of argument, go with Russia.
Stage two: regional qualifying to get down to 60 nations. You can quibble over how exactly they would be distributed among the confederations, but let’s, for the sake of argument, amalgamate Conmebol and Concacaf into a confederation of the Americas, and merge the OFC and AFC. Roughly doubling the present allocation, that would give 24 teams from Europe, and 12 each from the Americas, Africa and Asia/Oceania – although it would probably be wise to adopt some sort of coefficient system, similar to that Uefa uses for club competition, to maintain a balance that reflects the present actuality.
Stage three: form one pot from the top 15 sides in the Fifa rankings as seeds. At the moment that would be: Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, England, Brazil, Chile, USA, Portugal, Greece. Form another pot from the remaining 15 European sides; by Fifa ranking, that would be: Bosnia, Croatia, Ukraine, France, Sweden, Denmark, Czech Republic, Serbia, Romania, Scotland, Armenia, Turkey, Hungary, Wales, Iceland (with Russia as hosts).Form a third pot from the six remaining teams from the Americas, plus nine from Africa (Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Venezuela; Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Mali, Cape Verde, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso). Form a fourth pot of the remaining three African sides and the 12 AFC/OFC teams (Cameroon, Libya, South Africa; Japan, Iran, Uzbekistan, South Korea, Australia, Jordan, UAE, New Zealand, Oman, China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq). Draw 15 groups – keeping American seeds apart from American sides in Pot 3, and the CAF sides in Pot 4 away from those in Pot 3, to produce something like this:
Everybody plays everybody home and away, with the group winners going on to the finals in Russia, and the second-placed side guaranteeing some sort of seeding for their regional qualifying the next time round. Yes, some groups are tougher than others — you wouldn’t fancy Oman’s hopes playing Germany, France and Nigeria — but which Welshman wouldn’t relish the trips to Bogota, Praia and Tashkent? Imagine the impact of Lionel Messi arriving for a game in Algiers or Arjen Robben in Wellington or Cristiano Ronaldo in Panama City, something now that could happen on only the wackiest pre-season tour.
It’s fun, it’s fair and it’s genuinely global. And it will never, ever happen.