Posted October 29, 2013

Debate over World Cup spots reveals FIFA’s political, money-driven reality

2014 World Cup, 2022 World Cup, FIFA, FIFA World Cup
Luis Suarez, Getty Images

If Platini’s proposal was applied to the 2014 World Cup, Uruguay would have qualified automatically instead of needing to win an intercontinental playoff against Jordan. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

If you still regard the World Cup as the apex of the global game, a showcase for elite players and nations at which the numbers on the scoreboard are the most important, then you’re missing the big, modern picture.

The World Cup represents the most effective carrot and stick available to soccer’s power brokers. By controlling access to the planet’s most popular sporting event, FIFA bends governments, national federations, media and sponsors to its will. For individual countries, hosting or competing is a matter of significant pride, not to mention millions of dollars. The World Cup is a marketing vehicle, a political tool, an agenda and an ego trip — consider the bizarre selection of Qatar as host of the 2022 tournament. The winners on the field aren’t the only ones.

That was evident again over the past few days, as FIFA presidential hopefuls Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini once again demonstrated that competition quality, sensible scheduling and other traditional concerns are no longer the priority.

The election is. The easiest way to curry favor with the national federations that will elect the next FIFA president in 2015 is to offer things. Among the most valuable things FIFA can offer (that it’s willing to part with) is a berth in the World Cup.

The incumbent, Blatter, started the conversation last week when he argued that Asia and Africa deserve more berths. Africa, which will have five teams in Brazil, is “woefully underrepresented,” Blatter said. Asia will have four or five World Cup entrants, depending on the result of next month’s Uruguay-Jordan playoff. Europe, which gets 13 berths, would have to cede at least two to satisfy Blatter’s ambition, which is to satisfy the Asian and African federations that might determine his political future.

Not that it matters anymore, but neither continent has shown on the field that it warrants an extra spot. Over the past three World Cups, a nation from Asia or Africa was among the worst five finishers (ranked 28th-32nd) on nine occasions. They have earned three of the 24 available quarterfinal places. There is no reason to believe the teams that can’t qualify now would do any better.

However, Blatter isn’t trying to please everyone. Taking spots from Europe or putting South America and CONCACAF under threat would upset voters there.

Enter Platini, the populist UEFA president who’s already re-engineered the Champions League to give clubs from less-powerful leagues an easier path to the group stage and decided that a 24-team Euro 2020 will be played in 13 different countries.

Platini told London’s The Times that he envisions a 40-team World Cup.

“It’s good for everybody,” the former Juventus legend said.

Platini wants eight groups of five nations each. Each would play four first-round matches rather than three, meaning the semifinalists would contest eight games over some 34 days. It’s presumed that the top two finishers in each group would progress to the round-of-16 as they do now.

“I totally agree with Mr Blatter that we need more African and Asian [countries]. But instead of taking away some Europeans, we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup. We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American, one Oceania and one from Europe,” Platini told The Times. “Football is changing and now we have 209 associations. There are more countries so why reduce? Forty is not so bad. You have three days more of competition and you make more people happy.”

By “people”, he probably means the federations that cast votes for the FIFA presidency, sponsors and TV executives who might ante up for more games. Odds are a first-round match between Burkina Faso and Uzbekistan, or the inevitable group-stage walkthroughs for the sport’s top teams, aren’t going to capture the public imagination. But that doesn’t matter, because soccer’s suits have decided that bigger is better. Exclusivity doesn’t pay.

Only elites would vote against a 40-team World Cup, and smart politicians don’t get far focusing on elites. Platini’s tournament will be bloated. It will feature a ponderous and lopsided group stage. It will further burden the players, their clubs and the host nation. But it also will excite fans/customers from eight additional nations, not to mention the politicians who control soccer in those countries hoping to qualify. Standing against expansion will mean standing against those fans and politicians. Blatter’s World Cup now seems elitist by comparison. He’d better come up with a rebuttal.

Blatter could push for a 64-team tournament, which would comprise 16 groups of four teams each that would send only the first-place finisher to the second round. It could even feature an expanded knockout stage with 32 teams — after all, early elimination doesn’t make anyone happy. Blatter also could show up Platini by combining the five-team group idea with the multi-national Euro 2020 hosting model and proposing an 80-team World Cup staged across a continent. Why not? So what if Germany beats Thailand by a dozen? Who cares if the top teams hardly ever meet? Think how much happiness that behemoth would spread among soccer fans, stakeholders and governments around the world. That is, it appears, all that matters.

48 comments
DSM
DSM

Expanding the field may yield some shocking results, as soccer matches, much more than most sports, can be decided by a fluke goal; bogus red card or penalty kick award, etc even if the better team has dominated the course of play.


FIFA is corrupt, but note that the Olympics has long favored inclusion over quality, such as by limiting teams to 2 swimmers per event, even if their third best swimmer is also the world's third-ranked swimmer.

Matthew53
Matthew53

Asia and Africa are underrepresented?


When they start regularly getting to the Semis then we can talk about it. Until then, they do not need to switch a European filler with a lower quality African/Asian filler.

Jeffrey16
Jeffrey16

Platini's an idiot if he thinks a 40-team World Cup can take just 34 days. Groups of five require five rounds of play instead of the current three. That's because only four teams can play per round (one has to rest). So if you do the math, there are five rounds of games per group. That adds 8-10 days to the tournament. So now we're up to 39-41 days. 

Plus of course, then one of teams in each group doesn't play the last day, so they can easily get screwed by other teams colluding. Plus many of the later group games will be meaningless as teams get eliminated much earlier (since only 2 of 5 make it to the next round).

Really, you might as well go straight to 64 teams. Both are stupid ideas, but 64 actually works better than 40 or 48.

Doug1
Doug1

To everyone saying that "40 is bad, it's just a stepping stone to 64", I disagree that its bad anyway.  The game is getting bigger around the world, and teams from around the world are getting better.  Is New Zealand going to beat Spain, Portugal, France, Brazil, Germany or Italy in the next year?  Very highly unlikely to happen assuming they played.  But you know what?  They said the same thing about the US in the 1980s, and since then they have beaten each and every one of them.  The World is catching up little by little, and they deserve a chance to play in the World Cup too.  It IS the World's game, not just Europe's.

DAS
DAS

The best way to do this is to give those continents more chances for entries, not simply more entries.  This would be done through an expansion of the various intercontinental playoffs.  Have more teams from different regions playing off against each other.  That way, they earn it on the field.  More opportunities for those that feel underrepresented without expanding the actual tournament finals.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

I think it's a given that there will be expansion. Because, and no surprise here, FIFA will be bought. Nations will let their people go hungry if they believe  they can get into the WC by buying FIFA officials.  Clearly they CAN be bought. Just say the word 'Qatar' if you doubt it. I love watching the soccer, but the politics are enough to turn your stomach.

badboykilla4rilla
badboykilla4rilla

I heard WVU is trying to leave the Big XII and join UEFA.  Makes more sense geographically

muser
muser

Why doesn't every country get in and get a trophy for participating? It's not fair!

Ebullient
Ebullient

Great!  Now we can have the scintillating talents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, Suriname, Samoa, Malawi, and Thailand, to name just a few, all for our viewing pleasure on the world's biggest stage!  

tonyofanfield
tonyofanfield

Mr Platini needs to get his head examined. 32 teams is more than enough. The players are participating - potentially - in 7 additional grueling matches in their off time. It is not going to make the clubs happy. More injuries are to be expected. If we add more teams it will be more games and more trouble.


all are going this way, the Basketball in the NCAA, FIFA, etc...

MTBinDurham
MTBinDurham

Money is also why CONCACAF and CONMEBOL will eventually merge.  The excuse will be competitive balance, but in the end the giant amount of money involved in having Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile players playing in the US and Canada regularly will be the reason.

kenc29
kenc29

Yep, FIFA's leadership is a joke. It's all about politics and money, for the FIFA leadership.

Based upon actual WC results, Africa and Asia are NOT underrepresented. It's Europe that is underrepresented, but we all know Blatter doesn't want those votes, he wants Africa's votes, as they are easier to buy.

CincyHoya
CincyHoya

Not sure I get the violent negative reaction here.  There's what FIFA says and what it will do and don't confuse the two.  Look at how we might get there:

- Oceania - New Zealand is a guarantee instead of a playoff; they acquitted themselves well in SA in 2010

- AFC - Jordan is a guarantee instead of a playoff;then throw the 6th team (Uzbekistan) in a playoff with Africa.

- CAF - Let's assume the game 1 winners qualify, but then let's say Egypt also goes through and one of the teams that lost, maybe Algeria, goes to a playoff with Europe and another, maybe Ethiopia, goes to a playoff with Asia.

- UEFA - Honestly, they're under-represented and everyone knows it.  Assume the seeded teams in the current playoff get in (no issues there), then add France and Sweden (hard to fault that) and put Iceland (or Romania) in a play-off against Algeria.  Not sure where the downside is.

- CONCACAF - I struggle with this, but make the 4th spot a guarantee instead of a playoff (Mexico) and put the 5th team (Panama) in a playoff with CONMEBOL.  Before anyone rants, CONCACAF needs to kill the hex, because this makes your final round results look poor outside of the top 3 - should be 2 hexes or something like that.  And there is no way CONCACAF should have fewer bids than the AFC, but it is what it is.

- CONMEBAL - Not many countries, but they're all top 100 sides.  Go from the current 5 plus a playoff (Uruguary) to 6 plus a playoff (Venezuela v. Panama, which feels about right).

I don't buy that FIFA will give all of the bids to lower ranking geographies and Platini, I think, can do the math.  In a 40 country tournament, you add a couple wildcards, add some European depth and, frankly, give a lot of the "pretty good but not elite" teams a chance to actually win a game or two at the cup.  There will be an impact in qualifying, to be sure, but I'd see this as a way to have more countries be interested at a much later stage.

jeffdame
jeffdame

Would this really be so bad?   "40 teams in the World Cup. We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American, one Oceania and one from Europe"  Looking at 2014 who would now get to go?  A couple of dogs yes, but also a couple of good, interesting teams also.  Curious if Brian tweaked the article slightly to be either neutral or in support of the 40 if everyone commenting would be so against it.   Look down the road 10-20 years.  Which countries and regions are going to improve?  Not UEFA.  You'll see other regions reach that standard.  Look how CONCACAF stepped up and shocked Mexico.  It's about money?  Is anyone surprised?  Should we really care?  Or should we be thrilled that every world cup game is available with the highest levels of production values.  I'm for more.  You want controlled purity?  Just watch Champions league. 

Pwyll
Pwyll

Asia and Africa aren't woefully underrepresented.  They are woefully overrepresented.  If you look at the top 32 teams, the teams vary depending on the ranking system but the numbers are surprisingly consistent, only 3 African teams make the cut and 0-1 Asian team does.  With 5 slots and 4.5, Africa and Asia are strongly overrepresented.  This is in contrast to CONCACAF which would get 3-4 slots (depending on the ranking system) and does get 3.5 slots.  CONMEBOL is about right; they get 6 slots and should get 6 according to two of the systems (8 according to the other).  Asia and Africa's extra slots come at the expense of UEFA which only gets 13 slots, but should get 17 (or 20) slots.  If anything, the WC should take away slots from Africa and Asia rather than give them more.

modsuperstar
modsuperstar

I bet even with 2 additional spots in CONCACAF Canada still couldn't qualify.

JoelHardman
JoelHardman

Could a change in qualifying format benefit Africa instead of simply adding more teams?  Why have Ghana knock out Egypt in the last round and send through an Algeria?

morejunk
morejunk

They should just revive the Intercontinental Cup.  Have it played on neutral ground (to preclude the violence that accompanied the original tournament) and kill the World Cup entirely.  Blatter is going to destroy the World Cup anyway so do it fast instead of slow.

morejunk
morejunk

Sepp Blatter: One  man FIFA wrecking crew.

Hador
Hador

Whether it is soccer, college football or the NFL...officials with their greed always seem to go out of their way to try and kill the goolden goose.

We can only hope that at some point fans will start to realize that and stop watching...a small hope to be sure, but the only one there is.

soccerBob
soccerBob

Blatter should not be allowed to make any more crazy decisions!  The FIFA BOD needs to get him out before he does any more damage.

SweetDickD
SweetDickD

40 teams? there are already far too many teams with no hope of getting out of the group stage, much less threatening for a semi final birth! more and more meaningless games but much more $$ from commercials, sponsors etc... this is the end of sport and the triumph of greed

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@Doug1 Then why stop at 64?  Let's just go to 96 or 128.  Canada deserves a chance to play in the World Cup too, yunnow.  At that point, why even bother with the qualifying rounds?  Let's just auto-admit the likes of Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the US, Japan, and South Korea and have all the minnows play against each other for the remaining spots.

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@MTBinDurham Money might also keep the two from merging.  As it currently stands, Mexico and the US are virtually guaranteed to qualify for every WC, even after a disastrous qualifying campaign.  The money Mexico would have lost had it not qualified for WC2014 far outweighs any financial benefit of Brazil et al. playing a few games in North America.  Merging with CONMEBOL would make qualification very uncertain.  The likes of Costa Rica and Jamaica would rarely qualify, so they would also be against this merger.

tonyofanfield
tonyofanfield

@CincyHoya if UEFA is under-represented, then let us move some of the spots to Europe. The answer is NOT to get more teams...

seaweed
seaweed

@CincyHoya whole heartedly agree but sports by it's nature is conservative and a lot of people hate change, while I see the downside to the 40 country bid, I'm skeptical of the author's idea that it will have a snowball effect and Platini and Blatter will go crazy and try to make their counter-bids bigger and more unsustainable

Ebullient
Ebullient

@jeffdame Yes, it would be that bad.  It would be a catastrophe, except in financial terms for the bloated and corrupt people who already profit handsomely from soccer.  If you want more teams and a fairer distribution of berths by virtue of talent, take a berth away from CONCACAF and give it to Africa.  

With more teams we're just likely to see More Guatemalas, El Salvadors, Tajikstans, Fijis, etc.  Maybe Israel will squeak in, too.  All it means is that a couple of teams that were hard-luck cases in not qualifying one year will qualify easily in another, while a whole bunch of teams that shouldn't be there in the first place will gum up the  works with mediocrity.

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@jeffdame 40 teams is bad, even if only because in 16 years or so, someone will come along and say "64 teams in the World Cup... would this really be so bad? It's a nice factorial of 2, after all, and it would create a more equitable playoff bracket." 

The World Cup has been expanding tremendously since the 1980s.  Granted, some of that is inevitable due to the globalization of the game and the world in general and the improvements in transportation, yadda yadda.  

In 1978, there were 16 WC teams. In 1982, there were 24.  In 1998, there were 32.  40 is bad, if only because it's a precursor to 64, which is too many.

Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

@Pwyll Finally people are seeing the light.  The truly garbage teams always come from Africa and Asia.  CONCACAF is fine.  We regularly put 2 of our 3 spots into the knockout, and nobody ever embarrasses the federation like Saudi Arabia, etc.

Ebullient
Ebullient

@Pwyll  Africa is underrepresented while Asia is right where it ought to be.  I'd just as soon strip Concacaf of one berth, leaving it with 2 plus a playoff and give Africa one more.  Asia doesn't need anything more than what it has.

Ebullient
Ebullient

@modsuperstar Not when they can't even get out of the first phase of qualifying.  There's no excuse for Canada sucking as bad as it does.  Their federation is fantastically dysfunctional, to the point of being characterized by incompetence above all else.  There's no doubt that soccer talent exists in Canada, but bickering between players and coaches, some players being barely half-committed to national team service, and some players opting to play for other countries where they have a right to citizenship are ruinous to the team.  Canada lost arguably the very best Canadian player they ever produced to England- Owen Hargreaves, and it's not hard to see why he chose to play for England even though he was born and raised in Canada.  Jonathan De Guzman opted to play for the Netherlands even though he's Canadian, just like his brother Julian who plays for Canada.  It's a disaster for them.

MrTemecula
MrTemecula

@DSmithy3211 @Doug1 ITA about qualifying. Hate it when it takes away key players from the Galaxy (Robbie, where r u?). Auto-qualify the top 20 countries and make the rest qualify would go a long way toward helping clubs.

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@Jesus Hitler @Pwyll Well, yes and no.  Mexico and (about 50% of the time) the US advance to the qualifying round.  CONCACAF's third representative rarely, if ever, does.  The proper comparison is between the Venezuelas, Panamas, Jordans, Egypts, and Croatias of the world.

With respect to Asia, you are certainly right.  The best Asian team to not qualify for the World Cup is generally cannon fodder.  The rest of the best non-qualifiers are all roughly on-par.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

@Ebullient @modsuperstar I think Canada has the same problem as the US. The best athletes don't play soccer. In America it's football, basketball, and even baseball. In Canada it's hockey. In most other countries soccer is the premier sport. Almost the only sport. And that's why the US and Canada are not competitive in the world stage. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

fogda
fogda

@DSmithy3211 @Jesus Hitler

DSmithy3211. You may have a point. 

Africa always starts the WC qualifiers 1 or 2 years before every one else. It is a long and very exhausting process. Because of the length of the qualification, European teams are reluctant to constantly release the payers early enough to prepare for the games. The net result is that players will show up at games, days before big games. There is not team bonding, preparation is chaotic, the quality of the games suffers.People who leave their clubs without permission are benched when they return to club.

Three year qualification period for 5 spots is ridiculous. Team like Cap Verde can now beat Cameroon, because one is relying on local players and the other has 100% European Professional players.

Increasing the number of African Teams will reduce the length of the qualification cycle. all qualified teams will have enough time to gear up for the WC, as opposed to the 3-4 months they currently have.

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@Jesus Hitler While I don't agree with you, I thank you for a rational discussion.  A rarity on this site.

As to Africa, I wonder if their problem is their qualifying format (group play followed by a home-and-home).  It's essentially the polar opposite of CONCACAF's uber-forgiving hex.  Much of their problems could be solved by changing the qualifying format.  An African contingent of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, plus a few flavors du jour (Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa) would be quite formidable.  


Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

@DSmithy3211 Not to say I don't understand your point.  Just saying that we can argue until the cows come home about whose marginal qualifiers are "better".  I just see a conclusive argument in Africa's favor.  To me, the allocations are fine as-is.

Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

@DSmithy3211 @Jesus Hitler Africa is just as top heavy.  How can you say otherwise when rubbish like Angola and Togo are ending up at the WC?  Until Africa puts more than 1 out of their 5 slots into Round 2, they don't have much of an argument that they don't have enough spots.

DSmithy3211
DSmithy3211

@Jesus Hitler That's not at all what I'm saying.  The success of Mexico and the United States should have no bearing on how many spots CONCACAF gets in the World Cup.  Whether Mexico and the United States survive the group stages is largely irrelevant on whether (for example) Panama or Egypt deserve to go to the World Cup.  By the same token, Africa's success rate as a whole is also largely irrelevant.  Africa's top teams are not as good as Mexico and the United States... so what? That is not now, nor has it ever been, the issue.

You're looking at the marginal candidates, not the confederation at-large.  Especially for CONCACAF, which is the most top-heavy confederation there is, with Mexico and the United States up top and an enormous gap to Costa Rica/Honduras/Jamaica.  Oceania might be more top-heavy.  And maybe Asia, with Japan/South Korea/Australia.

Jesus Hitler
Jesus Hitler

@DSmithy3211 @Jesus Hitler @Pwyll True, but you would be asking for 100% of our finalists to go through.  Which you may recall very nearly happened in 2002, but for Costa Rica missing an absolute sitter in the 89th minute against Turkey.  Has any region achieved such a feat in the 32 team era?  Africa, on the other hand, rarely puts more than 1 of its 5 teams into the knockout stage.