World Cup

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World Cup expansion makes no sense

JUST SAY NO
FIFA should avoid increasing future World Cup berths.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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International soccer, and its capstone tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championship in particular, seem to exist primarily for two discernible reasons. To determine who is the best at soccer in the world or the relevant continent. And to make their respective governing bodies tall piles of money.

Increasingly, the latter raison d’etre overrules the former. Chief expansionist, current UEFA president and aspiring FIFA president, Michel Platini, has already successfully pushed through an expansion of the Euro from 16 to 24 teams for the 2016 edition in his own France. And he is now proposing that the World Cup be built out from 32 teams to 40 ahead of the 2018 tournament in Russia.

His comments come in the wake of current FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s claim that more World Cup spots should go to countries from Africa and Asia, at the expense of Europe’s 13 berths. Platini countered to The Times that “instead of taking away some European [nations], we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup. We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American and one from Europe.” The last new spot would presumably be decided by intercontinental playoff, just as two of the current spots are.

Rather than consist of eight groups of four countries each, the new format would add one team to each group. The setup would, Platini claims, extend the tournament by only three days, thus treading only lightly on the interests of the club teams, whose patience with the cluttered international calendar is already worn razor thin.

“Football is changing and now we have 209 associations,” Platini told The Times. “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.”

Context is crucial to these twin suggestions -- and given the clout of each man within his own governing body, their implementation is probable. Platini and Blatter are elected officials, chosen by the federations of the countries that constitute their governing bodies. And elected officials don’t always act in the best interests of the bodies they govern. They act in the best interests of their own reelections.

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The math, then, is simple. Blatter is unpopular in Europe but counts sympathizers in Africa and Asia. And if he seeks another term -- in spite of promising that he wouldn’t upon his last reelection, only to backtrack on that later -- that’s where the bulk of his votes would likely originate from. So why not make noise about giving those federations some more tickets to the big dance?

Platini, meanwhile, is expected to make his own run at the FIFA presidency in 2015. Allowing Europe’s places to be diminished isn’t in his interest. He’s a European, and his home continent’s disenfranchisement with Blatter is his most obvious entry point into a potential race. So what does he do? He finds a way to add a European spot and throw a few more to the other major confederations, too. As he puts it, “you make more people happy.” Certainly, inviting more people to your party makes you popular with more people and improves your chances of those people voting for you. But it isn’t in the best interest of the game.

The World Cup was expanded to its current 32 team-format from 24 teams in 1998, having gone from 16 to 24 in 1982. Since the last expansion, every World Cup has included up to a handful of teams that plainly had no business being there. There are only so many countries that can compete with the world’s best, after all.

The beauty of the Euro, up until now, was its lack of fat. Every team was good and, with the right kind of form and luck, capable of winning the whole thing -- like Greece did in 2004. By increasing the number of entrants by 50 percent, that’s surely a thing of the past. But the damage to the World Cup’s group stage could be even more severe. While only two of five teams qualifying for the next round, rather than two of four, increasing tension, the dilution of talent would also lessen the quality of games significantly.

Already, much of the World Cup group stage is a slog, with about three quarters of the games essentially boiling down to either a good team trying to break down a bunkered-in bad team or two bad teams scrapping to claw out a result while taking as little risk as possible. Further expansion would only serve to amplify that aesthetic erosion and reduce more games to a style-and soul-crushing pulp.

So no, Michel Platini, you wouldn’t in fact “make more people happy” by inflating the World Cup by a further 25 percent. You would likely garner some votes and a few new countries would indeed be delighted to partake, but the drudgery and drabness ruling the first half of the tournament would diminish the enjoyment of everybody else.

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