Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: World Cup

In (partial) defence of Fifa’s 48-team World Cup plan

The format of 32 has proven to be the perfect formula from all perspectives…

So said the EFA. But not quite all perspectives, and certainly not the one which counts most: Fifa’s.

The World Cup has been 32 teams since 1998. It starts with 8 groups of 4, top two go to the knockout round. It’s mathematically ideal and beautiful in every way.

So why change it? You can read good summaries on the BBC, Guardian, and also the Mail on typical jingoistic form (Burkina Faso but not Scotland!). The best analysis is here on the Economist. But aside from the politics and possible extra cash, is it so awful to destroy the perfect 32-game Cup?

Yes and no. Yes, for all the reasons linked to above. Yes because it makes the structure far less neat. No, because more teams from smaller nations is an admirable motive. So let’s look at the structure.

Fifa is suggesting 16 groups of 3, top two to knock out. That means two group games for each team, rather than three; and five knock out matches rather than four through to the final.

The initial negative reaction is based on three unavoidable things: fewer big teams will meet at the group stage; three in a group means final group matches might result in boring draws if both teams are through to the next stage; and fewer group matches means 16 teams get only two matches before heading home, rather than the current minimum of three.

Let’s unpick each one. Continue reading

A Qatar winter World Cup is no bad thing

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Isn’t Fifa simply awful? Having awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup in less-than-savoury circumstances, now it has the brass neck to move the event to Winter to avoid the scorching heat! Shame.

A quick read of most opinion pages suggests that this is a terrible idea for a clutch of reasons: Europe’s football leagues are thrown into disarray; outdoor screenings won’t work; it will ruin Christmas; the NFL(!) will compete with US attention; it’s a summer event, dammit.

Let’s quickly dismiss a few of the frothier objections: pubs will do fine; it won’t ruin Christmas; do we seriously think the US can only watch one sport at a time? So it is supposed to be a summer event. But having given Qatar the tournament in such a dodgy way, this is hardly the biggest thing to get worked up about.

But how about those European leagues being messed about? Surely there’s something in that?

Well, there are two options. One is to suspend matches while the World Cup is on. The other is to keep playing.

For some reason, only option 1 seems to be the course of action. In which case, La Liga and the Premier League and others will have to start a few weeks early and finish a few weeks late. Hardly the end of the world, is it? The Guardian has put together how the season might look, and, to me, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But what about option 2: play on? That’s what the leagues do during the African Cup of Nations, after all. It is also what county cricket teams do when England play Tests, T20, and One-day Internationals. It’s what the rugby clubs do when the 6 Nations and Autumn internationals are on.

What would the impact be on the leagues? Well, if we take the 2014 World Cup as any guide, the breakdown of players from each league went like this:

League World Cup players
England 119
Italy 81
Germany 78
Spain 64
France 46
Russia 34
Mexico 26
Turkey 26
Portugal 23
Netherlands 20

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious that the leagues that will be most hampered in 2022 are those of England, Italy, Germany and Spain. However, In terms of the overall players, Germany’s World Cup burden is slightly higher than Italy’s, as the league has 18 teams compared to the 20 in the others. If we use the current squad sizes of all the teams in those four leagues, around 21 per cent of the Premiership’s 550-plus players would be off to the World Cup, over 15 per cent of the Bundesliga’s players, just under 15 per cent of Serie A would go, and 12 per cent of La Liga. It’s hardly an entire league – the Premiership would lose one in five players.

But of course, the burden isn’t spread equally around. In 2014 the Premiership had five clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United) with 10 or more players going to the World Cup. All the other teams had 6 or fewer. In other leagues there was a similar skewing: Bayern Munich had 15 World Cup representatives, Barcelona had 13 and Real Madrid had 12. Juventus and Napoli had 12 players in Brazil 2014.

What would the solution be? If the leagues insisted in playing during the World Cup, their biggest clubs would suffer disproportionately. In the era of vastly unequal resources, that might be a rather positive outcome: in the run up to 2022, the bigger clubs would have to expand their squads with home-grown and non-international players; it might mean they become reluctant to sign a World Cup-bound player. However, this isn’t for the entire season – it’s probably for six or seven matches. It would make the league more uncertain, that’s for sure. Smaller teams such as Southampton and West Ham might well vote for it. In fact, put to an equal vote, the majority of Premiership clubs should be in favour of continuing to play during the World Cup.

However, the big clubs are never going to go along with this. For example, Chelsea, with a first team squad of 24 including 12 World Cup players, would struggle to field a team without calling up a host of reserves.

The bigger issue would be gate receipts and advertising. Shorn of the bigger star names, bar the odd exception (such as Gareth Bale), the big European clubs would face a temporary tail-off of interest. It would be a “downgraded product”. And that would never do. Competing head-on with the World Cup would only have one winner: fans want to see the best players in action.

Given that the Premiership seems utterly focused on squeezing every commercial drop it can, the idea of playing on is a non-starter. Which is a shame, as football in England and Spain could do with a rebalancing of power, however temporary.

The only other scenario in which the European leagues would play on is if they force their players to boycott the World Cup. The ramifications of that would be huge. In fact, it would be the most divisive moment in football history, and possibly spell the end of international football in its current form.

Somehow, I don’t think Fifa will let that happen.

The Bric games

With Russia winning in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup, all four Bric countries are now cemented on the sporting stage. From China hosting the Olympics in 2008, to Russia in 2018, there is a defined 10 years where these four countries are moving from being an global economic story to centre stage of global sport.

In between, we have will have had India’s commonwealth games in Delhi this year, and Brazil with the task of hosting the World Cup and Olympics just two years apart, in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

Fifa and the IOC have clearly grasped the developing world concept. Beijing beat three developed world cities to the Olympics back in 2001 (Toronto, Paris and Osaka – the other was Istanbul). Delhi was chosen over Hamilton, Canada. Brazil was the only bid for 2014, but Rio won the 2016 Olympics over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. Russia beat a trio of “old Europe” bids – the UK, Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium.

So developing is in. Established is out. Throw South Africa 2010 and Qatar 2022 into the mix, and you have a clear indication of the way these sporting events are being allocated. London 2012 might be the last of its kind for a long time.

Going back to the four Brics, what can we expect? So far, the interesting thing is not the similarity, but the differences. China’s ruthlessly efficient Olympics in Beijing was in utter contrast to the chaos in the build up to Delhi, where the accommodation and infrastructure were barely adequate.

Brazil’s build up will be fascinating. Can a country hosting these two giant events so close find any meaningful overlap in the building work? A few airports and rail links aside, not really. A world cup needs 8 or so big (40,000 plus) stadiums dotted around the country. An Olympics needs to be based in one city, and cover (in Rio’s case), 28 sports.

A world cup hosts 704 (22*32) players. Rio’s Olympics needs to house around 12,500 athletes. The needs are quite different. This has only happened twice before: the World Cup in the US in 1994 and Olympics in Atlanta in 1996; and the Olympics in Mexico in 1968 with the football arriving two years later. The fully-blown modern version will be a very different challenge to those events. For the ’94 World Cup, the US had most of the infrastructure in terms of stadiums and airports already in place. Atlanta was a damp squib of an Olympics. In terms of competitors alone, Rio’s Olympics will be more than twice the size of Mexico City’s, with nearly 100 more countries taking part.

And so to Russia. Whether or not it is a mafia state, the rebuilding and logistics will be quite staggering. Then again, the Qatar has promised to build cooled stadiums to counter the 40-degree heat. At least they have the extra four years to get it right.

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