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.
Fewer ‘big’ teams meeting at the group stage isn’t such a bad thing. Arguably, if ‘big’ teams qualify poorly so they meet at the group stage – see Italy vs England in 2014 – and one fails to progress, they aren’t really such a ‘big’ team anyway. Good teams get through, bad teams don’t – that’s the lesson of sport.
A group of three means one team sits out each round. This is unavoidable in this structure and is definitely a downside. It makes the groups lop-sided and the experience of the rugby World Cup which has groups of five isn’t exactly much-loved. The alternative would be to keep groups of four, but to accommodate 48 teams you need 12 groups, and then the knockout is trickier – do you go for 32, with some third-place teams progressing, or make it just top teams plus four second-place teams? Either option is definitely less satisfactory, and to keep to the 7-game rule, you’d need to do the latter option.
However, the boring draws argument is fairly spurious. Fifa have suggested draws end with penalty shootouts, which is stupid. Instead, there are always better incentives – group position should help determine more favourable subsequent fixtures, whether by timing, level of opponent or location (staying near team base). And in any case, the current system of 4-team groups can still lead to convenient-for-both draws.
Under the new format some teams will get just two games. This I can’t square. It’s unfortunate. While three games for a team getting beaten every time seems a bit torturous, the three group games gives some countries a chance to bloom – a defeat followed by a draw and then a win can be enough to progress and then shine. That’s exactly what happened to Turkey in 2002, who got to the semis. A slow start like that just isn’t possible with smaller groups.
This move is about making it a more “world” cup. Will it do that? Let’s look at how teams are included from different continents and confederations.
|Currently||New||Increase||Members||Curr prop of WC (%)||New prop of WC (%)||Curr places per confed (%)||New places per confed (%)|
* plus one team who are hosts. Half teams are due to inter-confederation playoffs. Sources: Fifa, Wikipedia.
As shown the table, Europe is still dominant – three extra teams means around 3 in 10 Uefa members get into the Cup. It does mean that Europe’s share of the finals drops from 42 per cent to 34, but that’s OK – it’s still the highest by quite a way. South America looks like it has lost out in terms of percentage of teams at the Cup, but with 6 places for a confederation of 10, it’s doing just fine.
Asia and Africa get the biggest boosts in teams and proportion of Cup participants – four extra places each is definitely a rebalancing. It also gives both confederations nearly one place per five members.
The question is whether this reflects the state of world football. As the Economist points out, Europe and South America still dominate and that won’t change soon. But Fifa’s point, and one that is hard to argue with, is that inclusion leads to rising standards. An African or Asian winner of the World Cup still hasn’t happened. Extra World Cup places might not change that, certainly not soon. But is it the right approach? Unless you withdraw places from Europe and South America to expand elsewhere, options are limited. (Although 40 teams was an option, it’s an equally tricky number to put into a tournament structure.)
Lastly, what of the spectators? An expanded 48 makes it less special, more noisy and lacking in focus, certainly at the group stage. The recently-expanded Euros (from 16 to 24) had the same fears, and was declared an overall poor tournament by many commentators. Yet there was still the fun of Wales and Iceland progressing. A 16-team event might not have had that. And 32-team World Cups can still be pretty poor, despite it being the ‘perfect’ format.
The problem with format tinkering is two-fold: it’s hard to go back; and if it’s a poor event, the format is always to blame. You don’t hear people blame the current 32-team format for poor World Cups.
On balance, the best reason to not shift from 32 teams is that the proposed three group games doesn’t give teams a chance to get into the event. But Infantino clearly wants to make it his mission. If Fifa go for 48, there’s no good way to do it. Just a least bad way, and this is probably it.