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Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini Pandering for Votes Could Mean a 40-Team World Cup in 2018

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter Visits Prague

FIFA head honcho Sepp Blatter made another one of his political grandstands last week while writing in FIFA’s new weekly magazine. This time the 77-year-old Swiss would-be 19th Century aristocrat/Cristiano Ronaldo antagonizer brought up the plight of African and Asian teams at the World Cup. Blatter wrote unless the African and Asian confederations received more spots in the tournament, a nation from those confederations would never win the tournament.

Don’t think for one second Blatter wrote this out of the goodness of his heart. He’s up for re-election in 2015 and stuff like this will help him curry favor and votes. Blatter writes:

“As long as this remains the case, African sides may never win an intercontinental trophy, regardless of progress on the playing side,” Blatter wrote in FIFA’s new weekly magazine which was published on Friday. “This flawed state of affairs must be rectified.

“At the end of the day, an equal chance for all is the paramount imperative of elite sport.”

The lack of self-awareness by Blatter to actually write that last sentence is simply too rich.

How much of a chance for equality do Qatar’s migrant workers helping construct billion dollar stadiums for the 2020 World Cup have? Or how about the racist chanting that still occurs in Russia — the host of the 2018 tournament? Maybe we should worry about those issues before trying to consolidate a voting bloc to back you at the next vote. Just a thought.

Anyways, UEFA boss Michel Platini did Blatter one better on the pandering scale a few days later. Not content to potentially see World Cup berths taken away from Europe, the Frenchman floated the idea of a 40-team World Cup for 2018 – which would include two more bids for Africa and Asia apiece, along with one more for Europe. The rough outline of adding eight new teams would mean groups increased from four to five, meaning an extra round of games. Platini said it would only add another 2-3 days to the tournament. (Presumably a lot more millions to line everyone’s pockets, too, as an added bonus.)

Colleague Jason Lisk raised an excellent point: with uneven groups, it means one thing will be on a “bye” the last day of group play, which could lead to all sorts of shenanigans.

A 40 team World Cup would mean nearly 20 percent of the 209 FIFA members would qualify for the tournament finals, which isn’t an outrageous number, although the quality of the tournament would take a hit. Qualification, too, could become less interesting. In the current format, Europe and South America and their combined 63 members get 17 or 18 spots. For the 2014 World Cup, Asia and Africa combined for 95 teams for 9 or 10 berths, depending on playoff results next month.

[Related: Aron Johannsson Will Be a Factor for the U.S. at the World Cup, Says ESPN’s Taylor Twellman]

The question to look at, do we need the tournament watered down? 32 seems like a perfect number. We’ve come to the point in international soccer, with the rise in telecommunications that few teams are truly unknowns anymore. Games, for the most part, have been more competitive since the 32-team format was adopted in 1998.

Take this year, is CONCACAF worthy of an extra spot? Mexico is in a playoff with New Zealand having won once in five home games at the famed Azteca. Panama, which was edged out in cruel fashion, finished fifth of six teams — winning once in 10 games. And speaking of New Zealand does the microscopic Oceania federation need an automatic qualifier? Tahiti was a nice story at the Confederations Cup this summer, but it was thoroughly blown out in all three matches.

Perhaps the biggest problem is in Asia, where you have countries with massive populations like China and Thailand, which are ranked outside the Top 75 of the FIFA rankings. Adding more spots for one of these weak teams isn’t really going to do anything to help the Confederations stronger members like South Korea or Japan advance, is it?

Looking through the results since 1998, I broke down how many games have by decided by three or more goals. I also looked at if it was either a European or South American team dealing the lopsided defeated to another confederation.

  • 1998: 12 games decided by 3+ goals; Seven were an European/South American team beating another confederation. The biggest margin of victory here were Spain beating Bulgaria 6-1 and the Netherlands topping South Korea 5-0.
  • 2002: Six games decided by 3+ goals; Five were European/South American team vs. another confederation. Germany’s 8-0 win over Saudia Arabia was the most lopsided game — the most onesided game since Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0 in 1974.
  • 2006: Eight games decided by 3+ goals; Four of the six were European/South American team vs. another confederation. Largest win was Argentina defeating Serbia & Montenegro 6-0.
  • 2010: Seven games decided by 3+ goals; Six were European/South American vs. another confederation. Portugal’s 7-0 win over North Korea was largest margin of victory.

On the whole the competitiveness has improved. There’s usually 1-2 weak teams each tournament, like North Korea three years ago — and despite the lopsided loss to Portugal, it only lost to Brazil 2-1. Looking at the current field for the 2014 tournament, unless New Zealand picks off Mexico in the playoffs there doesn’t appear to be one country you can point to as a total pushover — and three years ago the All Whites drew their three matches in South Africa.

Adding a bunch of lesser teams does figure to tip the scales of competitive balance.

It’s going to be hard, regardless of the steps FIFA takes, to curb the dominance of the top seven “traditional powers” who have won World Cups: Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and England, plus Netherlands, which has appeared in three finals including the most recent one.

Lisk broke down those eight “power” nations points per game averages vs. the field since it expanded to 32 teams in handy chart form:

chart1

Excluding those eight teams, here is how the non-traditional power teams from the other regions have done against each other (Australia/New Zealand are both included in the Asia numbers).

chart2

A team outside those power eight hasn’t won the World Cup since Uruguay in 1950, when world soccer was nothing even close to the massive, unruly entity it is today. Heck, you have to go all the way back the 1962 where Czechoslovakia lost to Brazil where the final wasn’t comprised of two of the power eight nations. The evidence that Asia and Africa are suffering from not getting enough teams is pretty thin.

For what its worth, African teams have combined to go 7-20-6 at the last two World Cups. Four of those wins are from Ghana. The Ivory Coast, which might have had the most talent of any team from Africa the last two Cups, never made it out of the Group Stage. Asian teams haven’t been much better over the last two Cups, either, going a combined 5-15-6, although Japan and South Korea each made the Round of 16 in 2010.

Adding more teams, with less chances to win doesn’t look like it will amount to much to enhance the tournament, aside from more games on television. A 40-team World Cup will be more inclusive, but unless you find a way to handicap the elite nations, the winners will likely remain from that small pool.

FIFA has it right with the 32-team field. Let’s hope political gain doesn’t find a way to kill off the golden goose.

Related: Premier League Monday: Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez Make Statements; Tim Howard Debuts in Commentary Booth

 

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