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It Could Be Said #37 A Better International Game
FIFA is better than most governing bodies but it must recognise its approach hasn't fully worked
One of my worst opinions is that I actually kinda like FIFA. For all its faults it’s an organisation that gives some weight to voices outside football’s traditional heartlands, which contrasts favourably to how most sports exclude emerging nations from funding, status and power. Indeed, since the Anglo-European hegemony was overthrown in the seventies, FIFA has shrewdly used its power to grow the game by expanding the number of teams who can participate in the World Cup, repeatedly taking the game outside its Western European-Latin American heartlands and increasing the investment in poorer nations.
But we seem to have to hit a wall with the international game. The proposed expansion in the number of sides who participate in the World Cup will make it increasingly difficult for most nations to host it as we can see with the explosion of unwieldy multi-national bids for future world cups. More importantly we don’t seem to be any closer to growing genuine challengers to the traditional pillars of football; even after Saudi Arabia and Japan defeated Argentina and Germany, and USA held England to a draw, there’s still a very real possibility that only European and South American sides progress to the next round. And as has repeatedly exposed, the money FIFA has invested worldwide has been frittered away on boosting either the images of global football executives or bankrolling their lavish lifestyles.
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I fear the future will see a genuine push by European and South American football to pull away from the FIFA structures so that they don’t have to do anything as annoying as listen to the opinions of sides that aren’t actually very good at football. You see this to a certain extent in the furore over the idea of giving the World Cup to Qatar. Of course, the country is unsuitable for logistical reasons due to its size and lack of domestic football fanbase, but many of the moral objections could be just as easily applied to countries that are genuinely fanatical about football such as Iran, Egypt or Turkey. Is the future really one where only The West gets to host football’s premiere tournament?
But the reason that is a genuine danger is that everyone knows you couldn’t have a World Cup that England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, and Argentina all boycotted together. These are not only the nations that have monopolised winning the World Cup for the past 68 years, but they also have the biggest fandoms and deepest player rosters. The five European nations also have the richest domestic leagues. That we have a World Cup that keeps pushing forward in terms of hosts and participants is genuinely remarkable in the face of this hegemony.
Likewise, this World Cup has forced me to accept that expanding the World Cup beyond 32 teams is probably a bad idea. Are we really ready for a tournament clogged up with more sides like Wales, Costa Rica and Qatar? Does that really add anything of value?
As an alternative I would like to dig up an old idea from Jonathan Wilson which was to make World Cup qualifying genuinely international. He had a much more radical plan that would slim down the tournament to only sixteen teams, but I think he gives a road map to make a 32-team World Cup work better.
As Wilson identified the first key step is to rationalise the various confederations; merging the two Americas and completing Asia’s absorption of Oceania that began when Australia defected. What Wilson didn’t explicitly state is that this would have benefits beyond the qualification tournament as surely the Americas would be stronger together if the merger was handled correctly; North America football would get an influx of quality and South American football would get an influx of money.
Handled right it could also bring some sanity to the wider international football calendar. There is no evidence that anyone other than football bureaucrats are benefiting from some international tournaments being run on a bi-annual basis nor being so bloated in size. A genuinely international World Cup qualifying campaign would share the wealth of the global game sufficiently to make it worthwhile for non-European confederations to run their tournaments less frequently. Likewise, a more lucrative and competitive qualification campaign should reduce the pressure to relentlessly expand tournaments.
A Truly Global World Cup Qualifying Competition
Depending on the year that would give somewhere between 206 and 220 nations participating World Cup qualifying. I proposed that we cap it at the top 40 nations in each of the now four confederations being included in World Cup qualifying.
The qualifying campaign would see 20 groups of 8 compete home and away across nine international breaks in a two-year period. Each group would have a mixture of nations from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. This would transform World Cup qualifying from a rather dreary trudge through familiar nations into a genuinely international affairs, and send major South American and Western European nations into the sports emerging nations like never before.
The groups would be chosen through a seeded draw, which took into consideration a nation’s confederation and their relative position amongst their neighbours. Each confederation’s nations would be divided into three categories based on past performance, with each group having the following:
Two Top Ten (1 - 10) Nations From Two Different Confederations (2)
One Second Twenty (21-40) Nation from Each of The Above Confederations (2)
One Second Ten (11 - 20) Nation From Each of the Outstanding Confederations (2)
One Second Twenty (21 - 40) Nations from Each of the Above Confederations (2)
The reason why the second seed from each confederation is from a pool of twenty rather than consistently using pools of 10 is to avoid sides being drawn against each other constantly, as has become a bane of modern international football qualifiers. Broadening the pool when selecting the second nation from each confederation just helps to keep things fresh.
The proposed World Cup Qualifying Tournament would be designed to fit into the existing international break schedule, spanning 7 match weeks. Therefore, you want to ensure that sides have to travel no more than three times outside their own confederation during the qualifying tournament. You do that by ensure they can double-up each trip. Imagine Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago are the seeded teams from the Americas in a group; their schedule could look like this:
International Break One is pre-season prep
Round One sees them both host the visiting European teams
Round Two sees them both host the visiting Asian teams
Round Three sees them both travel to face the African teams
Round Four sees them both host the visiting African teams
International Break Six is pre-season prep
Round Five sees them both travel to face the Asian teams
Round Six sees them both travel to face the European teams
Round Seven sees them compete against each other home and away
International Break Nine and Ten is eve-of-tournament prep
This would be a manageable schedule with no side ever being asked to do an intercontinental journey during the same international break. It would also fulfil the promise of the competition to bring bigger nations to emerging markets, including those near to home. And the winners of each group would progress to the World Cup Finals having proven themselves able to thrive across all four confederations.
What to Safeguard
Obviously, the winners of 20 groups doesn’t equal 32. So that leaves open the question as to what happens to the remaining places.
These should be kept in reserve as wildcards to safeguard some key attributes of the World Cup. The first should be that the host is present at the tournament if they have not already qualified from the above-mentioned competition, as should the defending champions (I really think FIFA is flirting with disaster by removing the old guarantee). The way you continue to incentivise their participation in the qualifying competition is that they are relegated to the bottom pot of nations in the finals draw if they enter through such a wildcard.
After allocating any additional places to the hosts or defending champions, the next priority should be ensuring geographical diversity. A World Cup is not just a celebration of a sport’s depth of talent but also its breadth, and the danger with moving away from geographical qualifying rounds is that it leads to the sport’s heartlands running the table. You go through rounds of allocating places to ensure that each confederation hits three, four or five participants with such wildcard entrants being selected based on their performance during the qualification campaign.
After five, you’re probably hitting the point that the Americas would qualify for a wildcard entrant even if their nations had done well in qualifying. Therefore, any confederation that hasn’t had a wildcard entrant and has no more than five nations qualifying should be prioritised when giving confederations a sixth entrant. Likewise, to ensure good sides aren’t unduly penalised by their confederation being the host or former champion being selected as a wildcard, nations from their confederation would likewise be prioritised for an additional wildcard.
If after ensuring allocation rounds each confederation has six entrants overall but there are still spare places in the World Cup available, the remainder should be allocated to the best performing second place sides during qualifying.
An Integrated Calendar
One of the problems at the moment with international football is that it is not iterative - the various components don’t fit together let alone reinforce each other. Compare that to European club football where lower leagues feed into each nation’s top-flight which then feeds into UEFA continental competitions who themselves feed into the FIFA World Club Cup. Creating a truly global World Cup qualification process would be the first step to creating a similar sense of order and purpose to the international game.
The other step would be standardising each confederations tournament and how they link into the World Cup. That each confederation has roughly the same members helps with this process, but we would have to go further, having each confederation adopting a common approach to their continental tournament. This would look something like:
16 teams in the finals (4 groups of 4, top 2 progress to knockout rounds)
40 teams in qualifying (4 groups of 10, top 4 progress to finals, with standings determining finals seeding)
Qualifying rounds to take place across the same ten international breaks
The four tournaments to be held two years before the World Cup in consecutive pairs
As with the World Cup, the reason to have such large qualifying groups is to ensure that the qualifying tournament contains marquee matches rather than keeping the major sides in each confederation away from each other. The qualifying would also naturally feed into the allocation of seeds come the draw for the tournament finals group stage.
The scheduling of the tournaments would be designed to create a single block of international football of equal length to the World Cup that spanned the four confederations own tournaments. You would pair them based on time-zones and prestige with the Americans being paired with Africa, and Europe with Asia so that throughout the summer there was a near 24-hour block of football for those who wanted to watch it.
Obviously, the reduction in number of tournaments would hurt the poorer confederations but a standardised calendar should allow for greater success in pushing the product to overseas viewers, and the newly global World Cup qualifying campaign would mean that they get to share in the rights fees for a more enticing product but that they benefit from the established footballing nations coming to them on a regular basis. They would also hopefully benefit from playing a more varied and elevated standard of competition on a regular basis.
Of course, there are nations this plan would directly disadvantage; the various sides who would be excluded from the qualifying tournaments for the World Cup and continental competitions.
My proposal is basically to create what amounts to a fifth confederation from the footballing underclass. During each two-year cycle these nations would be large enough to run a parallel qualifying and finals tournaments for minnows’ tournaments. This would give smaller and less accomplished nations the chance to participate in qualification where there was a genuine prize for them to fight for, including the chance to participate and win a fully-fledged international competition run by FIFA. In doing so it would provide them with a real challenge and a genuine chance of success, rather than them just being the perennial whipping boys for their neighbours.
It would also allow international football to finally adopt one of the greatest strengths of club football; promotion and relegation. Each two-year cycle would see poor performing nations loose their place in the next qualifying tournament, and the best performing nations in the minnows tournament earning the right to participate in the next qualifying tournament. It would mean that nations would have something to fight for towards the end of qualifying tournaments, even if they can’t actually secure progress to the finals tournament.
A Dream But So Is What Exists Today
This is obviously a pipe dream – the decision to move to a 48-team World Cup has already been made and confederations will never vote to subordinate themselves to a global schedule let alone exclude over a fifth of their members from key competitions. But what football fans should understand is that the egalitarian nature of the World Cup would itself be seen as a pipe dream in most sports – that the major powerhouses not only have to qualify but often fail to do so would be unthinkable in other major team sports. But that is a fragile inheritance which may not survive today’s lopsided competitive environment.
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