Wilson: World Cup expansion doesn’t help China – or anyone else
I genuinely hate to appear to stand on the side of the European football establishment (I’ll explain that one further down, there’s a twist!), but a World Cup expanded to 48 teams is overkill and risks devaluing the tournament, making it less desirable to qualify for in the first place.
From China’s point of view, the expansion is not necessarily a good thing either – word is that Asian slots would increase to 8 which would hardly guarantee qualification given China’s struggles to reach the final qualifying phase in recent times. Indeed, Chinese social media featured plenty of pessimistic comments that missing out on a jumbo-sized edition of the tournament would just increase China’s embarrassment. Joking aside though, the end result for China would be greater expectation to qualify, thus increasing the already high pressure on the players to bottom-of-the-Marianas Trench-like proportions. Besides, if China wants to reach its goals of being a world footballing power, it will need to be able to outplay the likes of Japan and Australia anyway, extra qualifying spots or not.
There are some very fair arguments in favour of expansion, some of which are put very well by some Australian commentators I have a lot of time for. It is true there has long been an elitist attitude present in Europe and even South America and that these places tend to view football from elsewhere in the world with contempt. Certainly it could be argued the current 32-team World Cup, and how the qualifying spots are divided between the confederations, doesn’t really reflect the reality of football on the ground in the 2010s. As football has spread throughout the world to new destinations via globalization over the last 30 years or so, there is now huge passion for the tournament in places with limited chances to qualify.
The whole continent of Africa has to get by on five slots, whilst, Asia, home to half the world’s population, only has 4.5 and don’t forget large swathes of the continent, particularly south east Asia (especially Indonesia), have been in love with the sport for decades and arguably have a stronger football culture than China.
It’s reasonable to say letting an increased number of emerging football countries qualify for the World Cup will help their development and spread the sport. Certainly China could benefit in this way, and Japan, South Korea and Australia certainly have improved their game from regular qualification.
Improving football in new countries is a fantastic function of the World Cup. But, and this is a big but, the priority should always be on maintaining the magic of the World Cup as a sporting content and its ability to inspire billions of people to fall in love with the game, at least for a month every four years. However, suddenly adding 16 new teams really is watering things down and necessitates an awkward 16 groups of three setup which means one team goes home after playing just two games.
Plus, I don’t know about you, but “Group P” just doesn’t sound right.
A line has to be drawn somewhere – it’s impossible to have everyone at the party. The current 32-team format works well. It is symmetrical, easy to understand, and has the right balance between getting the best teams in the world at the world’s biggest tournament, and making sure it is a World Cup and not just Europe plus Brazil and Argentina. You could argue Europe is over-represented. South America even more so – half of CONMEBOL’s 10 members can make it. In an ideal world, Europe and South America would give up some slots and spread the love to other parts of the globe. But everyone knows that won’t happen. So 32 slots is the best answer to a very difficult conundrum. It is certainly a big improvement on the previous format of 24 teams, last seen at USA 94. This configuration meant it was actually harder to get knocked out than qualify from the first round – a phenomenon which will return in a 48-team edition.
The switch in 1998 to 32 teams came at a time when geopolitical changes had seen a significant number of new countries enter the football scene after the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia earlier in the decade. From the ashes of these political unions rose several sides who made their mark on the world stage – most notably Croatia who finished 3rd at the 1998 World Cup. And also, just to prove that expansion is not necessary for so called “minnows” to make it to major tournaments, former USSR republic Latvia have qualified for a European Championship, whilst most recently, Iceland and Wales graced last year’s edition of the tournament. Before you say that was because France 2016 was expanded, Wales and Iceland both were runners-up in their group and had records which placed them inside the top 16 qualifiers, so it is fair to proffer that they would have qualified for an un-expanded tournament anyway.
Proponents of an expanded World Cup talk about the current format as if the same teams win and qualify all the time. But that’s not quite true. Since the 32-team format came in, two new winners – Spain and France – have been added, an Asia side made it to the last four (South Korea), and every single year there has always been at least one team made its World Cup debut. This was not a format which was stagnant in any way.
Yes, there are a greater number of World Cup qualifying entrants than before, but quite a few are micro states with zero chances of ever qualifying. I think it’s fair to say there is difference between very small nations who came good, like Iceland (population 330,000) and places which are basically countries the size of a town such as Gibraltar (33,000) and have no realistic hope of ever making it to a major tournament. There are a good number of such teams who, lets be honest, are just cannon fodder and consider just scoring a goal to be a huge achievement. So when you look at the 206 countries who entered qualification for the World Cup in Brazil last time round, how many of these really are of a standard to be competitive even in a qualification tournament? An expanded tournament risks making qualification less interesting as the top teams will now have to slip up monumentally to not make it.
As it stands every country has a chance to qualify for the world cup – that is what qualification is for after all. It is not the end of the world to not qualify for a World Cup. As a Scotland fan, I know all about that and I have no problem keeping the format 32 teams even if it means I may never see my country at a World Cup again. The integrity and credibility of the competition is more important, and there are only so many teams one can accommodate logistically. Which brings me to my final and most important point which I alluded to at the top.
The European elite hate international football and their agenda is to diminish its relevance so the Champions League takes precedence, a competition they control and earn huge revenues from, revenues which are not redistributed to help develop football to anywhere near the same extent that FIFAs monies are (this is still true despite FIFA’s corruption). The Euro snob media have been sharpening their knives for years on the World Cup, openly questioning its status as the World’s most prestigious football competition and scoffing arrogantly at the heavy defeats of the likes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia in the opening rounds of recent World Cups.
For quite sometime, the big European clubs have been kicking back against their players turning out for their countries, demanding compensation for players injured on national duty, or mysteriously reporting their players as injured and unable to be called up in the first place. It has become de rigueur for players to retire from international football years before they quit their professional career to concentrate on playing for their clubs.
A World Cup expanded to 48 teams, although well intentioned in some respects, will become a bloated and easy target that the European elite won’t hesitate to mercilessly attack to fit their own selfish and narrow agenda. The 32 team World Cup is special precisely because it requires a certain level of excellence to qualify for it, whilst giving a chance for football’s lesser lights to shine on the big stage. It creates a magic and a lore which goes far beyond club football because, unlike the champions league, players aren’t at the World Cup for the money. Messing up its complex balance risks spoiling all that is good about the world’s greatest sporting contest.
Author: Cameron Wilson
UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…