30 Days and not counting…

Is the World Cup fading into obscurity?  

Perhaps its England’s general lethargy tournament after tournament, or the regular let downs on the big ticket matches, or maybe it’s the corruption which has stained the game and allegedly had its hand in the ballot box, either way, this coming World Cup just doesn’t feel exciting or promising.

The tournament which was once so special is going the way of the FA Cup and becoming a bit of a sideshow to some fans.  It is in desperate need of a revamp and yet the governing body seems set to make the competition even more diluted and anticlimactic.

Devolution

The World Cup was set up as a challenge to the newly emerging brand of football played by the South Americans in the 1920s. It was an exciting new tournament to see if anyone could challenge them.  It evolved to become the crowning competition for the world’s best players and nations.  In the days before wall-to-wall coverage and internet clips, the tournament was also a rare chance to see the best players in the World from Puskas right the way through to Romario.

It was also a place where managers genuinely innovated and changed the game for the better.  Alf Ramsey’s 4-4-2 in ’66 was a new and exciting concept which gave England a competitive edge.  The Netherland’s Total Football of ’74 is still so influential on the game today.  Right the way through to men like Marcelo Bielsa and Jurgen Klinsmann, whose fresh and innovative approach brought attacking football and new ideas, the tournament has been a force for good in the development of the game.

Unfortunately as it has expanded, a lot of the early rounds of group games have become matches of attrition, turgid affairs with teams playing by the numbers.  The objective is to avoid defeat rather than play open and exciting football.  As lesser teams outnumber the genuine challengers, the football has become bogged down and dull.

Even when the tournament progresses to the latter stages the matches are often not as exciting as first billed and fail to live up the hype.  This has even spread to the final itself, with the last three going to extra time after dour and cagey affairs.  Games like Spain versus The Netherlands in the 2010 final should have been exciting, but was instead ir was a slow, boring clash of cat and mouse with neither side willing to take too many risks.  The last three finals in fact have yield just four goals, only two coming in normal time.  Great for the neutrals.

Changes for the worse

In January 2017 FIFA voted to expand the tournament from thirty-two to forty-eight teams for the 2026 tournament.  Gianni Infantino said he wanted a “more inclusive World Cup” and the whole thing from FIFA’s perspective is to expand the game’s global reach.  Forty-eight teams, means eighty games and a monster first knockout round of thirty-two nations.  There is also talk of “eliminating” draws by deciding games in the group stages with penalty shoot-outs.

Firstly, the numbers are bonkers. There is no other way of putting it. There are only one hundred and ninety six recognized countries in the world.  This means almost one in four of them will be at the 2026 World Cup.  There is already a mismatch of teams in the groups, with only a handful of the qualifiers being any good.  It’s nice for nations to have their day, but it makes for dull football contest if we’re being truly honest.

Secondly, the prospect of “eliminating” draws with shoot-outs will surely have the opposite effect.  A nil-nil is still a nil-nil even with penalties at the end.  If you are a lesser team playing say, Argentina, then surely you’ll play for a tie and take your chances with spot kicks.  This will also actually take the drama away for a good old fashioned penalty shoot-out as they become second nature.  Do these people actually understand and like the game they govern?

It will be refreshing and historic to see some new nations at the World Cup, as some very good players from smaller nations have in the past been excluded from it by default.  The African Nations also deserve an expanded representation at the top table, given the strides they have made since in 1990 World Cup.

The financials are good for FIFA, as an expanded World Cup could boost their coffers by £521million.  Some caution should be applied though. Dull football is bad for ratings.  American representatives and marketing gurus were said to be aghast at the 1990 World Cup.  The tournament was a dull affair, slow and defensive football was the norm with a record low of one hundred and fifteen goals scored in fifty-two games.

There are many stories of panic from the Americans; this was not something that sponsors would buy into.  As a result, three points would be awarded for a win in the ’94 tournament, and interestingly the new rule on the pass back was brought in between the Italia 90 and USA ’94, again to discourage overly defensive performances.  Perhaps this historical echo will surface again if 2026 follows the historical trend of dull World Cups.  If sponsors are turned off, then a key revenue stream for FIFA will dry up and the tournament will lose it’s  financial appeal.

Genuine inconvenience

Most Liverpool fans will shrug and tell you straight that they don’t care about the England National Team.  But this is only half true.  In fact most of us do care about one thing, we want our players to come back in one piece and fit for the proper football we all love.

It is quite common now for top players to feature in fifty to sixty games a season, with little rest in between.  More and more tournaments spring up each year for club and country and the effect burns players out and leaves them perennially injured.   Between 2014 and 2016 Alexis Sanchez played in one hundred and thirty-five games for club and country.  Whichever way you look at it, these numbers are not sustainable for anyone to endure, especially not for a linchpin player expected to carry club and country.

The World Cup comes at the end of a busy cycle for European clubs and they watch with bated breath as their star players face down North Korea and Peru, hoping that they don’t suddenly pull up or collapse on the pitch at an awkward, ligament damaging angle.

Footballers are entitled to a little sympathy here.  The games are now faster and harder to endure than ever before. Fifty to sixty games a season is nothing new, but played at the pace we now watch and enjoy, it is genuinely damaging and exhausting for the players involved.  The World Cup is just another set of games for these players to get through, when most of them could really use a few week’s rest.

Future

There will likely always be a FIFA World Cup no matter what it does or doesn’t do for the game.  As above dull football is bad for ratings and revenue, and if the money does dry up, then like all businesses, the owners will either pull the plug or change it around again.

FIFA can learn from the Champions League, which is actually quite a ruthless tournament designed to weed out the poorer teams in the qualifying rounds.  The last sixteen of Europe’s elite is usually a list of the best club teams in Europe and makes for some compelling and well matched ties.  This year’s change to do away with a qualifying round for the 4th best teams in Spain and England is testament to the governing body’s desire to not dilute the tournament’s quality.

Ultimately there needs to be a reduction in the number of nations participating.  Neutrals aren’t going to switch on for some of the dross ties in the group stages.  Sixteen teams was a nice number and gave us some genuinely fantastic tournaments, such as Mexico ’70, where half the teams that turned up could genuinely have won it.

Whichever way it goes, the most recent tinkering defies logic and doesn’t bode well for the World Cup’s future appeal.  Besides, no matter how many nations get their day in the sun, the aim of the tournament should always remain to crown the best nation in the world.  It seems this has been forgotten in the quest for inclusivity.

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