The 2014 World Cup was rightly lauded for the exceptional number of goals. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, James Rodriquez et al contributed to an outstanding group stage and an enjoyable (if slightly less goal-frenzied) knock-out phase.
Despite the well documented problems with Qatar and the surreal prospect of Russia spending ten times as much on their hosting of the tournament as Brazil, most commentators agree that, if nothing else, the current format of the tournament works. 32 countries are divided into eight groups. The top two in each progress to the knock-out phase, and that all conveniently crunches down, match by match, to a final after which a champion is crowned. The eventual World Cup holders will have battled past seven of the tournament’s 31 opponents to end up with that little star on their shirts. And what’s more, all of it takes place in pretty much a single month. All good stuff – which is doubtless why FIFA fancies cocking it up and increasing the size of the finals tournament further still.
Of course, the World Cup has seen plenty of format changes over the years. In 1950, it was three four-team groups and then another, four team group – the group winner, Brazil, taking the title. When England won it in, ooh, whenever it was, there were just 16 countries in four groups contesting the finals. But pressure to increase the number of entrants was understandable and eventually led to the introduction of a 24 team tournament in 1982.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to have 24 divide down into two finalists unless you have four groups of six and a tournament that might never end. So, compromises were needed – and the 24-team tournament formats were far from perfect. The first, in 1982, was an organisational nightmare in which the top two teams in six groups of four progressed to a second group stage comprising four groups of three, providing one semi-finalist each.
The format stank, so for the next three tournaments – 1986, 1990 and 1994 – the four “best” third-placed teams in each of the six four-team groups progressed to the knock-out rounds. That wasn’t particularly sensible either; really quite average teams could yet make the knock-out rounds.
In 1990, it took a late Mark Wright goal to prevent England having to draw lots in order to progress. In 1994, Italy were able to lose to Ireland in their first game, finish third in their group – yet still go on to win the bloody thing.
Absurd, but apparently not absurd enough to prevent UEFA from introducing this 24-team format for Euro 2016. In this case, the nonsense carries on into the qualification process.
I mean, there are only 53 countries in UEFA competing for those 24 places. You’ve effectively a 50% chance of playing in the finals from day one! So much for Platini’s idea of a nerve-jangling “week of football” – you’re going to need to be a pretty average team indeed not to make the finals in France. And as a result, the qualification campaign is going to be a mildly diverting one and no more. Well done everybody.
Back with FIFA, and the 24 team format proved inefficient at adequately representing the world’s top sides. Eventually, the only way was up. France hosted the first 32-team World Cup Finals in 1998. Another big increase with eight more teams, yes – but now we were back to just the top two countries in each of eight groups progressing to the knock-out rounds.
And it works. It’s clean, easy to follow and acceptable – just as the original 16 team format had been all the way up until 1978. The current format is the joint longest serving in World Cup history, with Brazil 2014 being the fifth consecutive 32-team tournament.
There are a few downsides, though. The need for the host nation to have advanced stadium and transport infrastructure is such that it would be difficult for, say, Belgium to host the tournament on its own. That’s a shame, and even more so when you consider how many potential African and Asian countries are also unlikely to be able to bid to host a World Cup.
In fact, don’t get me started on hosting the tournament. Instead of Russia 2018 and – I still can’t believe it – Qatar 2022, we should be preparing for World Cups in England and Australia respectively.
So what’s next? Rumours abound of an increase to 40 countries in order to accommodate more Asian entrants. Michel Platini thinks the current arrangement remains too overbalanced in terms of European entrants. Rather than further restrict European countries — difficult, given the continent’s recent success in finals relative to other FIFA federations — the additional teams would be accommodated by placing a fifth country in each of the eight groups.
What would such a tournament look like? How long would it last? I’ve had a go at working it out – and it’s not pretty.
Everything about the knock-out rounds would remain as-is, with all of the problems caused by the enlarged group stage. While you could, very possibly, have a tournament that lasts no more than one extra week, the following problems would still exist:
1. There could be as many as eight days between the start of the tournament and the last of the forty countries taking part in its first match.
2. Because each round of matches leaves one of the competing countries out (1 vs 2, 3 vs 4 leaves team 5 kicking its heels, etc.), then the team not taking part in the last round of group matches could, if they’ve already qualified, have as many as six additional rest days prior to facing their opponents in the second round.
3. There’s considerably more potential for ‘dead rubber’ matches towards the end of the group stage.
4. You’d have no fewer than 95 competitive matches in the tournament, up from 63 at present. (I don’t count the third-place play-off. Who counts the third-place play-off?)
5. You’d need there to be four group matches a day, which for TV purposes would mean games kicking off at 12:00, 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00. Now, I enjoy a “feast of football” as much as the next man, but that’s full-on gluttony. Even armchair enthusiasts will lose track of who’s playing who, and when, and what it all means.
So, all in all? An absolute nonsense, up there with Brazil being invited into the Euros (Michel Platini was thinking about it), or each 45 minutes of the 2020 Euros being played in a different time zone (or whatever Platini’s visions have decreed).
Keep it as it is, I say. There comes a point when things done in the name of progress just aren’t that progressive.
And anyway, let’s face the baldest fact: even a 40-team tournament would do nothing to improve England’s chances of winning the bloody thing.