Debate over World Cup spots reveals FIFA's political, money-driven reality

Tuesday October 29th, 2013

Luis Suarez, Getty Images If Platini's proposal was applied to the 2014 World Cup, Uruguay would have qualified automatically instead of needing to win an intercontinental playoff against Jordan. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

If you still regard the World Cup as the apex of the global game, a showcase for elite players and nations at which the numbers on the scoreboard are the most important, then you’re missing the big, modern picture.

The World Cup represents the most effective carrot and stick available to soccer’s power brokers. By controlling access to the planet’s most popular sporting event, FIFA bends governments, national federations, media and sponsors to its will. For individual countries, hosting or competing is a matter of significant pride, not to mention millions of dollars. The World Cup is a marketing vehicle, a political tool, an agenda and an ego trip -- consider the bizarre selection of Qatar as host of the 2022 tournament. The winners on the field aren’t the only ones.

That was evident again over the past few days, as FIFA presidential hopefuls Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini once again demonstrated that competition quality, sensible scheduling and other traditional concerns are no longer the priority.

The election is. The easiest way to curry favor with the national federations that will elect the next FIFA president in 2015 is to offer things. Among the most valuable things FIFA can offer (that it’s willing to part with) is a berth in the World Cup.

The incumbent, Blatter, started the conversation last week when he argued that Asia and Africa deserve more berths. Africa, which will have five teams in Brazil, is “woefully underrepresented,” Blatter said. Asia will have four or five World Cup entrants, depending on the result of next month’s Uruguay-Jordan playoff. Europe, which gets 13 berths, would have to cede at least two to satisfy Blatter’s ambition, which is to satisfy the Asian and African federations that might determine his political future.

Not that it matters anymore, but neither continent has shown on the field that it warrants an extra spot. Over the past three World Cups, a nation from Asia or Africa was among the worst five finishers (ranked 28th-32nd) on nine occasions. They have earned three of the 24 available quarterfinal places. There is no reason to believe the teams that can’t qualify now would do any better.

However, Blatter isn't trying to please everyone. Taking spots from Europe or putting South America and CONCACAF under threat would upset voters there.

Enter Platini, the populist UEFA president who’s already re-engineered the Champions League to give clubs from less-powerful leagues an easier path to the group stage and decided that a 24-team Euro 2020 will be played in 13 different countries.

Platini told London’s The Times that he envisions a 40-team World Cup.

“It’s good for everybody,” the former Juventus legend said.

Platini wants eight groups of five nations each. Each would play four first-round matches rather than three, meaning the semifinalists would contest eight games over some 34 days. It’s presumed that the top two finishers in each group would progress to the round-of-16 as they do now.

“I totally agree with Mr Blatter that we need more African and Asian [countries]. But instead of taking away some Europeans, we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup. We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American, one Oceania and one from Europe,” Platini told The Times. “Football is changing and now we have 209 associations. There are more countries so why reduce? Forty is not so bad. You have three days more of competition and you make more people happy.”

By “people”, he probably means the federations that cast votes for the FIFA presidency, sponsors and TV executives who might ante up for more games. Odds are a first-round match between Burkina Faso and Uzbekistan, or the inevitable group-stage walkthroughs for the sport’s top teams, aren’t going to capture the public imagination. But that doesn’t matter, because soccer's suits have decided that bigger is better. Exclusivity doesn’t pay.

Only elites would vote against a 40-team World Cup, and smart politicians don’t get far focusing on elites. Platini’s tournament will be bloated. It will feature a ponderous and lopsided group stage. It will further burden the players, their clubs and the host nation. But it also will excite fans/customers from eight additional nations, not to mention the politicians who control soccer in those countries hoping to qualify. Standing against expansion will mean standing against those fans and politicians. Blatter’s World Cup now seems elitist by comparison. He’d better come up with a rebuttal. Blatter could push for a 64-team tournament, which would comprise 16 groups of four teams each that would send only the first-place finisher to the second round. It could even feature an expanded knockout stage with 32 teams -- after all, early elimination doesn’t make anyone happy. Blatter also could show up Platini by combining the five-team group idea with the multi-national Euro 2020 hosting model and proposing an 80-team World Cup staged across a continent. Why not? So what if Germany beats Thailand by a dozen? Who cares if the top teams hardly ever meet? Think how much happiness that behemoth would spread among soccer fans, stakeholders and governments around the world. That is, it appears, all that matters.

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