Sunday, June 4, 2017

My Alternative South Island League Proposal

Apparently the time has once again come for the idea of a South Island Football League to be considered. This is something that gets raised every few years and then seems to disappear.

The last South Island Football League was held back in 1999. It consisted of the top six clubs from the previous season’s Southern League Premier Division (Dunedin Technical, Christchurch Technical, Southland United, Northern Hearts, Woolston WMC and Caversham), plus Nelson Suburbs and Marlborough United, both of whom represented regions that were previously part of the Central League.

The league lasted just one season. The following season, a national league was reintroduced for which the top three South Island teams qualified to enter.

According to the September 2015 New Zealand Football National Competitions Review,


While the cold, hard facts may support that conclusion, it should be noted that Marlborough finished last with just one point, and their entry into the league was somewhat artificial, having never before played at such a high level, while Northern Hearts finished seventh, with just two narrow wins against Marlborough and a late season home draw against Southland to their name. Although these two teams were undoubtedly not strong enough to play in this competition, in all likelihood there were better quality teams from Christchurch and Dunedin playing in the lower ranked Federation-based competitions. Certainly many of the Canterbury clubs which might have been considered were ignored because they had chosen not to play in the previous season’s Southern League.

On other occasions, prior to the reorganization of domestic football into seven federations, there have been Southern League competitions consisting of the best clubs from Canterbury, South Canterbury, North Otago, Otago, Central Otago and Southland. Originally, from 1968-71 there were two such divisions. In 1972 the second division was split into North and South divisions.

In 1974, as the result of the oil shock, there was no region-wide league and instead the clubs were split into Division 1 North (Canterbury 7 teams and South Canterbury 1) and Division 1 South (Otago 6 and Southland 4). But at the end of the season the top two from each division met in a six-round mini-league to determine which club would attempt to win promotion to the National League.

The next five years saw a return to a fully regional Southern League, initially with five clubs from each zone. By the end of 1979, as the result of promotion/relegation, there were only three southern zone clubs remaining, and one of them, North End United, finished last, at which point the Canterbury-based clubs decided that they could have a strong league of their own without having to fork out for two trips to Dunedin every season. As a result, from 1980, the league was once again divided into Division 1 North and Division 1 South. This structure stayed in place for seven seasons, with an end of season play-off between the winners of each zone to determine the overall champion.

But in 1987 the zones were once again unified, with eight clubs competing (Canterbury 4, South Canterbury 1, North Otago 1, Otago 2). The combined league stayed in place for five more seasons with ten teams competing each season, though promotion and relegation resulted in northern clubs outnumbering southern clubs 7-3 by the end of this period.

Everything changed in 1993, when the national league was scrapped and the new Superclub competition was formed. At the end of this regionally based competition the top two Southern zone clubs joined the top three Northern and top three Central clubs in an eight-team national competition. For the four seasons this was in place, there were always at least seven Canterbury clubs in the ten-team Southern Superclub competition. Interest wasn’t always particularly high though. I clearly remember a Burnside versus Dunedin Technical final round match at a rainy English Park, which was attended by just two spectators, neither of whom paid. Across town there were two massive matches involving clubs in with a chance of finishing second and qualifying for the national Superclub.

When a new National League began in 1997, a ten-team Southern League was reconstituted, but such was the dissatisfaction of the Canterbury clubs that just two of them decided to enter the following season’s competition, resulting in just seven teams in the league.

That brings us back to where we started, with a South Island league in 1999 that lasted just one season before the age-old cost-benefit analysis informally undertaken by Canterbury clubs resulted in separate Mainland and FootbalLSouth leagues for the past eighteen seasons.

In 2005 there were discussions about possibly reforming a South Island League and various discussions were held, but nothing came of it. In 2015, Mainland Football CEO Julian Bowden once again raised the idea and it once again petered out. Now we are hearing more rumblings.

History shows us that whether the chosen format is a fully regional competition or two federation-based competitions, after a few seasons people start to think the other format’s grass is greener.

Potentially a fully regional competition would result in higher quality, more competitive matches, fewer easy victories and better players who would therefore find it easier to step up to the next level (i.e. whatever the top level domestic league is).

But on the downside, there is the additional cost burden, and the likelihood that within five years the number of teams would be heavily biased toward the Mainland Football federation. We already know this has always happened in the past, and I suspect it would be even more of a factor now, because while the Otago clubs have remained pretty much as they always were, in Canterbury there have been numerous mergers (Rangers and New Brighton formed Coastal Spirit; Shamrock and Riccarton formed Avon United which then joined with Burnside to form FC Twenty11; Woolston WMC and Christchurch Technical formed Woolston Tech, which then joined with Cashmere Wanderers to form Cashmere Tech; Kaiapoi Town and Rangiora formed Waimak United; University of Canterbury and Lincoln College formed Universities of Canterbury) and even Nelson United, Nelson City and Metro joined to form FC Nelson.

Another possible negative would be that after eight or so games, mid-table teams might not have anything to play for. Imagine you’ve won two, drawn three and lost three. You won’t be relegated. You won’t challenge for the title. The risk is you’ll drop some of your better players to the reserves for an important game rather than subject them to a trip to Nelson or Invercargill that you know will probably result in defeat anyway.

An ideal league would encompass the following five qualities:

1.      A High Standard of Play

This is a very subjective measure, and therefore difficult to quantify.  It concerns the standard of football.  It is especially difficult to measure this when one considers the adage that football is as much art as science.  Short of having a skilled panel of observers rating each match for quality and entertainment, or a team of statisticians noting each successful and unsuccessful pass, shot, trap, save etc., and then producing some sort of ranking formula, we are left with our gut feelings when rating a game or even an entire season.

One other way of analysing the quality of the league structure is to look at Strength of Schedule.  If a ranking from 1 (the best team) to 16 (the worst team) were awarded to each of the sixteen clubs currently represented in the Mainland League or Canterbury League, one could calculate the average difficulty of each team’s opponents.


2.      Competitive Matches


Ideally we want the teams to be relatively even in terms of ability.  One way to determine this is to look at the winning margins in games.  The lower the average winning margin, the more even teams are in terms of ability.  In particular, the number of wins by five or more goals should ideally be a very small percentage of the total results. Wins by seven or more would ideally be non-existent.


3.      Meaningful Games


Ideally one team will not dominate the league, pulling away to a huge lead over the remaining teams.  By the same token, one team should not lose every game. Every team should have something to play for as late in the season as possible. This is the main reason why end of season play-offs were added to the English league.

In general, the lower the points spread, the more meaningful each game is.  Teams with no chance of either winning the league or being relegated can settle into a ‘mid-table mediocrity’ in which their performances drop.  This further reduces the quality of the league and the players and can have carryover affects because players finding themselves in this situation can start to lack ‘big match intensity’.

This same problem was prevalent in England for many years, exacerbated by the large numbers of teams in each division (ranging from 20-24).  One simple change resulted in many more teams having something to play for throughout the season, namely, the introduction of promotion play-offs.  With this change, instead of only three or four teams winning promotion, suddenly six or seven teams either won promotion or entered the play-offs for a promotion place. It also meant that very late in the season even mid-table teams knew that if they could string together a few wins they might just have a shot at promotion.


4.      Variety of Opponents


It is little use having a league that meets all the above criteria if it only has two teams.  Clearly there need to be enough teams that the same teams do not keep playing each other over and over.  Most leagues seem to provide for two clashes between teams each season (home and away).  The Scottish Premier League requires four clashes per season, leading to many critics claiming that the league is becoming stale. Both teams in the Isles of Scilly League play twenty league matches, plus the Charity Shield and two cup competions. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/sports/soccer/smallest-soccer-league-scilly.html?_r=0


Competing Factors


The same two competing factors have plagued the Southern League since its inception in 1968.

On the one hand, the existence of a single, regional league is seen as the only way to keep playing standards high and help bridge the gap between regional and national football, while also possibly helping southern-based players make the leap to international football.

On the other hand, the costs of competing in such a league are high and clubs are concerned about what they perceive to be high costs of travel, especially if that travel also requires overnight stays.

Willingness to Travel


Perhaps surprisingly, the less out-of-town travel is involved, the more likely the Canterbury clubs seem to be to want to set up their own league.  A league containing five clubs from outside Canterbury seems to be deemed more worthwhile than a league consisting of eight Canterbury and two Otago clubs, for example.

In general it is the Canterbury clubs that ‘complain’ the most about travel.  Clubs from Nelson, Marlborough, Mid Canterbury, South Canterbury, North Otago, Otago and more recently Central Otago have at times shown a willingness to travel long distances if it will allow them to compete in a higher standard of competition.  For many years, Nelson United flew to every away match, be it in the National League or the Central League.  Nelson Suburbs currently make nine or ten trips to Christchurch every season.  A Marlborough team sometimes play in the Nelson League and various teams from Hurunui, Ashburton and Selwyn often play in the Canterbury Leagues.

Responsibilities to the Region


When eight Canterbury teams were complaining about making two trips to Dunedin, they seemed to forget that the two Otago clubs were willingly making eight trips to Christchurch.  The Canterbury clubs might do well to remember their responsibilities to clubs from other regions.  How would Canterbury United react if North Island teams decided it wasn’t worth playing South Island teams and formed their own National League competition?


A New Alternative 


History suggests that whenever one format has been in place for a few years, its disadvantages (and the advantages of the alternative format) start to become more prominent, leading to a change.  Given that neither a fully regionalized competition nor separate Federation-based competitions appear to be satisfactory, perhaps an alternative could be examined that combines elements of both.  This section outlines my solution, aimed at retaining its strengths and eliminating its weaknesses.

In particular, I wanted to uphold the quality of the competition, through maintaining a difficult strength of schedule for the leading teams; having teams play teams of a similar level as much as possible; maintaining interest for every team as far into the season as possible; offering a varied list of opponents throughout the season; and keeping travel outside a team’s own Federation to a minimum.
Eight teams seems to be a reasonable starting number for a South Island League, and presumably four of them should be from Mainland Football and four from FootballSouth. But we need to avoid that balance changing, because we know that once it does, Mainland clubs will start to lose interest in travelling to FootballSouth.

The first consideration was whether eight is too many teams to include in the Mainland Premier League.  Many years ago I read in various places, including the Otago Daily Times online edition, that many within the Mainland area consider six to be the ideal number.  This would leave ten clubs to make up Mainland Division 1.

A Mainland League of six clubs playing each other four times would run the risk of becoming stale and of the second half of the season becoming meaningless for many teams.

My solution is as follows:

South Island Qualifying League (SIQL) consisting of the leading six Mainland clubs
Mainland Qualifying League (MQL) consisting of the ten next best Mainland clubs (including non-Canterbury teams)
FootballSouth League (FSL) consisting of the leading ten FootballSouth clubs

The SIQL teams would play two full round robins (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four would qualify for the South Island League (SIL) along with four FootballSouth teams, and the bottom two would qualify for the Mainland Premier League (MPL).

The MQL teams would play one full round robin (four or five home matches), for a total of 9 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four teams would qualify for the Mainland Premier League (MPL) and the bottom six would qualify for Mainland League Division 1 (ML1).

The FSL teams would play one full round robin (four or five home matches), for a total of 9 matches per team.
Upon completion, the top four teams would qualify for the South Island League (MPL) and the bottom six would remain in ther FootballSouth League Division 1 (ML1).

The SIL league table would be divided into two Conferences (Mainland and FootballSouth).  Each team would play home and away against teams in their own Conference, plus home or away against teams from the other Conference, for a total of 10 games.  At the end of the season the leading team in each Conference would meet at a neutral venue to decide the South Island Football Championship.

All four of the Mainland teams would qualify for the following season’s South Island Qualifying League.

The six MPL teams would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.  At the end of the season the winners would be declared the Mainland Premier League Champions.The top two teams would qualify for the following season’s South Island Qualifying League and the bottom four for the Mainland Qualifying League.

The six ML1 teams would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team.  At the end of the season the winners would be declared the Mainland League Division 1 Champions.  The top five teams would qualify for the following seasons’ Mainland Qualifying League.  The bottom team would be relegated and replaced by the winners of one of the local (Canterbury, Nelson etc.) leagues, subject to one of those teams wishing to enter.

The six remaining teams in the FootballSouth Premier League would play two full rounds (home and away), for a total of 10 matches per team. In this league, and perhaps in some of the other leagues, consideration could be given as to whether teams begin the second phase of the season on zero points, or whether points are carried over from the phase, or whether each team receives bonus points based on their finishing position in the first phase of the season.

 

Strengths


If this system were to be introduced, many of the areas considered to currently be problematic would be addressed.

 

Theoretically, with the best clubs competing among themselves for the entire second half of the season, the standard of play would be improved. Matches would be more competitive and the number of hidings would be reduced. This point would also apply to the teams that failed to qualify for the South Island League. Teams would be competing against other teams of similar quality.


With an increased number of trophies up for grabs and four teams from each of the three first phase leagues earning ‘promotion’ of sorts, mid-table teams would have something to play for. Once the second phase had begun, the SIL teams would be aiming to win their Conference, the MPL teams would be aiming to at least finish in the top two to earn a place in the following season’s SIQL, and the ML1 teams would either be keeping an eye on winning the league or avoiding finishing last which would result in relegation. Meanwhile, the remaining FSPL teams would have the chance to win a trophy, something that has eluded them all for many years.

Each competing team would also play at least as many different opponents as they play now, so in addition to the factors discussed above there would also be an increase in variety.

The top four Mainland teams would play five SIQL opponents and four FootballSouth opponents.
The next two Mainland teams would play five SIQL opponents and four MQL opponents.
The next four Mainland teams would play nine MQL opponents plus two SIQL opponents.
The remaining six Mainland teams would play nine MQL opponents.
The top four FootballSouth teams would play nine FSPL opponents plus four Mainland opponents.
The remaining six FootballSouth teams would play nine FSPL opponents.

Another positive is that a club that plays in the South Island League one season and then loses a large number of good players over the summer, will not be stuck competing in that league the next season. Instead, if, as expected, their first phase results are poor, they will end up in one of the consolation leagues in the second phase of the season.

This format would also ensure that every season the South Island League would have an equal number of teams from each of the two South Island federations, meaning the historical imbalance after a few seasons could not happen.

The introduction of this format would also be an excellent time to allow non-Mainland clubs to enter the structure. Currently, unless they are good enough to play in the MPL, they are stuck playing local league football in Nelson or Marlborough. My proposed format would provide the opportunity for clubs such as Richmond Athletic, FC Nelson or Central Pirates to compete in a better quality competition as long as their results merit it. While there has always been at least one Nelson club competing in the MPL, what a disaster it would be for the region if they were to be relegated. But using this format, they would have to be worse than fifteen other teams to be consigned to local league football, whereas currently that only requires seven teams to finish above them.

Finally, while there would obviously be an increase in costs when compared to the status quo, each of the eight teams that reach the South Island League would be required to travel only twice outside their own Federation, rather than the four or five such trips that would be necessary under a fully fledged eight- or ten-team league.

I originally developed this idea in 2005. I hadn’t looked at it since until I read about possible South Island League discussions a week or so ago, at which point I searched for this and found it again. Twelve years later, I think the idea still makes sense and all the arguments I made in 2005 are still valid today.


What do you think?

Friday, March 31, 2017

The expanded World Cup – what’s in it for Oceania?


News that the Bureau of the FIFA Council had agreed on a proposed slot allocation for the 2026 World Cup Finals that would mean an automatic Oceania slot, was generally met with great excitement by my fellow New Zealanders, with very few notes of caution among the comments I read on social media.

A few people noted that qualifying for the World Cup Finals isn't the same when it's virtually handed to you on a plate. The excitement and twists of turns of the epic fifteen-match marathon in 1981 resulted in a whole new segment of New Zealand football fans. Likewise, most of the country would remember Rory Fallon's headed winner and Mark Paston's penalty save against Bahrain at the Cake Tin in 2009.

To be honest, from a purely footballing perspective based on the playing of important international matches, I fear that the outcome will be worse for Oceania than the status quo.

Currently, the Oceania World Cup Qualifying process is split into a number of different phases:

1. The four weakest nations (American Samoa, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga) play a round robin tournament in a single location, with the winners advancing to Phase 2 and the losers eliminated.
2. The OFC Nations Cup. The Phase 1 winners (Samoa have always won this mini tournament to date) are joined by the remaining seven nations (New Zealand, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu). The teams are divided into two groups of four. The top three teams in each group progress to Phase 3 of World Cup Qualifying. The top two in each group progress to the semi-finals of the Oceania Nations Cup with the eventual tournament winners qualifying for the Confederations Cup. (New Zealand defeated Papua New Guinea on penalties in the 2016 Final.)
3. The six remaining nations (Samoa and Vanuatu were the two to miss out this time around) are divided into two groups of three, playing home and away matches against each other. The group winners progress to Phase 4. The remaining four teams are eliminated.
4.  The Phase 3 group winners play each other over two legs. (New Zealand have already won Group A. The Group B winners are yet to be determined). The winners advance to Phase 5. The losers are eliminated.
5.  The Phase 4 winners play against a team from another Confederation over two legs. The winners qualify for the World Cup Finals. The losers are eliminated.

Assuming New Zealand are the eventual winners of Phase 4, they will move on to meet the fifth best team from CONMEBOL. That could be any one of a number of teams, including, but not limited to, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru. Matches against any of their prospective opponents would be hugely attractive and would guarantee a sold out stadium for the home leg. In all likelihood, this would also be the end of New Zealand’s attempt to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia.

So at the end of the qualification attempt, New Zealand would have played:

3 OFC Nations Cup group matches that double as World Cup Qualifiers versus Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. The official attendances for these matches played in Port Moresby were 378, 520 and 1925 respectively.

The OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final versus New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea respectively. The attendances for these matches were 1379 and then 13,000 for the final against the hosts. Technically neither of these were World Cup Qualifying matches.

4 Phase 3 matches home and away against New Caledonia and then away and home against Fiji. The attendances for these matches were 8131, 2000, 7000 and 10,133.

2 Phase 4 matches, home and away against the yet to be determined Group B winners which could be any of Tahiti, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

2 Inter-Confederation play-off matches, home and away against the yet to be determined fifth place CONMEBOL nation.

So that’s a total of eleven World Cup Qualifying matches, three of which also counted as OFC Nations Cup group stage matches), plus the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final.


Only two of these matches will have been against higher ranked opposition.


So far, the combined attendance of the seven World Cup matches played is approximately 30,087, plus another 14,379 for the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final. That's a grand total of 44,466. There's a good chance that the away leg of the Inter-Confederation phase will attract more spectators than all nine matches New Zealand have currently played combined.

Should New Zealand somehow manage to prevail against their South American opponents, they would be guaranteed at least three more high level matches against strong opposition in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup.

What would change if the 2026 format were used today?

Presumably phases 1-4 would remain the same, to determine the Oceania winners and runners-up.

The winners would now no longer play Inter-Confederation play-off matches. Previously the opponents have been Bahrain and Mexico, and this November it will be a high quality South American team. So that's two matches lost against very good opponents, with one of them played at home probably in front of a sold out stadium, and one away in what would also likely be a sold out stadium.

However, the Oceania automatic qualifiers would be guaranteed two Group Stage matches at the expanded Finals. So they could face Brazil or Spain or Argentina or England in one of them. Or they could face Bulgaria and El Salvador, or Latvia and Burkina Faso.

Should they avoid coming last in their group, they would then advance to the knock-out phase, beginning with a match in the Round of 32, Presumably they wouldn't last much longer.

The Oceania runners-up, meanwhile, would advance to a six-team play-off held in the host nation probably in November 2025. Almost certainly the Oceania nation would be the lowest ranked of the six competing teams, meaning they would have to beat one of the other lower ranked teams for the chance to play against one of the two higher ranked teams for the right to qualify for the Finals. It's difficult to see an Oceania nation ever qualifying for the Finals using this method. In all likelihood, they would lose their first game and return home.

Neither of the top two OFC nations would play inter-Confederation play-offs on home soil, either, further reducing the likelihood that the All Whites will ever play in front of a capacity home crowd again.

What's worse is the very real possibility that the new six-team qualifying tournament will be used by the hosts as their practice run for hosting the actual Finals tournament, resulting in the scrapping of the Confederations Cup. Should this happen, the winners of the OFC Nations Cup will lose the three high quality matches they have come to rely on and look forward to every four years.

So whereas now the top OFC nation in all likelihood plays 16 competition matches every four years, under the new format that might well be reduced to 13. The second best OFC team would most likely increase its competition match tally from 11 to 12.

So much for expanding the game and increasing excitement, Mr Infantino. If anything, from a purely footballing perspective, the new format is a step backwards for Oceania nations.

  


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What Gianni Infantino inadvertently admitted during his World Cup Finals expansion press conference


I listened keenly to Gianni Infantino's post-FIFA Congress press conference where he answered questions about the expansion of the World Cup Finals to 48 teams from 2026, because I was waiting for some sort of acknowledgement that the FIFA Congress members weren't given proper in-depth analysis of the ramifications of each of the proposed formats prior to the vote being taken.

My suspicions were only increased when I saw the leaked image below, apparently from FIFA, regarding key findings in the sphere of 'Sporting Balance' (whatever that means).


My attention was immediately drawn to the very last word in the graphic. While penalty shoot-outs may help reduce the number of situations where teams can manufacture mutually beneficial results in the last round of group games, they are not a solution for the problem of rest days. Assuming a proper in-depth analysis was indeed carried out, apparently FIFA has some other solutions in mind to deal with these issues. Yet the only hint of these solutions is the word "etc." which certainly gives no clue as to what these solutions might be.

If the analysis was done, and solutions to these problems do actually exist, then those solutions should be spelt out in the analysis. The fact that they aren't leads me to believe that FIFA has no solutions for these problems and that they attempted to gloss over this fact by using "etc." to falsely suggest that they have looked at the issues and they have solutions that are so obvious they needn't be detailed.

And so to Infantino's triumphant press conference.

At 17:11 of the video, in response to a question from 'Sports News Germany', Infantino stated, "An in-depth analysis has been made... We think we have come to a format which brings benefits without negatives."

He stated this, despite numerous negatives being raised by various commentators, myself included. Among them:

1. Because three-teams groups require teams having byes, there is huge scope for the teams playing the third group match to manipulate the result to ensure they both qualify at the expense of the team with the bye.

This point was neither raised, nor addressed, in the press conference.


2. There is a high likelihood that teams in some groups will have identical records and there is no obvious way to determine how to rank them.

This point was somewhat raised by Martin Ziegler of The Times (14:09) with regard to the suggestion of penalty shoot-outs being used to determine the winners of drawn group games, although the quite real possibility of all three teams winning one game 1-0 or winning one penalty shoot-out each after all three matches end in draws wasn't mentioned


Infantino's response was less than convincing. He noted that it is better to have the rankings decided by action on the pitch (which I agree with), but that doesn't help solve the two scenarios I raised above.

He then talked about the possibility of using pre-tournament rankings as tie-breakers. Surely this would favour the bigger countries and hinder the smaller countries? It seems unfair that an under-performing higher-ranked team xould progress past the group stage at the expense of a lower-ranked team over-performing team..

It also means FIFA would need to have complete trust in the FIFA Rankings, a system I have frequently criticised as being invalid and borderline racist.


3. The first twenty days will require four matches per day to be played consecutively. That is a lot of football, perhaps too much for even the biggest fan. In addition, this would require matches to be played throughout the day. A country like the United States has four major time zones (plus Hawaiian time) which would help alleviate this problem but it would still require matches in the middle of the country to kick-off in the heat of the American summer which would be extremely difficult on the players.

The first part of this question was asked by Martin Fernandez (35:44) and Gianni Infantino's response (36:34) was extremely concerning. He stated, "Four matches per day is something that already happens now for many days. It will just be a few days more."

That is at best misleading, and at worst an outright lie. Under the current format there is only ONE day when four matches are scheduled consecutively. For Russia 2018 that day is June 16th, with matches scheduled for 11:00 (C1-C2), 14:00 (D1-D2), 17:00 (C3-C4) and 20:00 (D3-D4).

There are four additional days when there are four matches scheduled (the last round of group matches) but on all four days, each group's matches are played concurrently rather than consecutively to avoid result manipulation, so there are only two kick-off times on these days, not four.

For Infantino to say with a straight face that twenty days is just a few more than one day (or even five) takes either unbelievable chutzpah or worrying ignorance of the current format.

An additional relevant point to note is that under the current format there are no more than two knock-out matches played on any day, whereas the 2026 format will require the Round of 32 matches to be played four per day. With the possibility of these matches going to extra time or penalties there will be even less time to spare between matches than at present.


4. There could be a possible negative affect on the Qualifying competitions, especially in CONMEBOL but also in other Confederations.

This point was raised by Jamir Chade (25:23) and Infantino's only response was that the qualifying competition format hasn't been and cannot be decided yet because the number of slots for each Confederation isn't yet known.


5. There is the possibility that the Spanish Federation will sue FIFA for the lack of consulatation and the potential negative affect on Spain's domestic club leagues.

Infantino's only response to this question (31:57) was a glib smile.

6. The potential negative outcome of countries spending two years attempting to qualify for the chance to play just two matches in the Finals.

This point was raised by a Saudi Arabian newspaper journalist whose name I didn't catch (Al-Harbi Khaled?) (33:05). Infantino's response was you should ask the sixteen additional teams whether they are happy to play two World Cup Finals matches rather than not compete.

However Infantino then seemingly attempted to suggest that having qualified, these supposedly weaker teams would have a reasonable chance of progressing to play a third game because "Football is the only sport in the world which is unpredictable and where anything can happen on the pitch." Clearly the man is unaware of Ireland's recent World Cup cricket exploits, although his point still stands that football is somewhat unpredictable.


7. Prior to the Round of 32, some teams will have had a full week of rest while others will have had only three days' rest (potentially including a day spent travelling). This seems unfair.

This extremely valid point, raised by 'Etienne from L'Equipe' caught Infantino unprepared. Without a ready, predetermined answer to fall back on, first Infantino responded, "If you have seven in 32, the rest days will figure out the same," which is obviously incorrect given that some teams would be starting their matches a full seven days after others, resulting in the possibility that they could play seven matches in 24 days. Then, perhaps unconvinced by his own argument, he started babbling about FIFA's "competition experts" and how they would ensure that everything fits in to place. 

If FIFA indeed has 'competition experts' you would think that they would have already taken care of such important details as equal rest time as part of their much hyped 'in-depth analysis'. But of course, the truth is, that no such analysis was included in the report FIFA circulated to the members of the FIFA Congress. Indeed, in a format where there are groups of three teams and one team has a bye in each round, no solution is possible. The reason is, as President Infantino apparently knows all too well, “This is simply the laws of mathematics which as you know are not an opinion but are facts," a seemingly rehearsed answer he himself gave to a question about which regions would benefit from increased development (13:55).

It was at this point that Infantino inadvertently admitted that my suspicions that he was being economical with the truth and that the entire process was a sham were confirmed; either FIFA did not undertake the in-depth analysis that Infantino claimed, or worse, that 'analysis' deliberately ignored any factors that reflected negatively on Infantino's preferred option for expansion. I don't know for sure, but I strongly suspect the latter was the case.

FIFA wouldn't be the first organisation to carry out one-sided analysis that only looked for evidence that supported a desired outcome while ignoring all contradictory evidence. The George W. Bush administration set up an entire department (the Office of Special Plans) that was apparently designed solely to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the considerable evidence to the contrary,

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that expanding the World Cup is anywhere near as bad as sending thousands of people off to be killed and/or injured or to kill even more thousands of innocent civilians in a desert on the back of dishonest intelligence; just that the method employed to reach a predetermined conclusion was the same.

Indeed, I actually have no problem with increasing the number of teams and players that get to experience international competition. There are ways to do it reasonably, whether by using some variation of MatchVision's pot format, or adding a second tier 32-team World Trophy, or of course by offering women the same opportunities as men.

The important thing is that expansion should not result in a format that is unfair or provide potential for result manipulation or matchfixing. And while I find the chosen format annoying, it is nowhere near as annoying to me as the charade that FIFA underwent to ensure it was selected.

So there we have it. Dishonest analysis, spin, outright lies, glossing over important details that don't fit the narrative, a complete lack of transparency, and an executive President who gets what he wants 'unanimously'. 

'Twas ever thus at FIFA.