Tuesday, November 24, 2015

More on Future World Cup Expansion, Inequality and General Disgruntlement

Prior to the last FIFA Presidential election it seemed that the candidates were competing to hand out as much money as they could to the 209 national football federations, in a vain attempt to out-Blatter the then incumbent FIFA President.

There has been a shift of emphasis in the current election cycle, however, with the issue of the best World Cup Finals format for future tournaments being raised more than a few times over the past few weeks, most often by some of the candidates for the upcoming FIFA Presidential election.

Now that Blatter's days are clearly numbered, some of the election candidates seem to have switched their vote-gathering proposals to increasing the number of teams in the World Cup Finals from the current 32, to 36, in the case of Prince Ali, and 40, in the case of Michel Platini and his last-minute UEFA-backed replacement, Gianni Infantino.

As for the other three candidates, Jerome Champagne appears to favour a rebalancing of the 32 teams rather than expansion, Tokyo Sexwale merely hinted at the possibility of an increased number of finalists without providing specific numbers or details, while Sheikh Salman has not addressed the issue at all, his sole manifesto item apparently being that while various Bahraini athletes may have been arrested and tortured in 2011 and a committee was set up to investigate them, with he himself named as the leader, that committee never actually met. If he has any other proposals on his manifesto, I don't recall seeing them.

I've already outlined the numerous reasons why a 40-team World Cup, in eight groups of five, as proposed by Platini and endorsed by Infantino, is a terrible idea. I won't rehash the numerous points, other than to note it would add at a minimum seven to ten days to the length of the tournament, not a mere three, as suggested by Platini, which would have a further detrimental effect on club football, with the most affected leagues being the big five in Europe, which are, of course, the ones based in the very same countries whose interests you might expect the current UEFA President and Secretary-General to protect.

A quick look at Inafantino's twitter feed shows only one tweet where he hints at his potential ideas if he were to be successfully elected. Clicking on the provided link brings up the 40-team World Cup Finals suggestion and no other plans at all.

Whatever the requirements are to be nominated by five national federations as a possible FIFA presidential candidate, or indeed to be someone given the opportunity to nominate candidates, it seems clear that the ability to think critically or carry out any sort of detailed analysis is not among the criteria.

Indeed, any discussion about increasing future World Cups is practically a moot point, considering it is probably too late to do so in time for the 2018 tournament (think of the wrangling over the breakdown by Confederation of the additional four or eight teams), and with the 2022 tournament scheduled to now last just 28-days, thanks ultimately to the votes cast almost five years ago by a group of 22 men who have for the most part either resigned, been suspended, or been banned by FIFA, therefore being too short to realistically allow for any increase in the number of participants.

This would mean that at the earliest, expansion couldn't occur until 2026, by which time whoever is successfully elected in February next year will already have served two terms when the first expanded tournament is played.

It is for this reason that the whole discussion about an enlargened tournament during this election campaign strikes me as pandering of a type that is every bit as obvious as the time in 1972 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai agreed to donate Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the National Zoo in Washington DC as a gesture of goodwill to First Lady Pat Nixon.

If the candidates are serious about expansion, perhaps they should take a look at the table below, which shows the breakdown of teams by gender in the upcoming four-year cycle of worldwide FIFA tournaments. Here's a clue. Whenever there is a number in red there is a good opportunity for expansion.

In every single instance, the men's tournaments include more teams than their female equivalents, or worse, there is no equivalent women's tournament. This also means, of course, that there are no qualifying matches for the non-existent tournaments.

Why is there no FIFA Women's Confederation Cup, Club World Cup, Futsal World Cup or Beach Soccer World Cup? At a time when women are crying out for an increased share of the administrative table, it seems obvious that they should also have the same opportunities to play in FIFA world tournaments as men do.

This seems a simple way of increasing the participation numbers and standard of women's football worldwide.

But instead, it seems for the most part, the presidential candidates are focused on the men's game. The women's game remains an afterthought.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why a 40-team World Cup is a bad idea

So Gianni Infantino, just like his boss, the beleaguered Michel Platini, wants to expand the World Cup Finals to forty teams.

“Look at qualifiers now where some teams who have never qualified did and some teams which have always qualified didn’t make it," he was reported as saying. The first half of that statement is true, although there's an argument that Iceland, at least, would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. The second part, though, as well as being factually inaccurate, is patently absurd. Sure, the Netherlands didn't qualify this time, but this isn't the first time this has happened, and it's hard to make the case that they would have under the sixteen-team format.

An expanded World Cup isn't going to prevent the powerhouses from qualifying, unless of course, they are so bad that they don't deserve to. If a team can't manage to finish in the top two out of five or six teams of varying strength in qualifying, it's hard to make the case that they are likely to have a shot at winning the World Cup, nor that they deserve to.

There is no word, as of yet, as to what geographical breakdown Infantino would favour, but his remarks in 2013 when he argued for expansion of the European spots in the 32-team tournament, based partly on the dubious logic that European nations have won the last three tournaments and ignoring the fact that only five European teams have ever won the World Cup, of which only three have managed to when not hosting, it's fair to assume that he envisages a decent chunk of the extra eight available spots going to UEFA.

Whatever the final make-up of the forty teams, however, if, like Platini, he favours a traditional round-robin format with the teams split into eight groups of five, there are numerous reasons why this is a bad idea.

1. Additional time required to complete the tournament.

Michel Platini wrongly claimed that adding one extra match for each team would only add three extra days to the tournament, ignoring, or perhaps being intellectually incapable of understanding the fact that in addition to playing the extra game, each team would also require a bye while the other four teams in their group play each other. This means, at a minimum, six extra days would be required, though given that under the current format teams usually have four to six days between games, arguably at least an extra week to ten days will be needed. As well as adding extra demands on the players at the end of a long season, this would also reduce the recovery time before the next season. Already we see players whose teams reached the latter stages of the Finals showing obvious signs of fatigue and missing the first matches of their club seasons. A change to forty teams would make things even worse.

2. The last teams to have a bye would be at a disadvantage.

With five teams per group, five rounds are needed, with each team having a bye in one of them. This would mean that four teams in each group would enter the last day of the group stage knowing what is required to progress to the second round, while the remaining eight teams would already have completed their games and be at risk of being eliminated through the teams that are playing manipulating results. There's a reason the final group games have been played simultaneously since 1986. West Germany 1 Austria 0 in 1982.

3. Suspensions

The team that has a bye in the first round will have an unfair advantage in the second game, because it is likely that some of their opponents will have picked up yellow cards in their first match and will be at risk of suspension if they pick up a second card. The team that had a first round bye will not be playing under any such psychological disadvantage.

In the third set of group games, two teams will not have any yellow card suspensions because they'll only have played once, whereas two teams could potentially be missing players who have received yellows in both their opening matches. To be fair the two teams who have played once should face each other in the third set of games.

However, there is no way of making the fourth round of matches fair. One team will already have played three matches, and the other three will only have played two. Naturally the team that has played three will be more at risk of having players suspended.

4. Injuries

All the arguments about some teams being more likely to have players suspended can also be applied to the likelihood of injuries.

5. Reduction in the number of potential hosts.

Numerous countries could host a Wold Cup with sixteen teams. That number of potential hosts is reduced every time the tournament is expanded, to 24 teams, then to 32 teams, and then to 40 teams. When we reach the inevitable 64-team World Cup Finals, presumably, like the Gold Cup, it will always be held in the United States.

If a forty-team tournament were to eschew the traditional first round groups and instead adopt the format favoured by Leandro Shara and Match Vision, some of these issues could be avoided. However, given that Gianni Infantino claims to share a lot of his philosophies with Michel Platini, this seems unlikely.

One other point is worth noting. It seems likely that the next FIFA President will be allowed a maximum of three terms. Infantino has already admitted that it would be almost impossible to expand the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, so at most he could only preside over one expanded tournament, assuming he were to win two more elections in addition to the one this coming February.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Gianni Infantino was Wrong about World Cup Allocations

I fully understand the recent announcement that Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s Secretary-General, is in the running to become the next FIFA President. Once it became clear that there is every chance that the previous preferred UEFA candidate, the embattled UEFA President Michel Platini, will be suspended and unable to run, it was no surprise that UEFA would look for a Plan B.

Infantino always comes across as an affable chap when hosting the live draws of UEFA’s various competitions, and unlike, for example, Sheikh Salman and Tokyo Sexwale, he appears to be a genuine football fan.

I am, however, not convinced of the credibility of Infantino’s claim that his upcoming manifesto will be “for a FIFA that genuinely serves the interests of all 209 national associations, big or small,” as he announced on deadline day.

Contrast this statement with the comments he made on the allocation of World Cup Finals places for the various confederations.

These comments strongly suggest a European bias. In addition, they don’t actually reflect the reality of what has been happening over the past World Cup tournaments.

The truth is that the performance of Europe’s participants has been on a steady decline over recent tournaments.

In the 1954 and 1958 tournaments, 75% of the competing teams were European, and at least this percentage progressed past the group stage.

Since then, the percentage of the teams progressing past the group stages that came from Europe has dropped roughly in line with the overall percentage of European teams in the tournament. By the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties the European make-up of the teams that progressed was generally 62.5%, but it dropped to 56.3% in 2002 and in the last two tournaments has fallen away dramatically to just 37.5%, while CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, and African teams along with Australia have become much more likely to progress.

These numbers do not support Infantino’s claim that Europe deserves more spots.

It also seems a non sequitur to suggest that because the last three winners came from Europe, a 14th, 15th or 16th European team should be added to the tournament. The truth is that since the FIFA Rankings began in 1993, the only European team ranked outside the top five European nations that has won the World Cup was France, who won as hosts in 1998. This hardly suggests that a 14th European team would be capable of winning the tournament.

I found Infantino’s comment about the Olympic Games being about participation and the World Cup being about winning contradictory to the idea that Europe deserves more places.

Here are the cold, hard facts: Since 1930, twenty World Cup Finals tournaments have been held. A total of five European countries have been victorious. Just five. Of those, only three have managed to win the tournament when not hosting.

In total, Europe has won 55% of the tournaments while providing 54.8% of the competing teams. This hardly suggests Europe has won more than its fair share of times. By way of contrast, South American nations won the remaining 45% of the tournaments while only comprising 18.9% of the total competing teams.

All this suggests that what some people might call the European Football Superiority Complex is alive and well.

I strongly suspect there are still many Europeans who base their view of African, Asian and CONCACAF football on a small sample of historical results, such as:

Yugoslavia 9 Zaire 0 in 1974
Poland 7 Haiti 0 in 1974
Belgium 10 El Salvador in 1982
Russia 6 Cameroon 1 in 1994
Argentina 5 Jamaica 0 in 1998
Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 in 2002

While at the same time writing off as aberrations results such as:

Algeria 2 West Germany 1 in 1982
Morocco 3 Portugal 1 in 1986
Cameroon 1 Argentina 0 in 1990
Costa Rica 2 Scotland 1 in 1990
Saudi Arabia 1 Belgium 0 in 1994
Nigeria 3 Spain 2 in 1998
Senegal 1 France 0 in 2002
United States 3 Portugal 2 in 2002
Ghana 2 Czech Republic 0 in 2006
Australia 2 Serbia 1 in 2010
Costa Rica 1 Italy 0 in 2014

I didn’t even mention Joe Gaetjens or Pak Do Ik.

Too many Europeans don’t treat football outside of Europe and South America seriously. All too often the ‘expert’ pundits don’t do the necessary background research on teams with which they are unfamiliar.

It’s the same attitude that caused so many pundits and publications to write off New Zealand’s chances in the 2010 World Cup, based purely on their defensive frailties displayed in the 2009 Confederations Cup, when a modicum of serious research would have revealed that none of their three best defenders (Ryan Nelsen, Winston Reid and Tommy Smith) were unavailable for the 2009 tournament.

There’s also a tendency from certain Europeans to treat alleged corruption by the likes of Amos Adamu, Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, Worawi Makudi, Ricardo Teixeira, Julio Grondona or Nicolas Leoz as being somehow typical of the regions they represent, whereas alleged corruption by Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini or Jerome Valcke or matchfixing in Italy or Finland is seen as being a case of a few bad apples.

So I suspect that Gianni Infantino may be guilty of overestimating Europe’s importance in world football and underestimating the importance of other continents’ football.

Perhaps he was just making an argument to suit his constituents. But if so, how do we know that his claim that he would represent all 209 nations if he is elected FIFA President is not a similar empty argument?

Surely he should know that the World Cup Finals aren’t just about winning. Teams such as Honduras, Angola, Japan, Peru and Northern Ireland, while never winning the World Cup, have nevertheless added colour to the tournament, as would, no doubt, Venezuela, Cape Verde Islands, Panama or Uzbekistan.

Some of the greatest memories fans have of the World Cup were goals scored by countries who didn’t win, such as Saaed Al-Owairan’s winner against Belgium in 1994, Yordan Letchkov scoring for Bulgaria against Germany in 1994, almost any of Brazil’s goals in 1982, Dennis Bergkamp’s last gasp winner against Argentina in 1998 or Archie Gemmill’s goal for Scotland against the Netherlands in 1978.

If the World Cup were to truly be only for winners, perhaps it should be limited to just each Confederation’s Nations Cup winners, plus the hosts and the holders.

We could call it the Confederations Cup.