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.

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