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.

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