Thursday, April 14, 2016

Infantino's justification for World Cup expansion is part false equivalence, part ignorance, part failure to carry out due diligence.

A big part of Gianni Infantino's manifesto for the job of FIFA President was his idea (actually Michel Platini's) that the World Cup should be expanded to 40 teams. He has continued to mention this with great enthusiasm on a fairly frequent basis since he won the job.

Most recently, he was asked about it by Alexi Lalas as part of a Fox Soccer interview. Here is the entire World Cup excerpt.

video

Once again Infantino has fallen into the twin traps of:

1) arguing that there are only two criticisms of the idea, and
2) using faulty logic to 'rebut' these criticisms.


Boring Qualifying Competition

The first criticism he mentioned was that the qualifiers would become boring. He then went on to argue that his experience with the expanded Euros showed the opposite, because with so many more teams qualifying, more teams had the chance to qualify and even more teams had the dream that they could qualify. While this was obviously true in the case of the Euros being expanded from 16 to 24 teams (a 50% increase), the effect would not be nearly as pronounced with eight extra teams spread across six Confederations.

With a sixteen-team Euros, 29.6% of the 54 UEFA members qualify for the Finals. Increasing the number of Finalists to 24 means that 44.4% of the members qualify for the Finals.

But even with the increased number of qualifiers, there are still countries at the bottom of the rankings who have no realistic chance of qualifying. I would conservatively include Kazakhstan, Malta, Luxembourg, Andorra, Gibraltar, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands in this group. Other lower ranked nations could arguably be added to the list.

Once these nations are taken out of the equation, it means that in a tournament with sixteen teams, 16/46 (34.8%) of potential qualifiers are successful, whereas in a tournament with 24 teams, 24/46 (52.2%) of potential qualifers are successful. That's right. Over half the teams with a realistic chance of qualifying for the 2016 Euros were successful. Of course that was going to generate some excitement in the qualifying rounds. It basically meant that all the nations that fall into the category of 'below average but not no-hopers' could dream that they had a realistic chance of qualifying for the final tournament, although of course not all of them managed to qualify.

The situation with the World Cup Finals would be completely different. At the start of this interview segment, Infantino suggested that there would be the following additions to the tournament if forty teams qualified:

1.5 extra qualifiers from Africa (I think he means 2, because African teams currently aren't involved in inter-Confederation play-offs)
1.5 extra qualifiers from CONCACAF
0.5 extra qualifiers from South America
1.5 extra qualifiers from Asia
0.5 extra qualifers from Oceania
1 extra qualifer from Europe
1 additional extra qualifer to be determined via some sort of on the pitch method

Lets look at these Confederation by Confederation:

Africa

Africa has 54 FIFA members. Currently five African teams qualify, meaning 90% are currently unsuccessful. Under an expanded tournament seven would qualify. While this is an increase in qualifying teams of 40%, it still means the vast majority (87%) of African members would not qualify for the World Cup even with expansion. The middle and lower-ranked teams in Africa (Botswana, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) are hardly likely to get excited that they have much more chance of being one of the seven qualifying teams than they have of being one of five qualifying teams.

CONCACAF

Of all the Confederations, based on their on-the-field performances, this is the one that most deserves an increase in my opinion. In the last World Cup three out of the four CONCACAF qualifers progressed past the first round. Mexico drew with hosts Brazil and defeated Croatia from Europe and Cameroon from Africa. Costa Rica defeated Uruguay and Italy and drew with England. The United States snuck through after beating Ghana from Africa, drawing with Portugal from Europe and only losing 1-0 to eventual winners Germany which saw them qualify on goal difference.

In the second round the US lost to Belgium after extra time, Mexico lost to the Netherlands thanks to a controversial penalty, and Costa Rica beat Greece on penalties before falling to the Netherlands via the same method in the quarter finals.

CONCACAF has a small number of really strong teams, another set of teams who can reasonably expect to progress to the 'Hex' (the final six team competition of the qualifying competition), a few more teams that usually don't make it to the Hex but still manage to win a few games along the way, and a large number of weak teams that fall into the category of no-hopers.

Boosting the number of CONCACAF teams that qualify from 3.5 to 5, while arguably deserved, isn't going to change the dynamic of qualifying very much at all. The same teams that have a realistic chance of qualifying now (Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Canada, El Salvador and Panama) will have a realistic chance of qualifying if five teams are successful.

Of the remainder, perhaps teams like Guatemala, St Vincent, Haiti or Antigua & Barbuda could pull together a great team once in a while, but they would still be unlikely to qualify. For the remainder, their chances of qualifying would remain the same as they are now: zero.

South America

Realistically, all ten CONMEBOL members currently believe they have a realistic chance of qualifying under the current allocation of 4.5 spots, at least at the beginning of the qualifying process. Increasing it to 5.0 will have no practical effect, because South American teams invariably win their inter-Confederation play-offs.

Asia

Asia has 46 members. While they currently have 4.5 spots between them, practically, that means 4.0 spots, because Asian teams have lost every single inter-Confederation play-off they have played. An increase of 1.5 spots would mean an extra two Asian teams would qualify.

In a Confederation in which Japan, South Korea and Australia seem to qualify every time, this means that there will be three spots remaining. The same teams currently trying to win one of 1.5 spots would now be trying to win one of these 3.0 spots. This group realistically includes many of the stronger West Asian nations (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, etc.) plus Uzbekistan from Central Asia and China from East Asia and from time to time DPRK.

Overall an expansion looks like good news for West Asian nations who have struggled to qualify in recent tournaments, despite having a realistic chance to do so.

I don't see any teams that currently don't harbour realistic dreams of qualifying having realistic dreams of qualifying under an expanded tournament. Certainly none of the South Asian, Southeast Asian, remaining Central Asian or smaller nations like Guam, East Timor or Chinese Taipei would have any realistic increased chance of qualifying.

Oceania

This is the only Confederation that currently doesn't have an automatic spot. New Zealand have so far won every Oceania qualifying tournament since Australia left the Confederation. They defeated Bahrain to qualify for 2010 but lost to Mexico for 2014 and should they again win in Oceania they would face the daunting prospect of facing a South American team for 2018, which is unlikely to go well.

Some of the other OFC nations are growing in strength, notably New Caledonia, but also Tahiti, the Solomon Islands and to a lesser extent, Vanuatu. These are the nations that currently believe they can reach the inter-Confederation play-offs, and nothing will change in this list should automatic qualification become reality. Despite some success at age-group level recently, Fiji have flattered to deceive, PNG still lack experience, and Samoa, Cook Islands, American Samoa and Tonga have no chance at all.

Europe

Not much needs to be said. Adding one additional qualifier (as opposed to eight in the Euros) is hardly likely to get a bunch of additional countries thinking they can qualify. Those teams should just dream of Euro qualification.

Based on this analysis, I feel comfortable stating that Gianni Infantino's comparison of Euro expansion to World Cup expansion with regard to a change in the qualifying dynamic is nothing more than a false equivalence fallacy.


Reduction in Quality

The second criticism Infantino mentioned was that there would be a reduction in quality. I have no argument with his view that an increase of one or two teams per Confederation would not affect quality. I think this is a more valid criticism of the Euro expansion, where eight more teams would be qualifying, rather than of World Cup expansion.


Other Issues

I would be concerned about many other issues that necessarily result from the expansion. Gianni Infantino, however, has never acknowledged that these issues exist, so eager is he to pronounce the 2016 Euros a success even though they have yet to be played.

Firstly, the formats of both tournaments have had to change.

The Euros will see four 'lucky' third-placed teams progressing to the last sixteen. Previous experience, about which perhaps Gianni Infantino is ignorant, suggests that this can result in some pretty undeserving progressing. The most obvious example is Uruguay in 1986, who drew two of their group matches and lost the other one 6-1 to Denmark. With the advantage that knowing a draw would see them progress, they used incredibly negative tactics in their final group game against Scotland, which resulted in their securing the 0-0 draw they required.

I suspect there will be a lot more matches in which both teams are happy to play out a draw rather than attempting to win, because it just makes sense that a draw becomes a much better outcome if two-thirds of the third place finishers get to move on to the last sixteen. Time will tell, but in my opinion, this is a serious risk.

By way of contrast, increasing the World Cup to forty teams in what appears to be a favoured format involving eight groups of five teams, would make draws a much less enticing outcome than they currently are. This might help lead to more attacking and positive play.

But of course there is also a downside.

Some teams may already know after their second match that they have been eliminated, resulting in an increased chance of playing weakened teams or being susceptible to bribery in their remaining matches.

Some teams will have byes while other teams play their last group games, giving teams a chance to manipulate the results of their final games for mutual benefit, much like what occurred in 1982 between West Germany and Austria.

Some teams will have byes in the first two rounds of group play, meaning when they play their second matches their opponents might be playing their third matches and have players suspended for already having received two yellow cards.

The increased number of teams will see a corresponding increase in matches. The current format requires a total of 64 matches - 48 in the group stage and 16 in the knock-out stages.The expanded format would see 80 group stage matches and 16 in the knock-outs.

All of these extra games would have to be squeezed into the first half or so of the tournament. Necessarily this would result in four matches per day being played for the first twenty days of the tournament.

Theoretically, if the teams with first round byes in groups G or H progress all the way to the Final, meaning they wouldn't play their first game until Day 8 of the tournament, they would have to play eight matches in 28 days (or 27 days if they play in the third place play-off).

Add in the increased travel that would occur from the extra games and there would also be reduced time for training and recovering from injuries. The demands on players, who are already tired from long domestic seasons, would be hugely increased. The physical, mental and economic demands on fans would also be increased and there would be an increased chance of spectators getting tired of watching so many matches and losing interest in the tournament.

It appears Infantino hasn't done the due diligence to sit down and see what the ramifications of an expanded tournament would be from a logistical perspective.

One of my biggest concerns is that based on his comments, Infantino seems to lack high quality analytical skills. Expanding the Euros to 24 teams is nothing like expanding the World Cup to 40 teams. Add in the fact that the Euros haven't even been played yet and it's hard to accept Infantino's rationale for promoting World Cup expansion based on the 'success' of the Euros as being logically valid.

He also seems ignorant of any criticisms other than the two he raises in the interview with Alexi Lalas. Partly this is because journalists have tended to focus on the Confederation-breakdown issue rather than asking important questions about logistics. But still, can he not think for himself?

And finally, it appears that Infantino meekly accepted Michel Platini's questionable claim that adding eight teams to the tournament would result in only three more days being required to play the entire tournament, instead of doing the required due diligence himself.

I hope this is not how his entire presidential reign will be conducted, but I fear the worst.

It seems obvious to me that to increase participation in World Cups, Infantino should be looking towards the women's game. FIFA could introduce a women's Club World Cup, Beach Soccer World Cup, Futsal World Cup and Confederations Cup, and add more teams to the Women's Under 17, Under 20 and Senior World Cups.

This would result in more tournaments being held in more locations, more women playing the game and a positive statement being made about equality rather than the empty promises I'm expecting to hear over the coming years.

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