A 48-Team World Cup?


Recently, FIFA president Gianni Infantino suggested expanding the number of participants in the FIFA World Cup from 32-teams to 48-teams.  On the surface this proposal is absurd as the bloated World Cup would further dilute the talent of the teams participating, expand an already exhausting 64-match tournament to 80 matches, and be a mega event requiring massive infrastructure to support thus eliminating many countries from hosting (or worse, exploiting countries by making them build one-time use facilities with resources better spent on a nation’s people).  Nevertheless, I can still see how a 48-team field may work and make it possible for more countries to participate and to host World Cup matches.  It would require reimagining the staging of the World Cup into three phase.

The first phase, much like today, would be qualification at the level of the six continental confederations.  Increasing the field to 48 teams from 32 means that proportionately, the number of teams from each confederation would be as follows:

  • AFC – 7
  • CAF – 8
  • CONCACAF – 5
  • CONMEBOL – 7
  • OFC -1
  • UEFA -20

These 48 teams would be drawn into twelve groups of four, with seeding to allow for a balance of teams from different confederations.

The second phase would be group play of these twelve groups, scheduled in a two to three week international break in domestic leagues around February.  Each group of four would play in a different host country.  The goal would be for each confederation to have at least one country hosting a group of four.  After a 3-match round robin, the first place team in each group advances automatically to the final phase.

The twelve second place teams will be drawn to play home and away aggregate goal playoff to reduce the field to six.  The surviving six teams are drawn again to play another home/away playoff.  These three teams join the 12 teams already qualified and the host nation in the final field of 16.

The final phase will once again be familiar.  The 16 teams are drawn into groups of four and the top two teams from each group advance to a knock out round.  And that is how a 48-team World Cup could work. 

Advantages:

  • Expanding to 48 teams allows for me teams to participate in the World Cup and play competitive matches against teams from other confederations on a world stage.
  • Playing World Cup in phases allows for more matches without forcing them into an exhausting schedule concentrated in a month’s time.
  • Any country with at least two good stadiums can host a group in the second phase.
  • The final phase has a smaller number of teams – appealing to traditionalists – and makes it possible for many countries to host without breaking the bank.

Disadvantages:

  • Still may be too many games and too many teams. 
  • Too long an interruption of domestic league seasons. 
  • Too spread out over space and time. 

Book Review: Eight World Cups by George Vecsey


Author: George Vecsey
TitleEight World Cups
Publication Info: Times Books (May 13, 2014)
ISBN: 9780805098488
Summary/Review:

Vecsey, a sportswriter for The New York Times, writes a series of essays and memories of international soccer dating back to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, tying it in with his own love of the game back to his childhood.  The title is a misnomer, because Vecsey writes about Women’s World Cups and Olympic games among other competitions, but the eight men’s World Cup finals he attends from 1982 to 2010 are the core of the book. In addition to some lovely writing describing the games and controversies of the each World Cup, Vecsey gives a sense of the host nation where he and his wife generally set a up a home base for a month.  He writes about the great players of each era from Diego Maradona to Zinedine Zidane.  A major focus is the rise of the United States men’s team from a non-entity to one that regular qualifies for the World Cup and is competitive.  Vecsey also explores the seamy underside of FIFA and CONFACAF with the greed and corruption that runs alongside the beautiful game.  All in all, this is a nice American take on World Cup football from a personal perspective.

Recommended booksThe Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer by Christopher Merrill, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World by Jere Longman, and Goooal! a Celebration of Soccer by Andres Cantor
Rating: ****

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.

World Cup Qualifying – A World-Wide Approach?


The past week featured another round of qualifying games for the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2014 to be held in Brazil.  Under the current rules, the six association football confederations (loosely representing the 6 continents inhabited by humans) each conduct a qualifying tournament to determine which teams will represent their confederation.  The number of places in the World Cup Finals varies depending on confederation ranging from 14 places for UEFA (Europe) to 0 or 1 place for OFC (Oceania).

I got to thinking that perhaps it may be more fun and fair if for World Cup qualifying, the confederations were dispensed with entirely and qualifiers were played among national teams from around the world just as they play together in the finals.  The confederations are oddly aligned as it is with Australia, a continent in its own right, has been a member of the Asian Football Confederation since 2006 so they could play more competitive matches.  The South American nations of  Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana do not play in qualifiers with their South American neighbors in CONMEBOL but instead compete in the larger Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.  So why not mix them all up and create a world-wide tournament.

My thoughts on the world-wide approach to World Cup qualifying is that it would provide several benefits:

  • Dispense with the somewhat arbitrary number of places awarded to each confederation allowing places in the finals to be earned through qualifying competition.
  • Allow nations with weaker teams to increase their level of competitiveness by matching up against some of the world’s best national teams.
  • On the other hand, the higher ranking teams may use matches against minnows as an opportunity to test younger players under tournament conditions.
  • Increase cultural exchange and international awareness among football players and supporters.
  • Standardize the number of qualifying matches played.  Currently, depending on the confederation, a national team may play as few as 8 matches and as many as 24 matches in qualification rounds, plus intercontinental playoffs for teams that did not qualify directly.  My proposal would have each team that makes it to the finals playing in 12 or 18 games.
  • Extend the drama and tension of the World Cup by having it build up over a two-year period of tournament play with the number of teams winnowed away until the 31 places for the finals are filled.

There are 209 member nations in FIFA.  With the host nation automatically qualifying, that leaves as many as 208 national teams fighting for the remaining 31 spots.  My proposal below works on the premise that all 208 national teams will be participating, although historically the greatest number of teams to enter qualification was 205 for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds.

Initially, I considered that the 208 teams could be drawn into 52 groups of four for the first round of qualification.  Then I considered the possibility of high-ranking teams getting eliminated by other high-ranking teams early on while weaker sides advanced from less competitive groups.  So for the round of qualification, some of the best teams in the world will have a bye as is already the common practice in the early round(s) of confederation-based qualification.

FIRST ROUND BYES

32 national teams will be granted a bye from participating in the first round.  The byes may be awarded to the top 32 teams in the FIFA World Ranking at the time qualifying is to begin, or they may be given to the 32 teams that participated in the previous World Cup finals, or some other methodology agreed upon as fair by FIFA member nations.

FIRST ROUND

Up to 176 teams may participate in the First Round of World Cup Qualifiers.  They would be drawn into 44 groups of 4 teams each.  Within the groups the teams play a double round robin (home and away against each opponent in the group) for a total of six games.  The top two teams at the end of group play advance to the second round while the remaining teams are eliminated from qualification.  To determine the order of teams in their group they will be ranked by points,then  goal difference, and then total number of goals scored.  If two or more teams are still equal on all three criteria then they will be ranked on head-to-head points, goal differential, and total goals.  If teams remain tied and it affects what team may advance to the next round then a one-game playoff will be played at a neutral location.

SECOND ROUND

The 88 teams that advance from the First Round and the 32 teams that received first round byes come together for a total of 120 national teams.  These teams will be drawn into 30 groups of 4 teams each.  In this round the top 30 teams will be seeded based on the current world rankings prior to the draw. Once again teams will play a total of 6 matches in a double round robin.  The top two teams of each group advanced to the third and final qualifying round.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

THIRD ROUND

The 60 teams that survive the second round will once again be seeded into 15 groups of 4 with the top 15 teams seeded.  Similar to the first two rounds, the teams play a double round robin within their groups for a total of 6 games.  The top teams from each group advance to World Cup Finals.  Third place teams may have one more chance in a playoff for the final spot.  The same ranking order and  tie breakers described in the first round apply.

PLAYOFF FOR THE 32nd SPOT

With 30 teams qualified joining the host nation, one last spot remains in the 32-team field.  The 15 teams that finished third place in their groups will be ranked according to their performance in the second and third rounds combined (12 games total), with the top two teams (using the standard criteria for ranking and tiebreaker( advancing to a playoff for the 32nd place in the World Cup Finals.  The playoff would be a simple two-legged home-and-away tie determined on aggregate goals with away goals, extra time, and then a penalty shootout used to break any draws.

***

And so we have our field of 32 teams winnowed down from 209.  I’d think as each round progresses the tension and excitement would build leading into an exciting finals.  What do you think?  Would this be a fair and entertaining way of determining which national teams participate in the quadrennial event?  Or would it be bogged down by unbalanced matches between top ranked sides and minnows?  Would UEFA and CONMEBOL dominate the qualifiers and shut out the other confederations entirely or would we learn that the world is more competitively balanced than we ever imagined?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.