Expanded Fifa World Cup – Could increase giant-killing feats but dissuade nations to be host

Jan 12, 2017

Gianni Infantino - Fifa World Cup 2026

THE Fifa World Cup has always had a slightly deceptive name.

Granted, it admits teams from six continents, and has been hosted in five.

But the business end of the tournament belongs to two.

Each of the 20 competitions has been won by a side from Europe (collectively represented by UEFA) or South America (Conmebol).

In fact, a country from elsewhere has progressed past the quarter-finals just once, when hosts South Korea battled their way to the last four in 2002.

This dominance is unlikely to end soon.

All but two of the top 20 places in the Elo world rankings, a better predictor of match outcomes than Fifa’s official ratings, are occupied by UEFA and Conmebol members.

The odds of an interloper winning next year’s tournament are about one in 30.

Teams from North America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific have had to make do with occasional underdog triumphs: Costa Rica, North Korea, Algeria and Senegal have all beaten former champions.

Fortunately for them, the chances of a “giant-killing” have just increased.

On Jan 10, the Fifa council, the governing body’s strategic committee, unanimously voted to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, starting with the 2026 edition.

Where the competition currently begins with eight groups of four sides – an arrangement introduced in 1998, the last time the World Cup expanded – the new version will commence with 16 pools of three.

The Council has not yet announced the finer details of the plan.

These small group stages may require penalty shoot-out tiebreakers and it is not clear how many extra berths each continent will receive.

Nor has everything changed.

Though the total number of fixtures will increase from 64 to 80, the greatest footballing show on earth will still last 32 days, with no team playing more than seven times.

Fears of the bloated contests typical in rugby and cricket, with World Cups that last for seven weeks, were unfounded.

Fans from stronger countries will complain about diluting the quality of the tournament.

In the past five World Cups, the group matches have indeed been highly competitive: the reigning champions have been eliminated three times, while just 15% of these fixtures have been “blowouts”, with one side winning by three goals or more.

That is a smaller proportion than in any of the regional qualifying leagues.

Europe’s preliminaries have proved especially ill-matched, with the likes of San Marino and Gibraltar taking thrashing after thrashing from the continent’s heavyweights.

More than a quarter of UEFA qualifiers in the last two decades have been decided by at least three goals.

It seems probable that the majority of the new qualifiers will come from North America, Asia and Africa.

The likes of Panama, Uzbekistan and Egypt could find themselves competing at the highest level.

Cocky Europeans and South Americans should be wary of scoffing too loudly, however.

On current form and on a neutral ground, those minnows would have around a one-in-eight shot of knocking out Germany or Argentina.

The three-team groups should prevent too many weak sides from clustering together, while keeping the favourites on their toes.

A loss in the current pool stage is survivable; in the new system, it could be fatal.

The expansion was in some ways inevitable.

Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s president, made it part of his election campaign last year.

In an organisation that represented some 211 national associations, there will always be pressure to invite more of them to the top table.

Infantino must also hope that the decision will finally give fans a positive reason to talk about Fifa – after the FBI revealed in 2015 that senior officials had been taking bribes in return for votes at World Cup elections.

That will not stop the accusations of money-grabbing.

As part of its consultation process before Tuesday’s vote, Fifa calculated that adding 25% more games would do something similar to its revenues: specifically, raising them from US$5.5 billion to US$6.5 billion and boosting profits by US$600 million.

Yet these figures are misleading.

Gianni Infantino ... expansion of World Cup has always been part of the Fifa president.
Gianni Infantino … expansion of World Cup has always been part of the Fifa president.

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, examined the cost structure of the tournament in “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup”.

In the last two cycles, the host nation has drawn up a budget for running the competition, which Fifa has paid while keeping all of the revenue.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil it forked out US$5.4 billion and collected US$5.7 billion.

There is one snag.

These numbers do not account for the costs of building the necessary stadiums, transport and accommodation – only of operating them during the tournament.

For wealthy nations with abundant sporting infrastructure, such as the 16 40,000-seaters that Fifa currently recommends for potential applicants, this is less of an issue.

Zimbalist reports that recent hosts Germany, France and America each required less than US$1 billion to prepare themselves.

For developing countries, these construction costs are at best prohibitive, at worst disastrous.

Zimbalist estimates that South Africa shelled out US$5 billion for the 2010 edition, with Brazil’s bill finishing somewhere between US$15 billion and US$20 billion.

Short-term benefits, like a boost in tourism, are often exaggerated.

Money that could have been used on healthcare or education is squandered on “white elephants”: stadiums that are never used again.

Little wonder Brazilians protested vehemently in the build-up to their own tournament.

Zimbalist believes that the expansion will make it even harder for developing countries to organise a World Cup, tilting the responsibility back towards western nations – or authoritarian ones, which can take on the burden without popular approval. (Russia and Qatar have the next two; China might fancy its chances for 2030.)

There may well be more “joint games”.

Japan and South Korea shared the 2002 World Cup; Euro 2020, Europe’s quadrennial continental tournament, will be played in 13 different countries.

But these are hard to coordinate and can only occur among nearby, wealthy places.

The irony of Infantino’s push for inclusivity is that though there will be more guests at the party, fewer of them will be able to host.

He celebrated the decision by remarking that “football is more than just Europe and South America”.

He might simply have switched one type of dominance for another. – The Economist

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