KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —– Tonight in Zurich, in a social and broadcast media barrage aimed at rendering the wonders of football synonymous with the wonders of FIFA, Cristiano Ronaldo will be hailed as the Best player of 2016.
But a far more important decision will be taken tomorrow when, stripped of all the extravagant televisual glitz and glamour, the expanded council of the world football federation approves proposals to stretch the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026.
The aggrandisement of international events has become a fact of sporting life, a victory for pragmatists over purists in the race to capitalise on life in the current financial and commercial sunshine.
FIFA Council will not meet at full capacity: English vice-president David Gill will be absent through a previous commitment while Asia will be at half-strength through the AFC’s own silly political fault. But this will not hinder the outcome of a positive recommendation to FIFA Congress in May in Bahrain.
Other issues lie on the agenda, such as the irresolvable Palestine/Israel issue which can only grow ever more complex after the latest political twists in the United Nations and the United States.
But the game at large will be interested only in the World Cup issue, as encapsulated in a 64-page briefing document circulated within council shortly before Christmas.
Those who argue for maintaining quality at the expense of quantity are thin on the ground. Germany favours sticking at the current 32 but, since the banning of Wolfgang Niersbach, the DFB is impotently unrepresented on FIFA Council.
In effect, all the six geographical confederations approve of expansion as long as they achieve the slots they believe they deserve from among the extra 16.
The attractions are obvious: more nations can enjoy the World Cup spotlight plus the financial and popularity benefits while the extra sums generated will increase FIFA’s worldwide development budget by a conservatively estimated $1.1bn.
Four options have been proposed but the clear favourite is for 16 groups of three teams with penalty shootouts to prevent any match ending in a draw and thus forestalling ‘results of mutual convenience’.
Every team at the finals would thus have a minimum of two matches but no-one would have more than the current maximum of seven games, thus erasing European Club Association concerns about extra pressure on players.
Matches should also be staged, when possible, at times which suit the major markets to maximise commercial opportunities.
The overall scenario is exactly what Gianni Infantino proposed in his manifesto ahead of his election as FIFA president last February: more World Cup slots and more development cash. Hence a byproduct of approvals by FIFA Council and Congress will make his re-election in 2019 a nailed-on certainty.
Infantino has no reservations about tournament expansion. He was at the forefront, as UEFA general secretary, of stretching the European Championship last year from 16 to 24 finalists. Popular positives were a reinvigorated qualifying competition plus the finals ‘romances’ of minnows such as Iceland and Wales.
Quality of football was down, but that has been the story of every World Cup expansion since its own initial leap from 16 to 24 teams in Spain in 1982.
The days have gone when national team football represented the best the game had to offer in terms of technical quality; this argument has long since been lost.
Nowadays the world’s best football is to be seen annually in the knockout stages of the Champions League: the World Cup cannot compete. Indeed, the standard of national team football has been fading ever since the brilliant pinnacles achieved by Holland and West Germany in the early 1970s.
No decision is expected tomorrow on the tiebreaker use of penalty shootouts (harking back to the early days of the North American Soccer League). But a kickoff date is likely for bidding to host the 2026 finals: three-round rotation precludes Europe (Russia 2018) and Asia (Qatar 2022) and throws the door wide open to central/north America.
The United States is runaway favourite to be host on its own or in partnership with Canada and/or Mexico. Coincidentally, US broadcaster Fox Sports is sitting pretty already after having been handed a controversial deal extension to 2026 by Sepp Blatter’s disgraced FIFA regime.
At the time, in 2015, the deal was seen as a sop to Fox not to cause trouble over the switching of the Qatar 2022 finals to a winter date (For the record, FIFA’s projection of TV income for a 48-team finals is $3.6bn compared with $3.1bn for Russia 2018).
Another fall-out issue concerns the World Cup qualifying competition in the Americas. South America has been projected seven slots in a 48-team finals which would render the current 10-team, single-group qualifying format nonsensical.
CONMEBOL currently has 4.5 places at the World Cup while central/north American [CONCACAF], with 35 member associations, has 3.5.
One proposal already under discussion is merging the CONMEBOL competition with the CONCACAF qualifiers. The trick then would be in maintaining meaningful competition while still guaranteeing each confederation its allotted slots at the finals.
Another decision for another day.