Fifa president Gianni Infantino has proposed expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.
According to the BBC, Mr Infantino has suggested that 16 of these countries would be eliminated after a preliminary knockout round.
This would ruin the World Cup. 32 teams at a World Cup finals is more than enough.
As far as the beautiful game is concerned, the golden goose has been well and truly killed in recent times with Fifa, like Uefa, expanding tournaments in order to milk them for all their TV and sponsorship worth.
At the rate they’re going it will be harder not to qualify for a tournament. Where will it end? By 2034 you could hypothetically have 56 teams at a World Cup finals. Will there be any point in having qualifiers?
In the Republic of Ireland, where this writer is based, we have had to wait long enough for our big moment before Jack Charlton finally led us to the holy grail at Italia ’90. However, it was well worth the wait. After so many near misses, the breakthrough tasted sweeter as we proudly took our place among the elite.
However, the more teams you have at the World Cup the more its appeal will diminish over time. Look at the effect expansion has had on the European Championships for example. For the 1988 Euros, only eight teams were in the finals, which made for very competitive fare from the first kick to the last.
In 2016 in France there were 24 teams. As a consequence the quality clearly suffered and I’m sure most purists will concur. That’s what happens when you have far too many matches in such a short space of time. Quality loses out to quantity.
The reason for World Cup qualifiers is to give every country an equal opportunity to qualify for the finals and rightly so. However, after the best part of two years of qualifying matches the cream rises to the top thus ensuring that only the best teams from each continent make it through to the showpiece event. Proper order.
If this latest expansion proposal were to be voted on and sanctioned, you’d end up having World Cup qualifiers, World Cup play-offs, a World Cup preliminary knockout round, and then, finally, the World Cup finals, which would see 32 teams battle it out for football’s biggest prize over 64 matches. Overkill is a word that springs instantly to mind.
Since the World Cup was expanded from 24 teams to 32 in 1998 there hasn’t been an outstanding tournament. How many quality matches trip off the tongue from ’98? Do you remember a thriller from 2002 in Japan and South Korea (thank God we had the Roy Keane-Mick McCarthy saga to keep us entertained)? What match do you remember most from the 2006 finals in Germany? 2010 in South Africa, anybody?
The last World Cup in 2014 in Brazil didn’t serve up too many humdingers either. We even had that charade of a semi-final, when the hosts lost 7-1 to Germany in front of thousands of disbelieving fans.
Since the World Cup finals expanded to 32 teams, the tournaments have gotten progressively worse. I accept that there are a lot more countries in the world today but that is no reason to expand a tournament that is creaking at the seams with too many matches at the end of a gruelling domestic season.
Every country on the planet must be given the same opportunity at the qualifying stage but that should be it. One chance. If you’re not good enough you don’t make it to the showpiece.
You have to go back to 1982 for a World Cup that was worthy of the tournament, which was first contested in 1930. Ironically, when the tournament was held in Spain in 1982, Fifa, by accident or design, stumbled upon an excellent format that made for a thrilling spectacle. Why they abandoned it four years later, I’ll never know.
Firstly, 24 teams qualified. They were placed in six groups of four. The top two teams qualified which meant twelve teams made it through to the next stage. Then, somewhat imaginatively, the 12 teams were divided into four groups of three. The winners of these four groups then advanced to the semi-finals.
Italy, Brazil and Argentina were drawn in one of these groups and in the clashes against each other, served up some of the most brilliant encounters ever seen in the history of the World Cup.
For younger readers, get your hands on footage of the Italy vs Brazil clash, when Paolo Rossi scored a memorable hat-trick in a 3-2 win for the Italians; watch Italy’s 2-1 victory over Argentina; watch the most amazing semi-final ever between West Germany and France, which finished 3-3 after extra time. Four goals were scored in extra-time incidentally when it finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. West Germany eventually won on penalties.
Italy and West Germany provided a fitting end to an excellent World Cup in the decider at the Bernabeu in Madrid when the Rossi-led Italians won 3-1.
Of course, I acept that there were some turgid games in the first round, but overall there hasn’t been a World Cup since that has come near rivalling Spain ’82 for quality and drama.
Unfortunately, though, as long as Fifa puts quantity over quality, there will probably never be a World Cup like it again.
Sadly, the golden goose was killed a long time ago.
Pat O’Rourke, Pundit Arena