Pros and Cons of a 48-team World Cup

15 January 2017

After all the years of squabbling among the confederations for World Cup places, FIFA took the obvious answer to a surprising conclusion. While the World Cup was ripe for an increase in World Cup teams, to go from 32 teams now to 48 teams for 2026 was a drastic leap. The one caveat is the last increase was in 1998 when 32 teams participated, up from 24 in 1994. The World Cup probably should be 40 teams already, and by 2026 it will be 28 years since the last change. The format will be 16 groups of 3 teams with the top 2 progressing to the knockout phase, which adds a round of 32 to its schedule. While the number of matches overall in the tournament increases from 64 to 80, the maximum number of matches per team remains at seven.

PROS

1) More teams

This is the clear reason for expansion. Regions like Africa and Asia desperately wanted more places, and with the huge amount of money in Asia these days, it means more money for FIFA. Expect both regions to get an extra 4 spots, so Africa’s 5 becomes 9 and Asia’s 4.5 becomes 8 or 9. Oceania is certain to finally get the spot that a full member confederation deserves. They have a spot at every other FIFA tournament and the World Cup should be no exception.

2) More dreams

Teams that once had no hope to qualify now finally can dream about it. Oceania is a classic example, with the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti now only required to get past New Zealand, while in Asia the likes of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan can expect to regularly challenge for a World Cup spot. More than that, it will be nice to see these new teams at the World Cup. Look at the intrigue and excitement the likes of Iceland and Wales created in Euro 2016 when it expanded from 16 to 24 teams, or when Tahiti was Oceania’s representative at the 2013 Confederations Cup.

3) More excitement

The format means there’s one less group game and one more knockout game. While teams could often grind their way through the group phase with defensive tactics, now they need to tackly the group head on. Not so much to qualify, as 2 out of three is statistically an easier task, it’s for seeding purposes so to avoid stronger teams in the early rounds of knockout phase. There’ll also be far fewer, if any, dead matches. With 4-team groups, teams could often be qualified with one match remaining.

4) More representative of the world

Football is not a European and South American sport anymore. If they won’t cede spots to the likes of Asia and Africa to make the World Cup a fairer representation, then the number of teams must increase. Current speculation is Europe with have 16 spots (up from 13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (.5) and 1 for the host. The only inter-continental playoff will be Asia vs Concacaf.

CONS

1) Too many teams

Nearly a quarter of FIFA’s members will now qualify, which dilutes the basic challenge in the first place. Where’s the prestige in qualifying? Also, after two years and many qualifying games, your reward is only two games at the World Cup, not three as currently. That aspect seems an imbalance at least. In percentages terms, the number teams qualifying still quite low, particularly compared to other sports. Under a quarter of teams at football’s World Cup, compared to often 100% of Test level nations at cricket’s and all of tier 1 and most of tier 2 at rugby’s.

2) Less dreams

Sure, while the minnows are now guppies, guppies like Australia become piranhas. So much of the joy when qualifying for 2006 was that it was the first such qualification in 32 years. That mountain to conquer is already a hill in Asia, and the hill will become rubble with the extra four spots allocated. Being perennial World Cup qualifiers is not ideal for a developing nation like Australia. We need the kick up the backside occasionally, much like our youth program is now receiving after recent debacles of multiple failed qualifying campaigns at youth and Olympic level. With the move into Asia I was already prepared to accept missing one World Cup out of every 3, or even missing two in a row if the sport was in malaise. Most top European countries occasionally miss major tournaments, and if it’s ok for them to bomb out at times it should be good enough for us.

3) No 4-team group

Even with the increase of teams over the years, one time honoured staple remained: groups of 4 teams. The change to 3-team groups means each team plays only 2 matches and the odd number of teams means the final games of a group can’t be played simultaneously. This means teams can play for certain results to help others progress. While this ethical problem is quite rare in practice and still possible in a 4-team group, FIFA were always so adamant in preventing it… until now. Tied groups will also become a problem. FIFA are talking about penalty shootouts to split drawn games. That would be a disaster as weaker teams will play for draws. Goal difference and other tie-breaking mechanisms must still be used. In the worst case scenario, maybe 30 minute playoffs are introduced.

4) The squabble for spots will continue

Everyone will be happy in the short term with the extra spots. After that, watch the squabbling resume. South America are so greedy they will probably want all their countries represented. Already if you consider they will get at least 1.5 extra spots, that’s 6 out of 10 teams going. Ridiculous. As mentioned in these pages many times, spots should be based on past performances, with confederations streamlined to facilitate this. That means the Americas should be one confederation and Oceania should merge with Asia. That leaves roughly four regions of 50 teams. To each goes 8 direct spots with 1 to the host. The remaining 15 spots are allocated by previous World Cup performances over the past 3 Cups. If Asia/Oceania get 6 teams among the top 15 best performed teams, that’s six spots to them. Typically they get zero or one, so they’ll sit on 8 or 9, while Europe with usually 8 teams through will get 16 spots in total.

COMPROMISE

My personal preference is four 40 teams over 10 groups. So you still keep the 4-team group and, more importantly, make each match extra important because only 6 of the 10 second placed teams progress to the knockout phase.

Socceroo Realm – Top 5 Moments of 2016

15 January 2017

A very quiet year for the Socceroos, football in general, and the Socceroo Realm. It’s ironic that with the move into Asia and therefore more serious matches that the net result is a dilution of the product. Win here, draw there, add the occasional loss, ignore the friendlies, it’s the pattern now. Even in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign it doesn’t lend itself to great highlights. Then there’s the impact of Twitter being such a convenient tool for instant and concise opinion. I can bang off something there immediately on the phone instead of sit in front of a computer for something more structured.

In the sprit of trying to return some zing to upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the year in general, here’s the Top 5 highlights for 2016.

1) Australia finish the year with three draws in World Cup qualifying

After starting with wins over Iraq and the UAE, the final group phase of qualifying was beginning to look like a procession. Even commentators were talking about wrapping it up with 2 or 3 games to go. Not so fast! Draws to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand provided us with a nice reality check and brought us back to the pack. Ostensibly the group is in a four-way tie for the top 2 places at the half-way point so it’s effectively a reset. With 3 of those 5 remaining games also at home, Australia is still well placed to finish in the top 2.

2) Thailand 2 – Australia 2

This was a stunningly exciting World Cup qualifier to end the year, with Thailand running Australia ragged and playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king. In fact, they should have won. With Iraq, they are the two teams seemingly out of contention at the moment. The group: Saudia Arabia 10, Japan 10, Australia 9, UAE 9, Iraq 3, Thailand 1.

3) Confederations Cup 2017 Draw

Australia will play Chile, Germany and an unknown African team. Please don’t let it be Ghana, as that would be 3 repeat opponents from previous World Cups (Chile 2014, Germany and Ghana 2010). In the other group is Russia, Mexico, Portugal and New Zealand. That’s a much more sexier group, particularly playing the hosts Russia. Mexico is an opponent we’ve dealt with easily in the past and haven’t played for a while, and when is the last time we played Portugal?

4) England 2 – Australia 1

Yes, we played England mid-year. This was a match more notable for they fact I couldn’t recognise England’s team as much as anyone in England could recognise Australia’s team. Given that we’re so entrenched in Asia these days and have so many meaningful matches, these so-called “friendly” matches are becoming more and more exhibition in status as the years pass. Even such a traditional rivalry like England vs Australia doesn’t help them.

5) Australia 1 – Japan 1

The first half of this September World Cup qualifier was possibly the worst display of any Australian team ever. Limp, clueless and ineffective were the words of choice at the time. The only real exception is the Youth World Cup of 2009 in Egypt where Australia was hammered in all three games and Craig Foster still saw it fit to write the team a letter of congratulations for the “brand” of football they played. This entry is only here to serve as encouragement for all future Australian teams that think they might of played the worst ever. No, you probably did alright compared to this woeful performance.

 

Kruse to the next phase; Japan await yet again

17 April 2016

With comfortable wins over Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh following the loss in Jordan, Australia’s final two matches at home were mostly academic. Two draws most likely would have been sufficient to qualify for the third round and final group phase of World Cup qualifying, while a win would guarantee it. Tajikistan proved to offer minimal resistance, losing 7-0 in Adelaide, while Jordan weren’t much better in their 5-1 loss in Sydney. Tajikistan conceded within 3 minutes and then another on 13 minutes before a 5-goal onslaught in the second half. Jordan lasted until the 24th minute before conceding, then conceded another two just before half time. Game over. For Jordan, after losing in Kyrgyzstan two games earlier and now requiring a win to guarantee a spot in the next round, it was heartbreaking. Remember, this was the team that made the intercontinental play-off in the last cycle.

Russia 2018 Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B - Final Table

Most interesting to observe from these final two games was the team’s progression. They have had trouble putting teams away, and been dumb strategically. They were also too reliant on the aging Tim Cahill. Other players needed to step up, while the team needed to be smarter in their approach. Preferring more often to take the game to opponents, particularly away in the Middle East, it played into the hands of opponents, who’d sit back and pounce on the counter attack. Australia needs to remember that their opponents also are in it to win it, so away from home, let them be more adventurous and hit them on the break. Against Jordan, that philosophy was illustrated perfectly, and the results were comprehensive. They turned around a 2-0 loss away to a 5-1 win by simply allowing their opponents force some of the pressure.

Even more exciting was the improvement in many players. Robbie Kruse, who was finally back after a long injury spell, toyed with Jordan. It was one of his best games for Australia ever, and only dampened by a nasty tackle from behind by Jordan’s Yousef al Rawashde. How it wasn’t a red was mystifying. Even worse would have been another injury. Jordan were so rattled that they even threw a second ball on the field at one stage to stop a quick throw in. It failed miserably as Australia scored their fifth goal. Tom Rogic, now established in Scotland, has added a lethal shot and far superior decision making to his game. The three goals he scored in those two games were superb. Melbourne City’s Aaron Mooy has taken command in midfield, setting up and scoring goals. His passing is sublime, at a level not really seen in the Socceroos since Ned Zelic, or Milan Ivanovic with some of the long passing. Coach Ange Postecoglou even unearthed a bright new talent in Apostolos Giannou. He got his debut against Tajikistan, impressed with his pace and power, and only letdown by missing a sitter. He deserved a goal. Another letdown, becoming persistent too, is Matthew Leckie. He seems to have lost the plot, particularly with final balls into the box and shooting.

Onwards to the draw for the final group phase of qualifying. It’s no secret that the Socceroo Realm, as would many Australians, would love to see Australia play Iran again. It’s been nearly 20 years since the infamous Iran Game. Much of the chatter before the Jordan game was for Australia to win it to ensure a seeding as one of the top two teams. Supposedly that would avoid a tougher draw – based on FIFA rankings. No it wouldn’t, because FIFA rankings are a joke in their creation, and meaningless in a competitive field. Australia, Iran, Japan and Korea are arguably the top four teams in Asia and there’s little between them whatever some silly FIFA number sitting next to them wants to make us believe. In drawing the final two groups, two of these top four would play each other regardless. The only exception being that the top seed in each pot would not play each other. So for Australia to have a random chance at either Iran, Japan or Korea, they needed not to be seeded. As it turns out, they were one of the top two seeds. Guess which was the other? Iran. Depressing, and rigged. The top four should have been in one pot and randomly paired that way. In fact, the other 8 teams should be in one pot too, and randomly drawn. There should not be such a strict interpretation of these dopey FIFA rankings.

Immediately we knew Australia could not play Iran, so let’s hope we at least draw some new teams. We haven’t played Korea at all in World Cup qualifying since our entry into Asia, and drawing them would add to the rivalry generated from the epic Asian Cup 2015 final. Except for an early group phase two cycles ago, we’ve missed China too. Alas, nothing went our way. We got Japan for the third straight cycle, Thailand and three Middle Eastern teams. The only salvation is that Saudi Arabia is back on the ascend, so they should be interesting. UAE are on the rise too, finishing third in the Asian Cup. Iraq is the other team, who finished fourth in the Asian Cup, and can be dangerous. It’s a challenging draw.

Schedule

01 Sep 2016: Australia vs Iraq
06 Sep 2016: UAE vs Australia
06 Oct 2016: Saudi Arabia vs Australia
11 Oct 2016: Australia vs Japan
15 Nov 2016: Thailand vs Australia
23 Mar 2017: Iraq vs Australia
28 Mar 2017: Australia vs UAE
13 Jun 2017: Australia vs Saudi Arabia
13 Aug 2017: Japan vs Australia
05 Sep 2017: Australia vs Thailand

Note that there are six teams in each group, up from five from previous years. Obviously this is to allow more teams to be involved. It also means no more byes. The away trip to Japan is the second last match day, which could affect its prestige if both teams are safely qualified. The top two teams from each group automatically qualify for Russia 2018, with the two third teams playing off for a spot against CONCACAF’s fourth best team. That third-placed playoff is actually the only way Australia and Iran can meet in this World Cup qualifying cycle. Could it happen?

Round 2 Group Winners

Group A: Saudi Arabia
Group B: Australia
Group C: Qatar
Group D: Iran
Group E: Japan
Group F: Thailand
Group G: Korea Republic
Group H: Uzbekistan

Round 2 Best Second-Placed Teams

1. Iraq
2. Syria
3. United Arab Emirates
4. China

Round 3 Group Draw

Group A: Iran, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, Syria

Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Thailand

More: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/preliminaries/asia/