What’s a World Cup for? “To make money”, so the “Elite” (who aren’t getting a good press anywhere) can fly the world First Class, drink Dom Perignon champagne from golden goblets and, for all I know, pay Russian chambermaids to turn down their bed linen. But it’s also for the “World” (the clue’s in the name), so it strikes me as a good idea to invite as many guests as one can – within reason. Look at the FIFA’s decision to go to a 48 nation tournament for men from 2026, and the sniping and snarling it has provoked begins to appear a little like the media bemoaning a 50% increase in its “research” for all those “Ten players to watch” listicles that will start pretty much the moment the presentation ceremony of the 2022 shebang finishes.
Okay, there are genuine concerns about a bloated competition, the matches splattered over weeks like a Jackson Pollock painting superimposed on a 2026 calendar… but, heavens above, FIFA have actually thought it through and have devised an intriguing plan that preserves the current 32 days “Opening Ceremony to Bouncing For The Photographers” schedule . There are 80 matches to be played rather than 64, but is 16 more games once every four years really too much to bear? If we can stomach the Europa League (aren’t IFK Sheepshaggers playing CKSA Stasischaft in that competition’s preliminary qualifying round for the group stage play-offs somewhere next week?), surely a few more World Cup games will be okay, particularly with (I presume after a bit of haggling) some matches being played simultaneously on the red button – so you don’t, you know, have to watch all of them.
The three team groups format may mean fewer dead rubbers and, though the (mooted) penalty shoot-outs for 90 minutes draws are hardly satisfactory as a decider, if the actual bloody Final can go to pens, that ship has long sailed. Okay, shares in local bus companies may rise as national coaches look to park them, then hope their goalkeeper can give it the wobbly legs and sneak his team through, but recent World Cups have hardly been short of unambitious teams and dull defensive matches, nor the possibility of sides producing a mutually beneficial scoreline. Why not see if coaches do the equivalent of leaving two men up when defending a corner and decide that the best way to defend is to make opponents defend – getting their retaliation in first, so to speak?
The pundits’ version of “Who will think of the children?” is “What about the quality?”, a phrase of which I’ve heard plenty over the last few days on radio discussions, often from people whom I am sure would be hard pressed to name five countries ranked between 32 and 48 (the imperfect, but best, indicator of current “quality”) never mind the players comprising such squads. So who are these minnows tipping their hats to the regulars, “giants” (like England) who must agree to share their ball. the “no-hopers” set to pollute the purity of the 32 team tourney?
The current rankings suggest that the extra teams would include the likes of: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt, South Korea, Algeria, Romania, Paraguay, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Serbia, Japan, Denmark, Australia, DR Congo. Okay, not many likely winners there, but plenty of contributors – all of them worthy of being described as “dangerous floaters” in any draw, certainly as far as England are concerned.
But the qualifying competitions are structured so a straight “Top 48” to progress to the Finals will not happen because each confederation has an allocation: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1). Who wants to deny Africa and Asia that representation given that football is the global game and the continent’s players’ tremendous progress over the last generation? South America only get 6 qualifiers, but that’s from the 10 nations in that confederation. Thus the Jackson Pollock tournament begins to look more like a Piet Mondrian, the blur resolving into something quite neat.
In as much as World Cups can be summarised, my experience of the Finals since 1970 is one of a flattening of differences in talent, tactics and skills: the lesser teams are more competitive; the top teams less dominant. A true “World” Cup Finals should reflect the world, with as many hats thrown into the ring as possible. FIFA’s clever plan balances that objective with a manageable schedule (easily accommodated in a limited number of stadiums given 21st century pitch preparation and recovery) to the benefit of all.
So, England to play Mexico and Senegal in their group matches in 2026? What times are the kick-offs?