The comments after the opening game in this season’s World Cup were over the mismatch between what were, at least according to FIFA, the two lowest ranking sides in the competition.
Russia, ranked 70th according to FIFA easily overcame Saudi Arabia, whose ranking was three higher. Russia’s ranking was of course false. One of the criticisms of the FIFA ranking system is that a host nation who are not playing competitive games will inevitably drop down the rankings. Because of this, and also because teams can protect their ranking (and therefore competitive seeding) by not playing while others play matches in which even a win results in them dropping in the rankings.
The new ranking system will be similar to the one used at www.eloratings.net – this works on points exchange so a team cannot lose points in the ranking while winning a game. It ranked the opening game as 45th v 63rd.
What is not addressed by the change is that the 32-team world cup is far from being the top 32 countries in the World. If we use the FIFA rankings, twenty of the top 32 ranked teams are from UEFA (14 teams at the World Cup) while 7 more are from CONMEBOL (5 qualifiers, including Peru via a play-off). The top 32 is made up with 3 from CONCACAF (3 qualified) and two from Africa (5 qualified). Asia has no country in FIFA’s top 32, despite having five teams in Russia. Using eloratings makes only a little difference to these figures, their numbers give a slightly better ranking to Asia (two in the top 33, as there was a tie for 32nd place pre-World Cup), and slightly worse for the Africans.
One might think that when the World Cup is extended to 48 teams, this would be corrected to some extent, with at least the possibility of the top 32 countries being there, but the new slot allocation has been defined as follows (with number of the number of teams in FIFA’s top 48 ranks in brackets). UEFA 16 (28), CONMEBOL 6 (8), CONCACAF 6 (3), Africa 9 (7), Asia 8 (2), Oceania 1 (0) – plus two play-off places for which each confederation except UEFA gets one chance in a six country pre-qualifying tournament. The host confederation will get one extra place in this – meaning UEFA is only involved when the finals are to take place in Europe.
I have made my own comparison of each confederation’s performance from 1950 onwards. The system I used was 2 points for a win, one for a draw (including a match that ends in a penalty shoot-out), and a bonus point for a win in any knock out game, including the final (but not the play-off for third place). I then divided the points by the number of teams involved. If no team from the confederation qualified, then a straight zero was recorded. For comparison, a middle “FIFA figure” is shown as well
The graph clearly shows how the South American teams did greatly better than the Europeans, especially in the two World Cups held in Mexico (1970 and 1986) and the one in Argentina in between (1978) while Europeans held sway in England (1966), Germany (1974), and Spain (1982). It also shows the failure of either Africa or Asia to make a break through.
Over the last five World Cups, we have had 32 teams and the same structure, leading to average points per team of 4.47. A total of the five cups of 22.35. During this most recent period, the European and South American nations have consistently beaten the standard, CONCACAF reached this target only once (2002) but came close in Brazil, while the others have consistently fallen short. Over the five-tournament run, the total points for each confederation are CONMEBOL 31.70, UEFA 28.62, CONCACAF 14.58, CAF (Africa) 11.50, AFC (Asia) 9.75 and OFC (Oceania) 6.00
If we added more teams from any Confederation, it should bring down the score, on the assumption these would be weaker than those already there, while conversely reducing the allocation should remove the weakest and improve the score. The clear implication here is that Asia and Africa are over represented, while Europe and South America do not get their just deserts.
So why do FIFA want to give more extra places to the continents which are over represented, but not to those which are under represented. The automatic response is that it is all about money, but this is not entirely the case. Most of FIFA’s income comes from the World Cup competition, through TV rights, sponsorship and (to a lesser extent) ticket sales.
In Asia, where the economies are on the rise, the increase in the numbers does have a financial case. Asia includes the giant economy of China, and the potential giant of India. Both are under performing on the International stage. We are a long way from the idea of India qualifying for this stage, but at least from 2026 onwards, the Chinese will have a good chance of taking part in another World Cup. In the final table, China were only a point away from the Asian play-off stage, so would not need a major improvement to get into the top eight in Asia
The TV rights sales and sponsorship money does not have Africa in mind and adding more African countries does have some logic behind it. The African qualification procedure, which currently involves no play-offs or second chances is the less likely than others to send the top five teams from the continent to the finals than the procedures used elsewhere. There is a belief that there are a few unlucky teams who are not particularly worse than those who have got through who have failed due to a poor draw or a single unlucky result.
To be honest, the same is true of the European qualification, but at least here we have the play-off procedure which gives a second chance. Still few would deny that the competition is missing teams such as Italy and the Netherlands. The argument that DR Congo were desperately unlucky to get knocked out, while teams such as Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire, all of which have impressed us in the past, are all missing. Of the latter trio, only the Ivorians finished second in their group.
Supporters if the FIFA stance, not giving the places that Europe believes are justified can also point to the graph above. When the numbers have were expanded to 24 and 32, Europe did not get the increases they may have expected, but this has not seen them gain a higher score.
South Korean fans in Frankfurt, 2006
However, Gianni Infantino came to power at FIFA on a promise of more slots in the World Cup, and more money to the members. If he is to retain the presidency, he must deliver on the promises to the smaller countries, in Africa particularly – but also in Asia and the Caribbean. Infantino basically came to power by trumping Michel Platini’s suggestion of a 40 team World Cup and brining in a 48 team one instead. Fortunately for him, the countries did back the Americas bid for the 2026 World Cup – which has income projections twice that of Morocco’s. This means that FIFA can continue to show largesse in financial grants to its members for the next decade at least.
The 48 team World Cup and the increasing costs of stadium building is placing a limit on who can stage future cups. The larger European Nations generally have the stadia, and always have plans for some improvements. The USA could have run a bid on its own, without joining up with Mexico or Canada – but neither of its partners could hold a tournament on its own. In Asia, only Japan and China clearly have the resources to hold the cup. I am sure China will be bidding soon. I am not even certain that Australia could mount a bid on current stadiums. In India, the new football stadiums inspired by the Super League are not of World Cup size, which means the big stadiums in the country are still the cricket grounds.
Then there is South America. The last World Cup placed a big burden on Brazil as FIFA takes money out of countries staging cups, but the countries have to bear the cost of building. There is a feeling that Uruguay should hold the 2030 World Cup in celebration that this is the centenary of the first world cup. But Uruguay cannot go it alone. There is a suggestion that a combined bid of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina may bid. England’s plans to bid (either on its own, or as a joint UK, or UK/Ireland) have been damned by a quotation in support from Sepp Blatter.
Infantino does not appear to be the initiator of ideas but has been in the background bringing them through. He was involved in the pan-European plan for 2020 and had left UEFA for FIFA before the disgraceful decision to water down the plan by giving group games to Wembley as well as the semi-finals and final. Both Cardiff and Stockholm would clearly have been better options. If 2020 goes well, then do not be surprised if Infantino is at the centre of a push for a pan-South American World Cup in 2030, with at least eight and possibly all ten of the nations staging games.
It is not only the World Cup itself where FIFA sees expansion as the way forward. They have two other adult men’s competitions for the World, the World Club Championship and the Confederations Cup. Both are somewhat maligned and ignored, at least here in England.
It is almost certain that the Confederations Cup will end after the 2021 event. It may well have even seen its last hurrah leaving an under-strength German side as the last winners. It cannot retain its current position as an event on World Cup venues twelve months before the World Cup as the disruption to leagues would be too great. If it is to be played in 2021, then it will have to be in the summer, and hence in different locations. FIFA are already discussion alternative titles of tournaments in its stead, with a World “Nations League” somewhere on the agenda.
The annual, 8-team World Club Championship has always been criticised and not particularly loved. FIFA have been searching for alternatives for some time, with discussions of 24 and 32 team tournaments. FIFA now say that they can earn an income of US$ 25 billion over a 12-year period for their two new competitions. This is based on an unnamed group of investors, who will guarantee the money, but will then sell on the various rights to the competition. FIFA would have a 51% share of a joint company running the operation and would lead on sporting decisions. A report on the BBC web site specifically says that the investor group, which comes from Europe, Asia and the Americas does not include Chinese investment or any direct involvement from Saudi Arabia. They second half of the reply seems to suggest there is indirect involvement from Saudi Arabia while the first may be a surprise given how big the Chinese advertising presence is at the Russia World Cup. Still, the Chinese government has ordered a reduction in capital outflow so I am guessing that the Chinese companies are no longer willing to commit long term like this. The current Chinese position has reduced the number of high value transfers into the Chinese Super League and also limits the amount that Chinese investors may bring to their European clubs such as the Midlands quartet of Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wanda have divested their 17% share of Atletico Madrid. The Chinese have not reneged on agreements made before the policy change, so Wanda is still the title sponsor at Atletico’s new stadium, while Chinese companies such as Wanda, Vivo and Hisense have stepped into to the void created in FIFA’s partnerships when some of their sponsors pulled out.
The author with Chinese fans, before their first World Cup finals game, against Costa Rica in 2002
So, we may expect the annual World Club Championship to end either in 2019 or 2020 and be replaced by a bigger tournament in the summer of 2021. The new tournament is expected to have 24 teams. Half of these will be European with the eight finalists from the four preceding Champions Leagues, plus the four Europa League winners all getting a place. CONCACAF, AFC (Asia) and CAF (Africa) will contribute two teams each while the CONMEBOL (South America) will have five or six contenders. Oceania will either have one, or maybe none at all.
Played in June, and with five games for the two finalists, one feels that the new form World Club Championship will get a much greater global presence than the current format. The plan is apparently eight groups of three, with group winners only entering the knock out stage. However, it is already fielding criticism from all sides.
There is concern about the increased number of matches for the players – and clearly one of the reasons for this competition’s expansion is that it can be sure of including most of the World’s star players. In contrast, the World Cup itself will always miss out a few because they play for nations such as Wales who rarely qualify. Other clubs and leagues will be concerned about the amount of money that will transfer to the competing clubs, and hence the further step up they in financial terms. FIFA have promised a fair distribution, but as with the European competitions, those that play always get a massive amount in comparison to the solidarity payments for the other clubs in the league
The World Nations League is less clear. It appears this could be a biennial competition, and hence starts with the various confederations own Nations Leagues competitions. The first European Nations League takes place this autumn, with the finals in the summer of 2019. At the same time, CONCACAF are staging a series of qualifying games which define both who is in the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer, but also the make up of the CONCACAF Nations League when it starts in the following autumn.
The Nations League concept is something that came out of UEFA while Infantino was still involved. The extension of this to become a FIFA competition has only been mooted since Infantino replaced Blatter in the chair. Previous ideas, such as playing the World Cup every two years had been rejected by the countries and their confederations, but it always appears that there is a contest between FIFA and the Confederations, (an in particular, Europe) over control of the competitions and the calendar.
The World Nations League, possibly under the title “Final 8”, would pit together winners of various Confederations Nations Leagues. If played in a single nation then one feels it is just the Confederations Cup re-aligned. Exactly how it fits into the international calendar seems ill-defined, but I have heard it suggested that the November International window in “Final 8” years could be two weeks instead of one, and somehow it gets played then!
Still, the “Final 8” is being promoted as between winners of continental nations leagues, and here there is a problem as only UEFA and CONCACAF currently have decided on this route. The Nations League concept is not exactly one size fits all, and may be difficult to work in CONMEBOL, Oceania or Africa. I would not dare to say that not having an Oceania representative would be one of the benefits of the format, but I have no doubt that someone behind the scenes has thought this.
The risk here, is that competitive games between the World’s top nations on a more regular basis could take the gloss off the World Cup itself. Do we really need three tournaments between the world’s top countries within each four-year cycle? Each federation’s own competition will come under pressure to change dates to fit into the FIFA formats as well. The global popularity of the European Competition, played in the even numbered years between World Cups means the others have now gone for odd numbered years. There will be a point next June when CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and Africa are all in the midst of their own continental competitions. The next Asia tournament is also in 2019, but in their case, it is played in January.
Oceania normally sneak theirs in at the start of the World Cup qualification process, and it is only played to a conclusion so as they can have two finals – one with the winner going to the Confederations cup, and another for the play-off place in World Cup qualification. The big surprise being the Oceania tournament in 2012, when New Zealand did not make the finals, and hence Tahiti played in the Confederations Cup. It was not even Tahiti that beat New Zealand in the semi-finals, but the New Hebrides who then lost to Tahiti in the final. New Zealand recovered quickly to win a round robin home and away tournament involving all four semi-finalists from the Nations Cup, and hence ensure their opportunity to lose (9-3 on aggregate) to Mexico in the play-off.
So, in simple terms, Infantino has made promises, and wants to change the scenery of World Football to keep them, and ensure he keeps in office. The World Cup expansion helps him to win votes in Asia and Africa, while the amount of money being offered for the other new competitions means that the opposition to them will probably be ignored.
Names such as “ITV Digital” and “ISL” keep echoing in the depths of my mind when thinking about this. While the investors may be able to deliver the promised riches, you can bet they have a back stop where the new company being formed fails to deliver. FIFA lost a bundle of cash when the ISL deal failed, as did the English Football League over the ITV digital debacle. In both cases, the money promised could not be backed by the product these companies were selling. Despite a series of new sponsors from China, FIFA have lost a lot of money after sponsors pulled out over the recent scandals. A recent report in the independent says that this is around 10% of the sponsorship income. In turn, this income is somewhere between a third and a half of all FIFA’s income.
Overall, the amounts promised for the new competitions would effectively double the income FIFA would expect to receive in any four-year period. It will allow them to send much more to the nations in grants both for administration and projects. I cannot see beyond the nations effectively voting for it because of the money. It is most likely there will be few objections, except from those nations where the additional income is lowest in percentage terms. Real Madrid and Barcelona have already been reported as responding positively to overtures over the club competition. Anyway, now the value of the genie has been let out of the bottle, there is the risk that if FIFA do not run such a competition, then someone else will – which will increase the rewards for clubs involved, while not helping out the rest.