Confederation Combination and World Cup Expansion

At the recent FIFA meetings, the possibility of a 40 team World Cup was raised and fellow soccer fan/on field adversary Ben Dettmar had to poke the bear on facebook. His post raised two issues: an expanded World Cup and a combined soccer confederation including all of the Americas.

Let me take the second issue first. A combined CONCACAF (41) + CONMEBOL (10) would be similar in size to UEFA, so a western hemisphere bi annual or quadrennial competition (prefer the latter) to replace the Copa America and Gold Cup and an expanded qualifying series make sense. The Gold Cup is relatively recent so it’s passing would not be that big of a deal but the Copa America is one of the first international competitions with a hundred years of history. Suppose life moves on but that did occur to me. Plus how would you qualify for the tournament? That makes the quadrennial option much more plausible and would put the Americas on a similar international cycle as Europe.

For listeners of the World Football Phone In, Tim Vickery has made the case several times about the merits of the South American home and away qualifying cycle. Teams earn their way by playing everyone. He is also of the opinion that the minnows are strengthened by playing the big boys every cycle. I agree with the first, not sure on the second. South America is perfectly set up for a merit based qualifying system due to having ten countries whereas other confederations have too many members to make this feasible.

But a combined confederation raises the issue of travel. Canada draws Chile and that’s 5300 miles one way. Costs and travel time could hamper this endeavor, especially for smaller nations. Ben brought up the comparison of Kazakhstan to Iceland being of a similar distance so even Europe has travel issues. Putting travel to one side, if the two confederations were to combine, there should be some sort of tiered system similar to CONCACAF. Imagine a double hex final round with the top six to eight progressing to the World Cup and really interesting games like Mexico v Brazil or US v Argentina. Something to think about.

Again, this is an interesting idea and a fun hypothetical exercise but not a must for me. A combined confederation has pros and cons but not enough pros to undo over 100 years of history, organization and unique football culture. I did not even think about the impact on the club game because for me that is a non-starter due to logistics and CONCACAF teams having almost no shot at the FIFA Club World Moneygrab.

As for the expanded World Cup, I admit I’m totally against it. However, I took some time to look at the history of place allocation and other factors to create a more informed opinion.

From 1950 to 1970, it was a 16 team competition that catered to South America and Europe. In 1966 CONCACAF was guaranteed one spot and only in 1970 did African and Asian teams avoid an inter-continental playoff to qualify. These three areas were only allotted three spots total until 1982, when the tournament grew to 24 teams and CONCACAF, CAF and AFC were granted two spots each. Africa gained a spot in 1994 and the enlarged field of 32 in 1998 saw the following distribution:

  • Europe (UEFA): 15 places, one of which went to automatic qualifier France, while the other 14 places were contested by 49 teams.
  • South America (CONMEBOL): 5 places, one of which went to automatic qualifier Brazil, while the other 4 places were contested by 9 teams.
  • North, Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF): 3 places, contested by 30 teams.
  • Africa (CAF): 5 places, contested by 38 teams.
  • Asia (AFC): 3.5 places, contested by 36 teams. The winner of the 0.5 place would advance to the intercontinental play-offs (against a team from OFC).
  • Oceania (OFC): .5 place, contested by 10 teams. The winner of the 0.5 place would advance to the intercontinental play-offs (against a team from AFC).

This has been the approximate make-up of the tournament, with the values dependent on hosting countries. Europe contributing almost half the teams is quite interesting. Yes the continent has a history of success and top level teams but I considered the distribution of teams based on population and found this:

Places % of WC % of pop
UEFA 13 41% 10%
CONMEBOL 5.5 17% 6%
CONCACAF 3.5 11% 8%
AFC 4.5 14% 60%
CAF 5 16% 16%
OFC 0.5 2% 1%
32 100%

Ben raised the issues of more participation for underserved regions of the world as a consideration for a bigger tournament. Don’t disagree with his idea but seems like the matter could be solved by tweaking the allocation of the 32 places rather than having more people at the party. I mean if I was Asia, I would be asking some questions of Europe and South America, especially if evaluating from a population perspective.

A 40 team tournament doesn’t make sense from a logistical perspective. First you start with size of each group. Either an unwieldy ten groups of four or an awkward eight groups of five. Either way, every day would have to be a quadruple header to get the extra games to keep the tournament around 30 days long.

Then how do you determine the round of 16? 10 group winners and 6 best second placed teams? But imagine finishing second in a group and progressing. Plus the Group Stage draw the December ahead of the World Cup would have a huge impact on possible success. Ben suggested eight groups with the top team going through and 2 and 3 playing a 1 game e to see who makes it. Gives an incentive to win group and also means last place team will usually have a shot still by the 4th game! But what about the group winners would have to sit around for a week while this goes on?

A footballing festival of about a month every four years seems about right. Any more than that, it becomes on par with the playoff series of American sports. That many games for that long of a period during the Group Stage could lead to World Cup fatigue. In addition, a larger World Cup would further narrow the nations that could host this event (unless FIFA moves to a pan-continent hosting plan), which wouldn’t be fair to developing soccer countries.

I gave the concept of a 40 team World Cup a shot but 32 is a great number. Thirty days of excitement, drama and excellence is ideal, and I just think the distribution of places should be tweaked. It’s almost impossible to determine the 32 best teams anyway so each continent trims it down via qualification and let the party begin. My basic tenet is more is not better. The recent hubbub around the expanded Euros should be kept in mind but we’ll see if this is a one off or a trend. So FIFA concentrate on internal corruption and leave the World Cup alone.

  1. Ben Dettmar contributed these comments:

    1) I absolutely agree about CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. I think CONCACAF is the weakest of the federations (outside of OFC which I don’t really count) but I am not a CONCACAF hater. I have season tcks for an MLS team, outside of England (obviously), and Scotland (who I like after living there for 5 years), the US is the national team I follow and I genuinely want them to do well. But I really don’t care about the Gold Cup. But imagining the US and Mexico (and others) in an expanded Copa America – awesome! And yes it should be every 4 years! Imagine the Euros and Copa America in the same summer!

    2) I don’t like the Hex idea. I would rather see a pre-qualifying tournament for the minnows and then a straight up 40 teams (or whatever) battle for 10 spots (or whatever) in 5 groups of 8 (top 2 teams) , 7 groups of 6 (top team – 6 best 2nd place play off) I realize that math doesn’t always work but I like that better than a Hex.

    3) I like 40 teams for a WC. Whenever they expanded there were naysayers. 24 was kinda ridiculous and 32 does make sense mathematically but 40 allows more teams in. You are not going to take places from UEFA. It just isn’t going to happen. So 40, with an understanding that joint hosting is okay, and the new places going mainly to Asia and Africa I am okay with. Interestingly, the Rugby World cup had the repechage idea a few tournaments back and then dropped it – but I think it could work in soccer. 8 groups of 5, top team into last 16 and 2 plays 3 from another group. If you allowed teams to have squads of say 27/28 instead of 23 it would give them more leeway to play players and if you allowed the entire bench to be a sub…..

    Again I think it’s important to note that we are from countries that are expected to make it. This would grow the game in China, Uganda, New Zealand, Iraq, the UAE, Botswana etc. Countries that have never made it or only make it rarely.

    This would add an extra game but I am okay with 4 games a day. Kick offs at 3/5/7/9 local time would work. And if you started on a Sunday you could still end on a Sunday and have games every 3 or 4 days for teams which is doable. although it would make it a 5 week rather than a 4 week tournament.

    I do still have friends in England who think an 8 team Euros (I think 92 was the last one) was the best way to host a tournament though!

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