World Cup Finals will never be the same

Friday January 13, 2017 Written by Published in Soccer
Players and management of the 1982 All Whites, the fi rst New Zealand team to qualify for the World Cup. 17011219/Fairfax NZ Players and management of the 1982 All Whites, the fi rst New Zealand team to qualify for the World Cup. 17011219/Fairfax NZ

FIFA'S decision to expand the World Cup Finals from 32 teams to 48 starting in 2026 means one of world sport's greatest events is likely to become a shadow of its former self.

 

And while the change may appear to be good for New Zealand football, in that it will surely open up a direct route for a team from Oceania to qualify, that is scant consolation.

Many onlookers in this country will be licking their lips today, salivating at the prospect of seeing the All Whites at the World Cup once again, even if it takes another nine years.

But if they do get there, and it's no sure thing, it will be a World Cup in name only, nothing like the one fans from all around the world look forward to every four years at present.

As it has been since 1998, the 32-team World Cup Finals is a thing of simplistic beauty. It takes two weeks for everyone to play everyone else in their four-team group, then half of them advance to the knockout stages, and the other half go home.

The knockout stages then take another two weeks themselves, and so in the space of a month, one nation is crowned the world's best.

From 2026 onwards, it promises to be a bloated, ugly mess.

Start with the fact that it will take 48 games to reduce 48 teams to 32, with two teams from every group of three advancing to the knockout stages.

Then consider that with three-team groups, there will be unbalanced schedules, with some teams getting more rest than others; and a decent chance that those playing in the final group match may have either already qualified or be able to arrive at a result that suits them both.

Even with 32 teams, there are always a handful who stand no chance of even making a splash, let alone winning the thing.

Adding 16 more just like them will do nothing except dilute the quality. There will be more countries, especially in Africa and Asia, that get to go for the first time, but the event that attracted them in the first place will be losing its lustre.

Expanding the World Cup Finals to 48 teams will mean big changes for the structure of world football, so there's every chance the quality of the Pacific island nations might change too - and my hunch is that it will, for the better.

Under the current system, when the All Whites start out along the long and winding path towards the World Cup Finals, they know there's a great chance that at the end of that journey, in the inter-continental playoff, there will be an opponent they only have a slim chance of beating.

When the likes of Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands start out along that path, they know that too, and they know they have an even slimmer chance, so slim as to be nonexistent. But they also know there's another difficult opponent they have to deal with first - us.

When the 2026 qualifiers begin, it will be only us, though, and so, in a relative sense, their task will have become a whole lot easier. You only have to look at the last two Oceania Nations Cups, or November's qualifying draw in New Caledonia to know that the All Whites are not invincible.

It is the dream of every young footballer to go to a World Cup, and two generations of New Zealanders have been lucky enough to have it become a reality, the first in Spain in 1982, the second in South Africa in 2010.

Turning it from a dream to reality has been almost inconceivable for the rest of Oceania, but with expansion confirmed, it just became a whole lot more likely.

The All Whites already have a target on their backs whenever they play in Port Moresby, or Noumea, or Suva, and when this new era arrives, it will only grow larger, because the potential reward will be all the greater.

If any of them do ever get there - New Zealand will remain heavy favourites - it will be a special day for them and they will cherish it.

Partly because, radically different though it may be, it is still the World Cup.

And partly because they won't know any different.

            - Stuff/Andrew Voerman

 

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