January 12 2017

FIFA World Cup Format Changes

Thought Leadership, UK, Soccer/Football

Opinion Piece by Phil Carling, Managing Director of Football - Octagon Worldwide

Who is the best football team in the World? There was a time when this question had relevance to International football and although the matter could never be adequately settled, the current World Cup holders could always be credibly suggested in a bar room debate. Although the precise timing and causes of the transition are complex, few would now dispute that the elite Club teams, able to select from a Global talent pool and mould a team ethos over months and years, would comfortably defeat the World Cup winners over a series of matches. I would even back Spurs to beat Portugal, the current European Champions, 8 times out of 10.

All of this has relevance when considering FIFA’s decision to introduce a 48 team format for the World Cup Finals from 2026 onwards.The tournament format, almost certainly to be staged in North America, will now be 16 groups of 3, leading to a straight knockout tournament for the remaining 32 teams. Ceding protocols, precise formats and qualification places are still to be decided. In essence the new expanded tournament will occupy no more time in the football calendar and the winner will still play 7 matches. So no charges of massive disruption to the football calendar can be laid at FIFA’s door. The charges of money grabbing and corruption are also way off the mark, since any increase in commercial rights (which would be minimal) will be offset by significant increases in costs.

The key issue remains, that there has been long term decline in quality and technical standard of International football relative to elite Club football and the format changes will serve only to accelerate that decline. It could be argued that with the changes in format FIFA have effectively recognized that the purpose of the World Cup is no longer the four yearly crowning of "The World Champions” but the creation of a Festival of International football in which the best National team will emerge triumphant from a mediocre pool of finalists. The mantle of best team in the World has moved most certainly to the Club competitions arena and this is a defining moment for the Sport.

If FIFA has recognized that the “technical superiority” argument has been lost then the format changes are to be welcomed, but it must accept that the original purpose of the World Cup has been traduced and is in need of redefinition. If FIFA represents the 208 federations which make up its membership, offering more countries the opportunity to participate in the finals represents a fulfillment of their democratic remit and moves us closer to a redefining of the purpose of the World Cup in the modern era. Moreover the expansion delivers against the populist agenda upon which Infantino was elected as President. Consider that since its creation in the 1930’s 63% of FIFA’s Member associations have never participated in the World Cup Finals, that’s 131 countries out of the 208 membership. That is the core insight which has driven Infantino and his team. It should also be noted that the FIFA Presidency is wholly sustained by a populist agenda due to the one member one vote system in the General council.

That Infantino should be the architect of an expanded World Cup should come as no surprise when it is remembered that the precedent had already been established by another football populist, and someone for whom Infantino worked very closely for many years, Michel Platini. Remember Platini expanded the 16 team Euro’s into a 24 team format from 2016, with the clear intention of democratizing the event and scant interest in the effect on technical standards. From a football perspective Euro 2016 may go down as providing the worst standard of football in living memory and certainly the worst team to win a major Championship. But perhaps this misses the point that the true winners of Euro 2016 were the fans of Iceland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (amongst some notable others). Ultimately this is the direction of travel for International football and offers a potential solution for the redefinition of International tournaments such as the World Cup. It cannot keep pace with elite Club football because countries cannot select from a global talent pool. In light of this the future for events such as the World Cup and the Euro’s will be to become festivals of football in which the fans have a central role and the quality of the football is a bonus, not the defining issue. Seen in this context Infantino’s revolution makes sense and the reservations of the elite footballing nations might be seen as uncharitable, driven by the elite club agenda and lacking foresight.

Commercial partners and those associating with International football should also be mindful of these developments principally in so far as they impact positioning, fan engagement strategies and the core creative territory. International football will continue to deliver value but it will not be found, as was historically the case, in the quality of the football or an association with the highest sporting excellence.