Women’s World Cup shows disadvantages of longer format
23 June ~ The group phase of the current Women's World Cup in Canada was a tortuous process of reducing the number of teams from 24 to 16. It took almost two weeks to take us to the point where the tournament should have started – with the same number of participants that we had four years ago for the excellent 2011 World Cup in Germany.
That this World Cup is taking so long to ignite has partly been down to the heat and the artificial pitches, but the chief culprit for much of the sluggish play has been the superfluous expansion. Too many teams were simply not ready to compete at this level. This led not just to a surfeit of tedious and embarrassingly imbalanced contests against teams such as Ecuador and the Ivory Coast. It also prompted a number of countries to take it easy in the knowledge of almost certain progress, or to play dull, cautious football and calculate that three or four points would be enough to ensure qualification for the knockout stage.
Mysteriously, the historical mistake of expansion is seen as irreversible. No one seems to believe that the men's World Cup will ever shrink back to 24 or even 16 teams. Ludicrously, the debate veers more towards contemplating a 48-country colossus. The same greed for more games, and therefore more money, will afflict next summer's European Championship in France, now also bloated to 24 countries. The stupefied armchair audience will soak the extra games up, regardless of the dilution in quality.
Right at this moment, however, another international tournament is taking place that illustrates the way forward – or backwards, if you prefer. The men's European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic features just eight teams – two groups of four, leading to a semi-final and a final. Only the top teams qualified, and as a result the games are all intense and highly competitive. With one round of games to go in the group phase, all eight teams can still qualify for the semi-final. It's the classic format that the senior European Championship enjoyed and thrived on from 1980 to 1992.
The argument against a return to smaller tournaments is that the majority of associations will never agree to something that is not in their interest. That is why countries such as Scotland originally voted to expand the European Championship to 24 teams. Otherwise, they can not envisage ever again participating in a major tournament, and it's a lot cheaper than committing resources to develop players good enough to compete regularly against Italy, Spain and Germany.
Football associations and their parent institutions such as UEFA and FIFA, though, are going to become increasingly irrelevant to professional football. They've been blindly carving their own coffins for decades, and the long overdue exposure of FIFA’s terminally rotten guts has come too late for meaningful reform. These bodies are too crippled by self-interest and self-denial to understand what has been happening around them for the past two decades – that the rise of club power will eventually render them irrelevant.
In England and Germany, the Premier League and the Deutsche Fussball Liga have pushed their respective FAs to one side in running football at its highest level. In 2012, as part of the Association of European Professional Football Leagues (31 members, including La Liga and Serie A), they formed the World League Association (WLA) together with leagues from the US, South Africa, Thailand and the UAE. A further expansion of this body is planned at a meeting in New York later this year. Meanwhile, the European Club Association (ECA), at 214 clubs, will only go from strength to strength while representing the interests of its increasingly wealthy and powerful members.
Even setting aside the financial and physical impossibilities for most countries of hosting a 24- or 32-team tournament, the survival of international football depends on smaller summer World Cups and continental championships, with a streamlined qualification process. Borussia Dortmund finished the first half of the 2014-15 season at the foot of the Bundesliga, partially citing the exhaustion of their players after Germany's World Cup victory in Brazil.
Now that winning the European Championship will require a similarly draining seven-game stint, clubs such as Dortmund will be even less inclined to tolerate the bi-annual demands on their players required from such lengthy tournaments, regardless of the compensation from FIFA or UEFA. They will already argue that it's cost them qualification for next season's Champions League, and that their global reputation (let's just say it, “brand”) took a severe beating.
When these reforms happen – and they will – they will be initiated by pressure from bodies such as the WLA and the ECA, representing the major leagues and teams. There will be a justified outcry that clubs have too much power and are ruining the tradition and romance of international football, but the blame really lies with the long-term political inertia, ingrained corruption and myopic greed of the FAs and their umbrella bodies. Despite apparently acting against the interests of the showpiece summer tournaments, these reforms could – from a purely footballing point of view – turn out to be the saviour of the international game. Ian Plenderleith