11 October 2009 ~ Ever since the World Cup finals expanded to 32 teams, there have been few surprises in qualification. Sadly gone are the days of the 16-team tournaments of the 1970s, packed with quality players and memorable games, and largely free of mediocre countries making up the numbers. Since 1998, all the big teams have been there and that's kept the mercantile smiles of FIFA and its marketing drones firmly in place. Except at the 2002 finals, when a few "wrong" results saw the likes of Italy and Argentina eliminated early.

People moaned that it wasn't a proper World Cup if such teams were not still competing in the latter stages, as though countries like Turkey and the USA only showed up on the understanding that while they could stay for the first round of drinks and take a quick look at the celebrities, in no way would they be welcome to hang around for the cocaine and the after-hours orgy. This time around, though, there's been a slight panic in the pristine offices overlooking Lake Zurich, where the merest afternoon ripple on the water's placid veneer is enough to send the Swiss scuttling up the mountains with a gold bar in each pocket. On both sides of the world, a pesky loss of form has threatened to smudge the guest list to the Mad Blatter's TV party. Worried that the European play-offs might conceivably pair off Germany against France, football's cunning gnomes changed the rules half way through the game to introduce seeded pairings, rather than an open draw. Meanwhile, in South America they are talking about The Unthinkable, which is defined as Argentina's failure to make the finals, even though a betting man might have backed this outcome the moment the Argentine FA appointed a certifiable nutjob as their head coach.

It's true that a World Cup without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, say, would not be the same as a World Cup with them. Yet most people would manage to get over it, aside from the salesmen striving to convince sponsors that this is the greatest sporting event of all, featuring football's finest players at the peak of their powers. The spectacularly talented but easily loathable Ronaldo, for example, has done little of note at his last two major international tournaments and there's nothing to suggest this time around would be any different at the end of another demanding domestic and European club campaign. The same applies to Messi. The World Cup has become too big for any one player to stand out and dominate the four weeks in the way that the nutjob mentioned above, Diego Maradona, did so imperiously in 1986.

And that's just the problem. So indebted are the world's vastly overpaid players to their clubs that they have nothing left over for the World Cup. It's more like a working holiday to increase your profile, while performing to your real potential in no more than sporadic patches. Over the course of the past three tournaments, magnificent games and startling individual performances have been subsumed by the proliferation of athletic journeymen and tireless watercarriers. Stories are centred on human interest, not actual achievement. For months in advance, all we hear about is revenue, stadiums and infrastructure, because the tournament has become an unwieldy monster mired in its own delirious greed, delusional hype and gargantuan self-publicity.

Worst of all, it's a bore. There are way too many games, the best players are knackered, the media's either jaded or wilfully complicit in the whole charade and the fans are duped into believing they're off on the journey of a lifetime, before being bilked for every last cent. FIFA trumpets the immense magnitude of The Event to gloss over the reality that the games themselves are a serial disappointment. Never mind substance, let's just worry about who shows up for the soccer spectacle. Spain – check. England – check. Italy – check. And down the list to Argentina, who will perhaps scrape in thanks to a play-off against the fourth-placed Concacaf team. Phew – check. Everybody important is on board, so close the door and sail away with the sponsors' booty locked in the hold. We'll worry later about where we're heading. In the meantime play some old Pelé and Cruyff videos for comfort and hope nobody notices that the sport itself is lost at sea, too bloated and weary to climb up out of its deckchair, let alone head back for solid ground to exhibit truly exciting football. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (7)
Comment by t.j.vickerman 2009-10-11 18:40:18

>Since 1998, all the big teams have been there

Netherlands in 2002?

Personally I still love the World Cup and have no problem with the 32 team format.I think it demonstrates the way the game has developed in the last 30 years all over the world that there are fairly 32 competitive teams to take part.

>Sadly gone are the days of the 16-team tournaments of the 1970s, >packed with quality players and memorable games

Like El Salvador in 1970, Zaire and Haiti in 1974?

And how about the ridiculous double group stage of the '74 and '78 World Cups? Nostalgia aint what it used to be...

That said, I do agree entirely about the sudden change to a seeded draw for the European Play-Offs. Wonder what the reaction would have been if England were hoping to scrape into the 2nd place in Group 6.

And the expansion of the Euros from 16 to 24 teams from 2016 id just so wrong, not only because decreases the value of the group matches by allowing 3 out of 4 to qualify from most groups but pads out the tournament with mediocrity.

Comment by robeth 2009-10-11 23:40:40

Whilst agreeing wholeheartedly with the contents of Ian's article I wish to point out that here in Australia our qualification to successive tournaments has now guaranted the growth of the game in Oz and engendered enormous support for soccer per se.

It has also meant that if the Kiwi's manage to defeat Bahrein in November it will cause enormous amounts of angst in the Shaky Islands. For ambivalence will perhaps creep into the national psyche and threaten the hegimony of rugby in NZ: now wouldn't that be nice!

Comment by Ronny Delgado 2009-10-12 09:22:27

Would we ever have seen the likes of Angola, Trini & Toba, Togo, North-Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Turkey, etc etc on the World Cup stage when it would still have been with only 16 teams? It is easy to bash the 32-team tournament when you support a big country. It definitely benefits the smaller countries for whom going to a World Cup is as good as winning it for the biggies.

Comment by G.Man wants a hyphen 2009-10-12 11:33:21

I've got a feeling that the team Ian supports failed to qualify for South Africa.

Here's something to ponder over: Nigeria might fail to qualify (with Tunisia topping the group). So we might have Slovenia or Slovakia instead of Nigeria, and the prospect of Switzerland at the World Cup. Maybe the whole shebang would be greater fun if Europe lost a few places. If that means we'd miss on the delights of France or Portugal missing out, well, good for the fans, and toughies for FIFA and the corporate sector.

Comment by stuartjsaunders 2009-10-13 20:45:08

Like anybody who visits this site, I am first and foremost a football fan. And as a football fan, I cannot think of anything more wonderful than the World Cup. One whole month of football with 64 games involving most of the best players in the world and 32 teams who undoubtedly deserve to be there.

When the World Cup is compared against other tournaments, surely they have no rival. Ian's challenge on lack of quality could go on to damage the Euro's from 2016 (when it is expanded to 24 teams) and the Champs Lge has become a big switch off/bore to anybody but 'fans' of the 'english' big 4.

I am sure that the World Cup was better in some ways in the olden days but if we returned to just 16 teams I doubt whether England could bank on being there; and for the sake of a perceived loss of quality, I would much rather have a World Cup with England in it as opposed to the alternative.

And I guess if I was a Scotland fan I would be arguing for an increase to 64 teams. Or maybe 128

Comment by Dalef65 2009-10-17 11:04:42

I would like to respond to Ronny Delgado.............

I wouldnt go calling Turkey a small country matey,or they might just give you a massive welcome to hell...!!!!

Also Trini and Toba sounds like one of those makeover fashion programmes you get on Channel 4.

In principle you have some good points just a bit suspect on the delivery maybe..


Comment by Dalef65 2009-10-17 11:11:02

Im not at all sure that Nigeria as they are now could bank on beating any of Slovenia, Slovakia, or especially Switzerland.

Related articles

Adventures In The Golden Age by Archie Macpherson
Scotland in the World Cup finals 1974-1998Black and White, £11.99Reviewed by Alan PatulloFrom WSC 379, September 2018Buy the book Another...
Bobby Robson film offers smiles, tears and plenty of fond memories
Embed from Getty Images // Watching the elegantly put together More Than A Manager highlights why Robson was so revered by fans, players and...
World In Motion: The inside story of Italia 90 by Simon Hart
De Coubertin Books, £16.99Reviewed by Tim SpringettFrom WSC 377, July/August 2018Buy the book If All Played Out by Pete Davies is viewed as...

More... World Cup