23 November 2009 ~ Is the World Cup running out of countries? Next year's tournament has already notched a statistical quirk – it will be the first World Cup in which no country makes its finals debut. Slovakia have qualified in their own right for the first time, but given Czechoslovakia's rich contribution from the earliest years of the World Cup, that hardly ranks as an expansion of the tournament's boundaries. (For the ultimate pedants Serbia are also new, having separated from Montenegro since 2006.)
Between 70 and 80 countries have competed in the finals – the exact number depends on how you count the constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the two (or possibly three) Germanys. More than one in three (27 countries) appeared before the Second World War. Since then the accumulation has been steady, ranging from just one addition (England in 1950) to five (1982), or seven if you count Ukraine and Serbia (not forgetting Montenegro) in 2006.
Most recent additions, not surprisingly, have come with the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams in 1982 and then 32 in 1998, and have been predominantly from the main beneficiaries of that process: Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. Despite the reservations of some at the time and the persistence of one glaring inequality in the demands of qualifying (Oceania), World Cup expansion has been a resounding success. True, participation numbers have not always translated into a similar variety of the teams competing in the later knockout stages. But the "world" in World Cup no longer refers only to those who watch it. Most people in the world can have a realistic expectation that their country will take part in the finals. If Togo and Slovenia can do it, who cannot nurture hope?
We should hope that 2010 is only a blip in the extension of the World Cup to further corners, though the number of plausible candidates is finite. In South America only Venezuela are yet to make it. Europe may conceivably offer Finland or Cyprus, Bosnia and more former Soviet republics. But there are still plenty of possibilities in Africa, where countries with some Cup of Nations pedigree, such as Zambia, Mali and Burkina Faso, are waiting. And the perennial Asian qualifiers should be challenged soon by cashed-up gulf states such as Bahrain and Qatar. The last big untapped zone is south and south-east Asia, where India and Indonesia offer vast TV markets as well as neat global symmetry, though Thailand and Vietnam are more plausible qualifiers in the medium term.
For 2010, fans searching for novelty will have to make do with the seven teams coming back for only their second shot – Greece, Slovenia, North Korea, New Zealand, Honduras, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Perhaps the positive side of Africa's failure to produce a new entrant is that their more seasoned teams may finally produce a breakthrough to the knockout stages in numbers. If so, the tournament's global reach will have been extended in an equally satisfying way. Mike Ticher