FIFA president Gianni Infantino has recently unveiled plans to increased the World Cup from 40 to 48 teams. Back in 1986, in WSC 3, even 24 was deemed too many
"I’ll take you to Hollywood,
I’ll take you to Mexico,
I’ll take you anywhere
The River of Money flows."
The 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland were an organisational shambles. The first-round groups consisted of four teams, but each one only played two of the others. In the (likely) event of two teams finishing level on points, play-offs rather than goal difference were used to divide them.
Through all this, West Germany succeeded in reaching the final, where they beat Hungary 3-2, despite having lost 8-3 to the same team in the group matches. It was a thoroughly ill-conceived and unjust system, but of course that was over 30 years ago, when the World Cup was still more or less in its infancy.
In 1986, with four of the third-place teams qualifying from the original groups, and penalties used to settle drawn games in the knockout stage, it was theoretically possible for a team to become world champions without winning a game, or even scoring a goal! How far we’ve come.
Safe in FIFA's flabby grasp, the organisation of the World Cup was by and large the same mixture of corruption, cynicism and incompetence which we've come to expect over the years. Not surprisingly, the wrong choices were made (from football's point of view) on all the really important decisions, starting with the most fundamental, the venue.
First choice was Colombia, with their fine tradition of participation in the finals (drew one, lost two in 1962, their only appearance). Then, Mexico, who have often had trouble getting past the might of Haiti and the US and were the last but one “South American” country to cost the tournament anyway. A more plausible alternative, Brazil, was barely considered, largely because of internal political squabbles centring on João Havelange, President of FIFA. Not a promising start.
Much worse, however, was the decision to keep the number of competing teams at 24, rather than 16. The result is that the format has to be either as it was this year, with teams qualifying from the groups with just two points, or the interminable mini-leagues of 1982 and all the sterile, negative football that goes with it.
Either way, the longer tournament can only encourage dull and “efficient” football which can repeat itself time and time again, rather than the brilliant unpredictability which is supposed to be the hallmark of cup competitions. Hence West Germany's appearance in two consecutive finals after contributing more or less nothing to the tournament in terms of excitement.
The most obvious result of a bigger competition is simply that there are more matches to be played – 52 as opposed to 36 in the 1966/70 format. No doubt there are sound financial reasons for this, but if only there were less of them, the games could be spread out over a sufficient length of time to allow for possible replays in the knockout stages. This is vital, to do away with the wretched penalty shootouts.
Of course there are plenty of problems about replaying drawn games, not least the extra fatigue imposed on the players. However, we have to ask ourselves what the World Cup is all about. Is it a mere commercial exercise, a TV extravaganza? Or is it a competition to decide the world champions at football? If it's the latter, then the games should be decided by playing football, not by an almost totally arbitrary device, designed simply to settle the tie as quickly as possible.
For me (at the risk of sounding like Mike Channon), for me, two of the best games of this World Cup, Brazil v France and Spain v Belgium, were ruined by the fact that the decisive moments were artificially imposed. In both matches neither team deserved to lose, but equally neither deserved to win, if they couldn't score more goals than their opponents, which is, after all, the idea of the game. Just to repeat, it would have been possible to win this World Cup without scoring a single goal.
The solution has to be to go back to a 16-team tournament, but once again the problem is the internal politics of FIFA – Havelange needs to cement his support among the African and Asian countries who are numerically a powerful force in FIFA.
One way to resolve this could be to go back to 16 teams, but have more places (maybe five or six) conditional on play-offs between countries from different zones, as with Australia v Scotland. That would give the African and Asian countries the chance to claim more places, but only if they earned them on merit. I can’t believe that Algeria would be overawed at the prospect of playing, say, Portugal or Bulgaria home and away.
However, rational and sensible solutions for the good of football are rare indeed in an organisation like FIFA. The way they are prepared to prostitute the game to the TV companies is the perfect example of this. The timing of the matches to suit prime-time European TV was even less excusable than it was in 1970, because of the arrival since then of that tame beast, the video recorder.
And you would have thought, wouldn't you, that we could have settled the length of the matches after a hundred years of organised football? But no, FIFA brazenly do away with injury time, again (apparently) to keep the TV companies sweet. If there was one measure guaranteed to increase time-wasting and feigning injury, then surely this was it. It doesn't say too much for the courage and responsibility of the referees, either, that almost all of them went along with it.
Sniping at the grey men of FIFA from a bedroom in South London feels pretty ridiculous, like trying to argue rationally with a herd of rampaging elephants. Harry Cavan does not yet have a subscription to When Saturday Comes. Still, what can you do apart from getting grievances out in the open? (Well, by “out in the open” I mean confiding them to a few hundred readers!)
The format of the World Cup will continue to change at the whim of a select few individuals, prodded by caucuses and lobbies and hemmed in by the power of TV. All we can do is hope that, more often than not, the football will contrive to overcome the obstacles put in its way, and the World Cup will be a success despite itself.