Thursday, 8 December 2016

The World Cup and the Champions League should go for 64 teams

Over the last few months there has been some debate about possible modifications to the number of entrants in the World Cup and the Champions League. My opinion about this is simple: both competitions should run with 64 participating teams. Here are my reasons:

1) Twice the number of current teams will be involved. This seems obvious enough, but this is also the number one reason why it should be done. Every time these two tournaments are held, there are some prestigious teams that are left out because there are not enough places. Doubling the number of participants would help more of these teams to qualify. This also means many more fans, in many more cities and many more countries would be included and would enjoy these tournaments. And when you include more teams, you generate increased interest across the whole country where that team is from. Ask any Polish or Scottish fans, for example, whether their interest is the same in a World Cup or Champions League group stage when they have a team present or when they don't.

2) The overall duration of the competitions would not be altered significantly. Just one more matchday would be needed in the World Cup (to accomodate an extra elimination round after the group stage), and two extra days in the Champions League, as compared to now. This would mean 8 matches instead of the current 7 in the World Cup, and 15 in the Champions League instead of 13. Given that the current Champions League quarter-finals are played over eight different days instead of the minimum four (four Tuesdays and four Wednesdays in February and March), the booked dates needed are already available on the international calendar. And also, let's remember that during four seasons at the turn of the century there was a second group stage after the first, taking a total of 17 matches for the competition to be completed. This was later trimmed back to 13 games, but 15 over 9 months is feasible, and it is a very small sacrifice in order to double the number of teams participating. Besides, in the case of the World Cup, the 48-team enlargement now under study by FIFA also would need an 8-match schedule anyway, due to the planned play-off round before the proper tournament starts, so if you're going to block off an 8-game chunk of the international calendar for the World Cup, at least make that length of time count, and use it to its maximum strength.

(Update: In January 2017 the FIFA plan eventually approved a 48-team finals in groups of three teams. This makes it even worse. I think that using an extra week of the international calendar every FOUR years is not that big a sacrifice for the price of DOUBLE the nations to be included)

3) Worrying about "diluting the quality" is a non-issue. Anyone who watches football knows that you simply don't know how "good" the next match you watch is going to be, whatever the "quality" of the teams involved, and you don't know either where the next thoroughly enjoying crowd-pleaser is going to come from. We've all seen a disappointing Real Madrid v Barcelona, an underwhelming Liverpool v Manchester United or a boring Italy v Germany. And we've also seen an entertaining Swansea v Crystal Palace, or an eventful Portugal v Hungary, games which maybe wouldn't be billed as "highest quality" before the fact. Having fewer matches do not mean they are going to be better games, and conversely, more matches do not mean they are all going to be worse. Every fan of each team is going to find their own games interesting, whatever the "quality" of the play, and then they will judge the rest of the matches according to their own time and inclination.

4) Yes, it would be difficult to watch every match in an enlarged World Cup like this, but no-one is asking you to. As an everyday fan, do you watch every match in the current Champions League, or in your current domestic club competitions? No, and nobody will say you're a poor football fan if you don't. I know that it is a great experience being able to watch every single match of the World Cup, which is just about doable with the current number of games, but with double the number of matches to deal with, you can just concentrate on the ones you're interested in (or just actually able to watch), and then catch up with the remainder through recorded viewing or highlights packages... which is what you're doing now with the Champions league anyway, and with your local national leagues and cups.

5) The 64-team format would give everyone more of what they enjoy from a football competition: being able to take part in it more often as a player or a fan, for a start, and also many more dramatic elimination matches. The enlarged World Cup would have an extra 16-game last-32 round, and the Champions League would also have an extra 16-match last-32 round of two-legged ties. In fact, this expansion would make the Champions League elimination rounds as big (in terms of number of clubs participating in them) as the old European Cup seasons until 1992. You would be able to recapture the magic of those 32-team competitions of pure home-and-away football, after the group stage.

6) The enlarged number of participants would mean that big teams miss out less often (remember England, the Netherlands, France, Milan or Chelsea in previous years), middle-ranking nations and clubs would qualify more frequently, rather than just once every three or four tournaments, and lower-ranked teams would also be able to take part more often than until now. This would even improve the chances of a Cinderella story like those of Iceland, Jamaica, Anorthosis or Ludogorets in recent times. Depending on who you support, you know how hard it is when you don't qualify, and you also know that it is not the same when you have to watch the competition from the outside.

7) Stadia and organisation wouldn't be a problem in the Champions League: Europe already has a second competition running, the Europa League, which shows that the whole continent is able to run many mid-week matches across many countries without problems. Now, imagine many of those games (like this season's Ajax v Panathinaikos, for example, or Manchester United v Feyenoord) being played in the Champions League instead of the Europa League. It just isn't the same, and don't the players and fans know it!

As for the World Cup, I think that too much is being made of the hosting problems. The enlarged 64-team World Cup would mean 127 football matches over 6 weeks. That's fewer than the number of matches being played in England's domestic top three divisions (136 games) over just four weekends. And over those four weekends there are many more football matches being played in lower divisions at the same time, and this happens all throughout the season, often twice a week, for nine months, while the rest of the footballing countries do the same, at the same time. That's thousands of games every few days, and it works. So don't tell me that hosting 127 matches, never more than 6 a day, over less than a month and a half is too hard. I have never been involved in the organisation of a big sporting tournament, so I do reckon there will be difficulties to deal with regarding travelling fans, rooms to stay the night, fan zones, transport, policing and all that, but those shouldn't be insurmountable, especially when you see what the Olympic Games manage to cram in just two weeks over dozens of sports in and around a single city. The answer to this would be: for the first few tournaments at least, choose dependable hosts with ready-made stadia and good tourism infrastructure already in place. The USA, Spain, England, Japan, Mexico, would all be able to do it, and if not, then co-host sensibly. I heard often that the 2002 Japan-South Korea World Cup was "like hosting two different World Cups at the same time". Well, then you're doing it wrong. Europe are going to host it continent-wide for their own competition in 2020, and I think it will work. But for a 64-team competition, maybe Italy could host 4 of the 16 groups, Spain another 4, England 4 more and Portugal the remaining 4 (I'm just leaving Germany and France out of the example as the two most recent European World Cup hosts, but they could be included too). Then, each of those four host nations would get 4 round-of-32 matches, 2 round-of-16 games, 1 quarter final and then each of them either one semifinal or the 3rd-place play-off or the final. Sorted. Besides, this four-country hosting system could also apply to other parts of the world. And I'm sure there are many more solutions to this, including co-hosting between continents too (how about a Mediterranean World Cup across Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Tunis, hosting two groups each, for example, or a CONCACAF-CONMEBOL effort from Canada to Chile). Anyway, my point is that this problem, if it is one, shouldn't be a deterrent.

And finally, to give you an example of how all this would look like, here's a list of a "virtual" group stage for each competition.

In the Champions League I have followed the current UEFA rankings and I have chosen as examples the teams from each country with the best UEFA coefficient (Sorry, Inter Milan, 7th best in Italy, Marseille, 6th best in France, Spartak Moscow, 9th best in Russia and Feyenoord, 4th best in the Netherlands). If you don't like the choices blame them, not me.

Top 4 UEFA-ranked nations: 6 teams each (24 teams all told)

 1 SPA Real Madrid
 2 SPA FC Barcelona
 3 SPA Atlético Madrid
 4 SPA Sevilla
 5 SPA Valencia
 6 SPA Villarreal
 7 ENG Manchester United
 8 ENG Arsenal
 9 ENG Chelsea
10 ENG Liverpool
11 ENG Manchester City
12 ENG Tottenham
13 GER Bayern Munich
14 GER Borussia Dortmund
15 GER Bayer Leverkusen
16 GER Schalke 04
17 GER Wolfsburg
18 GER Mönchengladbach
19 ITA AC Milan
20 ITA Juventus
21 ITA Lazio
22 ITA AS Roma
23 ITA Napoli
24 ITA Fiorentina

Nations ranked 5 and 6: 5 teams each (10 teams)

25 POR FC Porto
26 POR Benfica
27 POR Sporting Lisbon
28 POR Braga
29 POR Estoril
30 FRA Lyon
31 FRA Bordeaux
32 FRA Paris Saint-Germain
33 FRA Monaco
34 FRA Saint-Étienne

Nations ranked 7 and 8: 4 teams each (8 teams)

35 RUS CSKA Moscow
36 RUS Anzhi
37 RUS Zenit
38 RUS Rubin Kazan
39 UKR Dynamo Kiev
40 UKR Shakhtar
41 UKR Dnipro
42 UKR Metalist

Nations ranked 9 and 10: 3 teams each (6 teams)

43 NET Ajax
44 NET PSV
45 NET Alkmaar
46 BEL Anderlecht
47 BEL Brugge
48 BEL Genk

Nations ranked 11 and 12: 2 teams each (4 teams)

49 SWI Basel
50 SWI Young Boys
51 TUR Galatasaray
52 TUR Fenerbahçe

Rest of nations: 12 places to play for in preliminary rounds

53 GRE Olympiacos
54 CZE Sparta Prague
55 ROM Steaua Bucharest
56 AUS FC Salzburg
57 CRO Dinamo Zagreb
58 CYP APOEL
59 POL Legia Warsaw
60 ISR Maccabi Tel-Aviv
61 BLS BATE Borisov
62 DEN FC Copenhagen
63 SCO Celtic
64 SWE Malmö

Obviously, this distribution can be tinkered with. For example more nations represented and fewer nations with multiple clubs, but that's minutia to be decided later. Example of resulting groups (seeding made from UEFA's own coefficient ranking):

01 Real Madrid - 17 Shakhtar - 35 Anderlecht - 52 Sporting Lisbon
02 Bayern M - 22 Tottenham - 34 Dnipro - 53 Steaua Bucharest
03 Barcelona - 18 Leverkusen - 37 Monaco - 55 Genk
04 Atlético - 18 Basel - 36 Mönchengladbach - 57 Saint-Étienne
05 PSG - 23 Dynamo Kiev - 38 Fenerbahçe - 62 FC Copenhagen
06 Juventus - 25 Olympiacos  - 40 Sparta Prague - 61 Anzhi
07 Dortmund - 27 Galatasaray - 39 Roma - 63 AZ Alkmaar
08 Benfica - 26 Villarreal - 41 Milan - 64 BATE Borisov
09 Chelsea - 24 Fiorentina - 42 PSV - 68 Bordeaux
10 Arsenal - 29 Lazio - 43 Rubin Kazan - 113 Estoril
11 Sevilla - 30 Liverpool - 44 Celtic - 75 Young Boys
12 Manchester City - 31 Wolfsburg - 78 Dinamo Zagreb - 94 Metalist
13 Porto - 32 Lyon - 47 CSKA Moscow - 86 APOEL
14 Schalke - 21 Valencia - 49 Brugge - 81 Legia Warsaw
15 Napoli - 33 Ajax - 50 Salzburg - 89 Maccabi tel-Aviv
16 Zenit - 20 Manchester United - 51 Braga - 108 Malmö

Not bad, I think, and as we saw before, this still leaves out some well-know names.

Now for an example of a 64-team World Cup. To start with, I believe that in international competition terms, football should be divided into just four regions: Europe, Africa, the Americas (North, Central, South and Caribbean) and Oceania/Asia. Each of those regions would have roughly the same number of teams (around 50-60), so qualification rounds would last more or less the same amount of time. Each region could have 14 guaranteed places (56 total), and the last 8 would come from inter-continental play-offs, which would be the fairest way to see which region deserves more. Another way would be to do it by the FIFA rankings, which would yield, as of November 2016, 32 places for Europe, 12 for Africa, 13 for the Americas and just 7 to OceAsia. I would be OK with that, but there should be more games between teams from different continents to refine the rankings.

Going by FIFA Rankings:

Europe: 3 Germany, 5 Belgium, 7 France, 8 Portugal, 10 Spain, 11 Switzerland, 12 Wales, 13 England, 14 Croatia, 15 Poland, 16 Italy, 21 Iceland, 22 Netherlands, 23 Ireland, 29 Ukraine, 31 Austria, 32 Northern Ireland, 39 Romania, 41 Sweden, 42 Greece, 44 Serbia, 46 Denmark, 49 Albania, 52 Slovenia, 54 Israel, 55 Russia, 63 Montenegro

Africa: 33 Senegal, 34 Ivory Coast, 35 Tunisia, 36 Egypt, 38 Algeria, 47 DR Congo, 50 Burkina Faso, 51 Nigeria, 53 Ghana, 57 Morocco, 60 South Africa, 61 Mali

Americas: 1 Argentina, 2 Brazil, 4 Chile, 6 Colombia, 9 Uruguay, 17 Costa Rica, 18 Mexico, 19 Peru, 20 Ecuador, 21 USA, 40 Paraguay, 58 Panama, 59 Venezuela

OceAsia: 30 Iran, 37 South Korea, 45 Japan, 48 Australia, 56 Saudi Arabia, 62 Uzbekistan, 64 UAE

Notably out: 65 Cameroon, 67 Scotland, 72 Bulgaria, 79 Guatemala, 83 China, 85 Norway, 95 Bolivia, 110 New Zealand, 120 Iraq.

Again, the distribution could be debated (Europe has many more higher-ranked teams being left out altogether than other regions, so there could be more places up for grabs through play-offs), but here's how the groups could look like:

1 Argentina - 26 Hungary - 33 Senegal - 49 Albania
2 Brazil - 25 Slovakia - 34 Ivory Coast - 54 Israel
3 Germany - 24 Turkey - 35 Tunisia - 56 Saudi Arabia
4 Chile - 23 Ireland - 36 Egypt - 55 Russia
5 Belgium - 29 Ukraine - 37 South Korea - 50 Burkina Faso
6 Colombia - 22 Netherlands - 38 Algeria - 63 Montenegro
7 France - 31 Austria - 40 Paraguay - 51 Nigeria
8 Portugal - 32 Northern Ireland - 45 Japan - 53 Ghana
9 Uruguay - 21 Iceland - 39 Romania - 57 Morocco
10 Spain - 30 Iran - 41 Sweden - 58 Panama
11 Switzerland - 28 USA - 42 Greece - 60 South Africa
12 Wales - 27 Bosnia - 47 Congo DR - 59 Venezuela
13 England - 20 Ecuador - 43 Czech Republic - 64 UAE
14 Croatia - 19 Peru - 44 Serbia - 61 Mali
15 Poland - 18 Mexico - 46 Denmark - 62 Uzbekistan
16 Italy - 17 Costa Rica - 48 Australia - 52 Slovenia

If anyone has any comments, you can leave them in the section below. If any new talking points come up, I will add them to the post. Thanks for reading.

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