Sport World Cup

Monday 20 November 2017

World Cup expansion is good news for associations like the FAI

FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was no official reaction from the FAI to the news that the World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams.

"Not at this time," was the reply to a request for the Abbotstown view.

Representatives from the Scottish and Northern Irish football associations have come out to welcome a move which, on paper, should make it easier for middle-ranking nations to qualify for the biggest cash cow of them all.

And, given that John Delaney has spoken about taking a prominent role in the European Championships becoming a 24-team affair, it is fair to conclude that some people within Irish football will view the latest FIFA developments in a positive light.

After all, bigger tournaments are good for the blazers. It will strengthen their own positions if qualification happens under their watch and the changes to the World Cup will give more nations a taste of that joy and the associated prize-money - even if it dilutes the quality and introduces a clunky fan-unfriendly format.

What will these changes mean in the Eurozone?

Last summer's 24-team soiree actually did provide some heart-warming tales and an argument in support of the idea - which this writer has argued before in these pages - is that it gave countries with minimal chance of ever qualifying for the World Cup an opportunity to sample a special summer.

That's because politicking has reduced the European representation in FIFA's showpiece.

Under the 32-team World Cup format, 13 qualifying places are guaranteed for UEFA members. Granted, that's a huge number compared to Africa (5) and (Asia 4 plus the prospect of another via play-off) but FIFA's world rankings would indicate that it reflects the comparative strength of international sides in the various jurisdictions.

Good teams will miss out on Russia 2018 in a format where nine group winners go through along with four second-placed sides that come through the play-offs - one second-placed team will completely miss out.

The vagaries of the seeding process means that potential overall winners Spain and Italy are in the same group. France and Holland are pitched together too.

Granted, Ireland landed one of the kinder pools, but it's generally very competitive and with the play-offs weighted towards the superpowers by the use of seeding, a runners-up finish for a medium-tier nation is likely to be followed by a giant-killing mission.

The 48-team plan will result in only three extra places becoming available so it's actually not going to revolutionise the European path.

Major critics of the 24-team Euros argued that 16 was the perfect number - and that's exactly the amount that will go forward from the region so the field is likely to be strong.

The dud opponents for the aggrieved big guns are likely to come from elsewhere.

Gibraltar and Kosovo's arrival on the scene mean that from the qualification for Euro 2020 onwards, the norm is set to consist of ten groups - five containing five teams and five containing six.

If that is maintained for the World Cup, then the group winners should all advance and a straightforward solution would be to put the two best runners-up straight through and stage play-offs between the other eight to provide the final four qualifiers.

There is a catch, however, and that's the new Nations League that will come into existence from 2018 and has been introduced to replace friendlies.

This initiative will complicate the process of making Euro 2020. Essentially, it has been created to give the top-ranked countries more dates with each other.

UEFA's 55 members will be split into four divisions based on their European co-efficient - the leading 12 countries will be in League A..

The divisions will be split into groups containing three or four teams that will lead to a short round-robin series and then a knockout phase in each section.

At the conclusion of the process, the top teams in the Nations League divisions are added to the Euro 2020 play-off equation if they have failed to make it through regular qualifying. One team from the bottom 16 countries in Europe will definitely qualify.

It remains to be seen how the Nations League structure will translate to the World Cup cycle.

Under a number of headings, the international sphere is embarking on a decade of unnecessary change and it's going to take a while before people adjust.

It doesn't help when decisions are made before the organisers have gotten around to actually figuring out the logistics.

The delegates from around the globe that have voted for the change will have viewed the situation in simpler terms.

It was a one question issue. 'Will this make it easier for my country to qualify?' When the answer for almost all of them was yes then this idea was always going to be ratified.

For Ireland, it will make a stiff task slightly easier. Their African and Asian equivalents will be the main beneficiaries.

Irish Independent

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