Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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It doesn't have to be this way

    There comes a time when you must say enough is enough, and you have to call a spade a spade. Right here goes. The World Cup, in its present format, is absolute rubbish. There.

    This doesn't mean to say that I don't love it, because I do. It's just that recently it hasn't been very good. In their mad dash to make enormous stacks of cash, FIFA seem to have lost sight of one very basic principle - give the people what they want. And at the world cup, like any world championships at any sport, they want to see the best up against the best. And that just isn't happening anymore. Quite frankly, the World Cup is just too big and there are a lot of bad teams in it.

    The ideal of a 32 team tournament is ludicrous, and fails on a number of levels. For one, very few countries have the stadia and the infrastructure to pull it off. This has lead us to the embarrassing situation of the 2002 tournament being co-hosted by two nations who plainly don't like each other, South Korea and Japan. It is clear why the limit was raised from 24 to 32. The expansion means twelve more matches, and twelve more matches means twelve more tidy sums in gate receipts and TV rights. What is being missed is that this is now making the opening stages a very dull affair. At France 98, you did not need to be clairvoyant to predict which two would advance out of a group containing Argentina, Croatia, Japan and Jamaica, or for that matter Germany, Yugoslavia, USA and Iran.

    The increase from 24 to 32 has made for a weaker world cup as it has saturated it with weaker teams. The World Cup should contain the best teams in the world, yet this never, ever happens for one glaringly obvious reason, the continental qualifying system. For the world cup to get better, they need to do away with this dated notion once and for all.

    The current qualification system is littered with contradictions. From a 10 team continent that is South America, up to five of them can qualify. It is meant to be a global game but Oceania do not have an automatic place, and the rising force that is Australia have to play off against one of the South Americans, whilst five African and five Asian teams nonchalantly cruise by them into the finals. And the Mexicans must thank their lucky stars that bar themselves the CONCACAF section in North America is so weak they are pretty much guaranteed to qualify with minimal effort on their part.

    There cannot be a more out of date concept in football than this. At the very first world cup the four European entrants sailed the Atlantic together to get to Montevideo, picking up the Brazil team on the way, a journey that took two weeks. World travel back then was highly difficult so it made sense that for qualifying competitions should be regionalized. However what FIFA have failed to grasp despite it being blindingly obvious is that the world shrank a long time ago - you can fly from one country to any other in the world in less than twenty four hours. The idea for global qualifying groups has been raised and rejected many times, but for an organization that endlessly bangs the drum for a global game, global qualifying groups would be a logical step. And if FIFA want to bring in the cost issue, there aren't many with deeper pockets than they, so let them fund the poorer nations themselves and prove how committed they are to this gl! obal game premise of theirs.

    The establishment of global qualifying groups would be the first step to improving the world cup because, if it is seeded and drawn properly, it will have a better representation of the strongest teams in the world than any previous tournament. The second would be to far out of line for money conscious FIFA, but is as logical as it is obvious - make the tournament smaller.

    I'm not talking about a reduction to 24 teams, but all the way back to 16. Euro 2000 was a fantastic football tournament, perhaps the best we have witnessed, a 16 team competition between the best teams on the continent. The equation is simple. Better teams + less games = better football.

    One rather obvious counter argument is that this will be almost entirely comprised of European and South American nations. This may be true, but personally I think Cameroon and Nigeria are in or around the best 16 in the world, and I don't think it will be long before Australia are as well. They may not advance beyond the group stage, but would any fan the world over not love to see a quarter final line-up that could be:

Argentina - Holland
Germany - Brazil
England - France
Spain - Italy

Now that looks more like a world championship.

    No doubt people will mourn the loss of the so called lesser nations, but it can do them more good than harm. Does anyone really expect Senegal to do anything other than get soundly thrashed next year? Host nations next year Japan and South Korea have never won a World Cup match between them. These teams will not improve by playing exclusively on their own continent and then turning up to be thrashed at the World Cup once every four years. They will however improve (albeit steadily) in global groups and FIFA could, if they wished, hold a kind of Developing World Cup for the 32 teams out of the top 16, a money spinner they surely could not ignore. This would be a more level and open tournament for the participants, leaving the real thing down to the best in the world, the way it should be.

    This won't happen though. Football is the best sport in the world, but its world championship leaves a lot to be desired. The dated system of qualifying will continue, or maybe one day FIFA will start using their infamous world rankings - a table so inaccurate France had to win three international tournaments to take top spot from the current farce that is Brazil and currently rates the USA as one of the top sixteen teams in the world.

They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Well FIFA, the World Cup IS broken. Fix it!



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