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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The World Cup numbers game

    Well, weíre back, and it feels like weíve never been away. Itís good to be home, good to be writing about the World Cup again, and kind of appropriate as the long haul to Germany 2006, at least for the South American teams, has just begun. As Peter pointed out in his article, 199 teams are all set to battle it out for the 31 remaining tickets to the greatest show on earth.

    Thatís right, 31 places. Not 36, as was threatened by FIFA a few months ago, and not 30, as was the case for Japan/Korea 02 and France 98. You may get the sense that there are a couple of gripes set to blemish what should be a nice fluffy article on how much I love the World Cup and how pleased I am to be writing about it again. You would be right.

    First things first, I think it is absolutely ridiculous that Brazil have to qualify for the next World Cup. Before you start to think Iím in the camp that always wants Brazil to be in there regardless, so they can weave their particular brand of magic, think again. If Brazil had not qualified for the last World Cup, which was an all to frightening reality for them at one point, I could not have cared less. They werenít world champions then.

    Hereís the deal Ė you win the World Cup, you get the right to defend that title at the next tournament. You rightfully enjoy the four years of your reign, before turning up at the next tournament to play in the opening fixture. Everyone will wonder if you can do it again, whether the same stars can shine four years on. Everyone will know Ė this team are the world champions. Itís their title; we have to take it off them.

    Not for FIFA though, who have now binned this Ďoutdatedí concept for all time. Does the World heavyweight champion win fifty fights, then fight for and win the title, only to be told he then must fight his way through all of those contenders again, even the part-time milkmen and bar-keepers of his first few contests? Of course he doesnít. Lord knows Brazil isnít my favourite football team on the planet but at last years World Cup, footballís world heavyweight championship, they beat all comers. They won their title and by definition they should have the right to defend it.

    Some of you are probably wondering what the problem is Ė itís Brazil, how can THEY not qualify, especially as five of the ten CONMEBOL teams can go through. Well, you may have a point. Only seven nations have ever won the biggest prize in the game and all of them are usually present at the final stages (possible exception Uruguay, but their last win was over fifty years ago). Consider this though Ė at France 98, Holland were within a few penalties of the final. Had they not self-destructed in the shoot-out (I know, I know, but stick with it) they could well have won the tournament. If FIFAís concept of making the champions go through qualification had existed back then, remember which major footballing nation was the glaring omission from last years finals, depriving the tourname! nt of Davids, van Nistelrooy, Kluivert and Makaay? Holland were squeezed out of a ridiculously loaded qualifying group by Portugal and the Republic of Ireland, and therein lies the danger, especially in the European qualifying groups.

    Winning the World Cup is not like rolling out of bed and sticking the kettle on, it takes years of planning, hard work, commitment and the ability of the players to raise their game to even higher levels, right through the qualifiers, group matches, knockout phases and the final itself. I suppose the prospect of the World Cup holders not qualifying for the World Cup may never happen (imagine the outcry if it did), but to me itís just one more layer of gloss stripped off the tournament I love.

    Another is the number of participants in the Finals seems set to spiral out of control. FIFA did for a small while pimp the idea of having 36 teams in the finals, provided it could still retain the quality and integrity of the tournament (!).

    Itís time to ask the question Ė just how big do we want the World Cup to be? 36 teams = 9 groups of four, so which Einstein is in charge of sorting out the seven best runners-up out of nine to make a 16 team knockout round? Where are we heading with this Ė 40 teams? 48 teams? Are we to reach the point where the tournament is played as a straight knockout cup competition as in 1934 and 1938?

    Thankfully FIFA backed down on this and kept it to 32, but the very fact that theyíve thought about it suggests itís in the pipeline for the future. Why? We could go all around the houses and say itís about opening up more places for Africa, Asia or Oceania, but letís cut to the chase, itís a money-driven objective. The bigger the tournament, the more money it will generate (in theory).

    One thing does irk about the reduction to 32 teams, and that is the treatment of Oceania. Guaranteed (although weíve all heard this before Ė when will Africa get its World Cup Finals exactly?) a place in the 36 team schematic, the backing down to 32 teams caused FIFA abruptly to withdraw the automatic place for Oceania. After years of going cap in hand to FIFA and practically begging for a place at the table, the Oceania Confederation have been shafted yet again. Just how much longer can FIFA justify this? Iíve written previously about the continental qualifying system, but if we must persevere with it then surely all six should be represented? Weíre only talking one place after all, and Iím sure most people would rather see a more tha! n useful Australia team at the finals than the lame, non-committal performance of Saudi Arabia last time out.

    Isnít there also a danger the World Cup could outgrow the ability for one nation to host it? After all, do they co-host the Olympics? Co-hosting has never sat right with me. I know Euro 2000 (probably the best international tournament in my lifetime) and the last World Cup were co-hosted, but I think the focus should be on one country Ė wasnít it a little harsh that South Korea, whose team and fans contributed so much to last years event, watched the final be played in Japan? I am pleased at least to see a return to sense for Portugal 2004 and Germany 2006. If we spread the tournament thinly over multiple countries you drain the intensity you get with one host nation. Look no further than the Rugby World Cup of 1999, held in five nations no less and poorly attended.

    Despite its flaws, I still love the World Cup, I just think itís very poorly organised. Are we one day to see a World Cup first round fixture of Scotland versus Zimbabwe, the winner through to face Norway in round 2 of the Colombia/Venezuela/Chile/Peru World Cup Finals? Even more frightening, will it exclusively be yours for just £9.99 on pay-per-view TV?

    If I saw that at eight years old, something tells me I wouldnít be writing about it seventeen years later.



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