Almanac (World Cup) Soccer: Et Tu Gianni?
I’m pretty sure not all of us Almanackers are fans of the round ball game but it’s certain 100% of us know about the World Cup and have at least some memory of it. I went through the 100 moments for the Almanac that make it special and/or notorious in the lead up to the 2014 tournament in Brazil. I was trying to encapsulate and celebrate the drama that makes it one of the crowning events in world sport.
Sadly such memories won’t be replicated going on the governing body’s current modus operandi but should we be surprised?
When Sepp Blatter was strong-armed to the exit at FIFA headquarters we rejoiced. After the 2018-2022 hosting farce and subsequent uncovering of the massive yet suspected corruption we thought this could be it! A brand new world! We laughed at the memes of Blatter on the internet and welcomed Gianni Infantino as someone we didn’t know much about but at least he wasn’t Blatter. Ignorance for that very short time was bliss. We even believed Qatar 2022 may also be moved much like we believed Australia could host the 2022 tournament.
Whilst I was praising the move with most other sports fans a friend compared Blatter to Saddam Hussein in his usual sobering fashion. Both were corrupt despots who slew any naysayer but they kept the warring factions under control and a lid on things getting too out of hand. My friend warned with Blatter gone the Americans and their millions they could give for TV rights would have a bigger say to make the sport ‘more exciting’, countries normally struggling to qualify through lack of quality but who financially benefited FIFA would be given an easier path and actions from the new president would not be ‘for the good of the game’ in any way.
With Tuesday’s announcement that the tournament would expand to 48 teams in 2026 this confirms that the sport is now a new Iraq post-Saddam. 16 groups of three with no draws and now a staggering 80 games instead of 64 with a format that invites teams to park the bus to force a 0-0 getting through in shootouts rather than through attacking flair. Three team groups planned for this new baffling format were eliminated as a concept in 1982 after West Germany and Austria colluded to draw to ensure they would both qualify for the next round. Germans burned their own flags in the stands that day that was known as ‘The disgrace of Dijon’. It’s ripe for rorting.
This new group stage would also be catered for the mainly American market for those who see the sport as boring and demand a win no matter what. People in Australia who would want this probably lack the ability to pay attention to anything for too long would no doubt also see the Big Bash as the most interesting, important and tactical form of cricket too.
The quality of the tournament would also sink to the bottom. The World Cup is the best of the best with some passengers sneaking through yet the qualifying process for every country was arduous and no one could fault who would make it to the finals. For anyone that’s watched an African Cup of Nations and even an Asian Cup you get past the top sides and the quality drops significantly yet Asia will now get at least 8 spots? This is purely to ensure China, the oil rich nations et al get a ticket to the dance. Will we stay up until 3am to watch North Korea take on Angola? FIFA have sold the TV rights for hundreds of millions so they won’t care.
Then there’s also the Australian team and where it leaves us plucky Aussies. Pre-2005 some fans may have bitten the hand off FIFA if they had offered this easy path for the team to qualify but it would have been far from deserved. Some of us may have felt hollow but many would have had flights booked to live out their second adolescence in the glorious summer sunshine of whatever country was hosting. This new format would actually make it easier for Australia to make it a lot deeper in to the tournament but where’s the reward for qualifying to play the best?
We have suffered over the years with near misses and heartbreak and it forms the foundations of the side. There was the triumphant failure against Maradona’s Argentina in Buenos Aires in 93, the witch doctor curse in the 70s and the emotional vacuum of November 1997 against Iran at the G. This was somewhat corrected with that night in November 2005 and to a lesser extent Kennedy’s late header in 2013.
While all these moments weren’t good for the heart, would we trade them in for easy qualification? Never, as qualifying in this new format would be like a footy team in a four team country league qualifying for their finals. Drama like what has happened to the Socceroos to even get to the tournament would not be experienced by future football fans with this new format which is one of things that is most upsetting to me personally. It makes our 1974 qualification triumph in the tournament with only 16 teams even more special and part of Australian folklore when you think about it.
With 80 games which countries would also be able to accommodate such a bloated mess as hosts? Like the Olympics hosting a World Cup is a major drain on resources and finances. Again, some countries cosy with FIFA would no doubt have the money to get it done despite it not being fair in any way, shape or form. This of course isn’t a new thing.
May we live in interesting times I guess. It could be a winner. In 2026 Trent Sainsbury or Mustafa Amini could be hoisting the cup up in to the smog for Australia at the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing thanks to this system and I’ll be there face paint on and hoping I can delete this article. Right now though FIFA and President Gianni’s move to bloat this wonderful and historically quadrennial event gives football fans a sickening range of emotions from hurt to anger but not surprise. They are succeeding in their mission to force feed it to death.
Blatter’s legacy lives on.