Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


OUR BRAVE NEW BLOATED WORLD . . . CUP

The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams.

The move from 32 teams to four dozen was approved unanimously by the FIFA governing council, an expansion of world soccer’s championship tournament that was welcomed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but criticized by others as another cynical, money-driven effort by an organization still in the throes of a financial and ethical scandal.

The percentage of the expansion will be the largest ever, from the original 16 (1930-78) to 24 (1982-94) to 32 (1998-2022).  More teams mean more matches, in this case an increase from 64 games to 80.  It also means greater revenue:  the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to pull in $5.5 billion through television rights, sponsorships and tickets; the 48-nation ’26 cup will bring in an additional billion.  Some of the expected increased profit–approximately $640 million–will find its way into the coffers of soccer’s six continental confederations and–presumably–on to FIFA’s 211 member national federations.

New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had pushed for the change in 2016 when he ran for the presidency in an effort to include more nations and invigorate what was already the world’s most popular sporting event.

But critics contend that opening the World Cup doors to lesser soccer-playing nations will result in a weaker tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s membership reaching its most prestigious competition every four years and more matches crammed into an already crowded international calendar.  Infantino was unconcerned.  “We are in the 21st century, and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” he said after the vote.  “Football is more than just Europe and South America.  Football is global.”

For Russia ’18, Europe, as usual, will have the lion’s share of berths, 13, plus the automatic slot that goes to the host nation.  Ten-nation South America gets four berths, as does 47-nation Asia.  Africa’s 56 members will battle for five slots.  CONCACAF gets three.  The 31st and 32nd berths will go to the winners of home-and-home playoffs between CONCACAF and Asian also-rans and between the Oceania winner and a South American also-ran.  A decision on how the 2026 pie will be sliced will be made in May.  [January 10]

Comment:  No surprise here.   A huge expansion of the World Cup field for 2026 became inevitable with Infantino’s early Christmas present to the likes of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania:  release of a 65-page analysis by a FIFA in-house group of five options in growing the World Cup.   The 48-team concept was rated best (and most profitable), with 16–sixteen!–groups of three teams each playing round-robin to open the tournament.  Another 48-team format called for a 32-team knockout round, followed by a group stage involving the 16 survivors and 16 seeded teams, for 80 total games.  Then there was the idea of 40 teams divided into eight groups of five and, in the end, 88 games played.  Or, 40 teams with 10 groups of four for a total of 76 games.

The opposition, not surprisingly, was led by the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent.  It called the present 32-team format “the perfect formula from all perspectives.”  The ECA added, “We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.”

The FIFA analysis indeed conceded the expansion would diminish the level of play at that World Cup, but it also explicitly stated that the FIFA governing council must make its decision purely for “sporting” reasons.  But back to reality.

While Option No. 2 (an opening knockout round involving 32 teams, with the losers going home after one match), may seem ridiculous, what the governing council–the body created to replace the greedy, seedy and disgraced Executive Committee–settled on is only slightly better.  Expansion itself is a bad idea.  Despite three expansions since the late 1970s, the World Cup has remained a relatively compact monthlong festival of soccer.  The approved 48-team formula would mean a reasonable increase by one or two days to 32; the two finalists would still play the customary seven games; and the usual 12 stadiums would be required of the host nation(s).  But the addition of no-hopers only means an erosion in the level of play and a resulting decline in interest among the general public.  If Brasil ’14 had been expanded to 48, the tournament might have included the likes Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan–and the forgettable matches they were likely to contribute.  As for inclusion, today’s 32-team format has already allowed otherwise outsiders Trinidad & Tobago, China, Slovenia, Angola, North Korea, New Zealand, Tunisia, Togo and Saudi Arabia to have their day in the sun, not to mention splinters from the former Yugoslavia–Serbia & Montenegro (2006), Serbia (’10) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (’14).

Beyond concerns over the drop in level of play, the 16 x 3 format given FIFA’s blessing contains a serious flaw.  Forty-eight teams divided into 16 groups of three might require penalty-kick tiebreakers after drawn matches in the first round to ensure there is a “winner.”  After all, there has to be a brutally quick method to determine a group’s top two finishers and send the third-place team home.  That radical change to how the opening round of a World Cup is run also would be necessary to prevent teams from conspiring to arrange a favorable result in the final group game.

Just what we need:  More chances for PK tiebreakers to rear their ugly head before a global audience.  And more of just what we need:  A reprise of the three-team group, with each team playing just two games.  That was tried at Espana ’82, the first go-round with a 24-team field, when four three-team groups followed the first round and those group winners advanced to the semifinals.  Three teams playing two matches each promised nothing more than mostly defensive, nervy encounters that would please no one, and while there was Italy’s classic 3-2 win over favored Brazil, the 12 games averaged less than 2 1/2 goals–a half goal fewer than the tournament average–and included three scoreless draws.  Happily, that format was jettisoned for Mexico ’86 in favor of the now-familiar 16-team knockout second round.

There’s also the matter of what the bigger field will mean to the qualifying competition for ’26.  If Europe and South America gain only a couple of extra berths, the traditional powers there will have even less to fear.  Even in CONCACAF, the U.S. and Mexico, which survived a mighty scare before slipping into the 2014 World Cup, have no worries.  And with still less drama during what is an interminable qualifying process, the fans lose.

Finally, the expansion in ’26 also will mean a greater burden on the host, which will have to find accommodations and training facilities for an additional 16 teams, a new consideration that will hike the organizing nation’s bill from $2 billion to $2.3 billion.  That’s why there has been talk of the job of hosting that first 48-team event going to the triumvirate of the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Informal talks among the three have already begun.  The decision will be made in May 2020, and FIFA’s World Cup rotation among the continents would put North America in line to host.  Fueling the speculation is that Infantino owes U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who was instrumental in getting the Swiss-Italian elected FIFA boss in February.  There’s also the matter of the now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee having given the U.S. the shaft in 2010 when it chose to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, ignoring the stronger American bid.  But beyond ’26, FIFA will have created a monster event that few potential hosts can handle.  Potential hosts like . . . China, which, on the heels of its 2008 Beijing Olympics, is keen to play host to the world’s biggest single-sport event.

There can be no denying that the soccer-playing world is a much more level playing field today than it was back in the days when the World Cup was an exclusive club of 16.  You could start with surprise packages like Costa Rica, which at Brasil ’14 stunned Uruguay and Italy and tied England before nipping Greece on penalty kicks in the second round and bowing in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, 4-3 on PKs, after a brave scoreless draw.  But the World Cup remains a competition won by only eight nations–Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, England and France–and the list of worthy also-rans remains limited to the Dutch; Hungary of long ago; Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists; and, in a bit of a stretch, Sweden.  That’s it.  Infantino’s gambit does nothing more than give hope to the hopeless and directs those extra one billion bucks into FIFA’s coffers at the final accounting of the 2026 World Cup.  And for the fans, if gives them countless more forgettable, hardly watchable matches between giants and minnows under the guise of FIFA World Cup soccer.  And World Cup games, even those not so great, should be somewhat memorable.

In the end, the winner is Infantino.  His act of patronage has placed dozens of soccer’s have-not nations in his debt, and when it comes to FIFA presidential elections, it’s a one-nation, one-vote world.  His power base is assured.



THE BLATTER MATTER: THE U.S. STARTED IT, AND THE U.S. CAN FINISH IT

Joseph Blatter resigned as president of FIFA, abruptly capping the most stunning, scandal-filled week in the 111-year history of the world’s soccer governing body.

Blatter had won an unprecedented fifth four-year term as chief during an election four days earlier in Zurich after lone challenger Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein dropped out following a first-ballot defeat.  Blatter won that round, 133-73, falling just seven votes short of outright re-election.

Only two days earlier, it was announced that a lengthy investigation by U.S. authorities into FIFA had resulted in a 47-count indictment alleging decades of corruption that included corruption, money-laundering, fraud and bribery totaling more than $150 million.  Federal racketeering charges were brought against 14, including nine current and former FIFA executives. Seven were arrested at a posh Zurich hotel ahead of Blatter’s election victory at the FIFA Congress.

In a separate probe, Swiss authorities raided FIFA headquarters and were examining seized documents and electronic data in which criminal mismanagement and money laundering are suspected in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

A new FIFA presidential election is expected to he held as early as December.  [June 2]

Comment I:  This is only the beginning, of course.  An investigation that started four years ago with former CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer–an American known during his long career in soccer administration as “Mr. Ten Percent”–wearing a wire for the Feds now knows no bounds.  And predictably, it has inspired demands for reform from the highest places.  Like from Blatter, who told voters in his last speech before ballots were submitted May 29, “I have been made responsible for this storm.  That’s fine.  That’s fine.  I take that responsibility.  I take it.  I take it upon myself and I also want to accept this responsibility, get back on the path, to fix FIFA, together with you.”

Reform.  Wonderful.  But with Blatter and his cohorts–indicted and yet-to-be indicted–involved?  Ludicrous.

FIFA’s problems go back to those bucolic days about a half-century ago, before satellite television turned the World Cup from a major international sporting sensation into a global mania.  Things began to change in 1970, when the official ball for that year’s tournament in Mexico was dubbed by maker adidas “Telstar,” in recognition of the magical celestial orb that for the first time would bring that World Cup to nearly the entire planet.  (The ball’s now-iconic 20 white hexagonal panels and 12 black pentagons were designed to make it better for TV viewers to see on black and white TV.)  FIFA’s first non-European president, Joao Havelange, was elected four years later.  The autocratic but visionary Brazilian, whose presidential campaign took him to 86 nations, most of them from the Third World, recognized the enormous economic potential of soccer in general and the World Cup in particular.  By 1978, the 11th World Cup, in Argentina, was underwritten by Coca-Cola for a grand total of $8 million.  The die was cast.

Blatter came onboard in 1981 as Havelange’s lieutenant, the organization’s secretary general, and No. 2 learned well from No. 1.  With FIFA expanding its brand through the introduction of new world championships–under-20 and under-17 youth, followed by futsal, a Women’s World Cup, beach soccer, Olympic women’s, the Continental Cup, and age-specific female tournaments–the sponsorship and TV rights possibilities became limitless.

Limitless?  FIFA revenue was more than $5.7 billion over the last four years.  This for a non-profit organization.

Obviously, there’s no turning back to the days when filthy lucre didn’t permeate the sport and those in charge were gentlemen sportsmen like Jules Rimet of France (FIFA president 1921-54) and Sir Stanley Rous of England (FIFA president 1961-74).  So there has to be reform within FIFA, starting with greater transparency, term limits for officers and a reorganization of the executive committee, but that reform must be draconian because there are too many people still holding influential positions to whom a bribe of $40,000 is a fortune.

Of course, with a dose of courage, the sponsors, the source of all that money, could do it for FIFA.  Last year, Emirates Airline bowed out as a FIFA sponsor, as did Japanese electronics giant Sony, whose commitment to the world’s soccer governing body was $227 million over 10 years.  In January alone, Castrol, Continental Tires and Johnson & Johnson bade FIFA farewell.  But these walk-outs were hardly noticed.  If reform is slow, or tepid, it would be highly effective if major longtime sponsors like Coca-Cola and Budweiser and McDonald’s and Visa loudly stomped out of the room, making it a PR impossibility for, say, Pepsi to take Coke’s place at the table or Master Card to step in for Visa.  And it would bring things full circle:  authorities from America, international soccer’s traditional outlier, cracked open this can of worms, and American sponsors could be the ones to dump it out.

Comment II:  If there’s any good to come out of this mess, it’s this:  The American public now knows the name of world soccer’s governing body; they know the name of world soccer’s governing body’s president; they finally know that the acronym for world soccer’s governing body is pronounced “Fee-Fah,” not “F-eye-Fah.”  Everyone from your mom to your local news anchor now knows all that.  That’s progress.



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



FOX’S MYSTERIOUS GAMBLE

Manchester United escaped the Santiago Bernabeu with a precious away goal as it battled Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg of the UEFA Champions League’s round of 16.

Midfielder Danny Welbeck put United ahead in the 20th minute against the run of play, heading home a corner kick by striker Wayne Rooney.  Ten minutes later, forward Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for the Spanish giants with a powerful header off a cross by winger Angel Di Maria.  Ronaldo, in a nod to his six stellar years with the English club, did not celebrate his goal.

The two sides meet in the second leg March 5 at Old Trafford.  [February 13]

Comment:  A minor epic, but what might be the most notable aspect of the match for American viewers was that it marked the Fox Soccer Channel debut of play-by-play man Gus Johnson–notable because Johnson, relatively unknown among soccer fans, has been anointed by Fox Sports President Eric Shanks as the network’s No. 1 soccer announcer.  That means he will be the man at the microphone for Fox’s telecasts of the English FA Cup final and UEFA Champions League final in May, and much, much more.  Like … the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Johnson, 45, cut his broadcasting teeth calling basketball, football, hockey and boxing for, among others, ESPN, CBS and the Madison Square Garden Network.  His on-air soccer experience consists mainly of radio broadcasts of San Jose Earthquake road games last year, which served as a warm-up for his Fox gig.  Apparently, Shanks’ grand experiment is a counterpunch to ESPN’s all-Brits, all-the-time coverage of the 2010 World Cup.  He wants someone speaking American English when it covers Russia ’18, and like ESPN three years ago, he’s thumbed his nose at the country’s experienced soccer play-by-play men.

What was heard during the Real Madrid-Manchester United telecast was not surprising.  Johnson, who’s tried to make up for lost time by playing in pick-up soccer games near his New York home, simply showed no feel for the sport.  Nice voice, seemingly well-prepared with plenty of factoids to share, but there was no comfort level or ready insight that comes with a lifetime of exposure to soccer.  It forced color commentator Warren Barton to repeatedly deal with loose ends and point out subtleties that would ordinarily have been taken care of smoothly by an experienced play-by-play man.  Over two hours, Barton, who usually looks like he’s just learned that his daughter has run off with a motorcycle gang, maintained his composure despite being the hardest working man in the Fox booth.  Low point:  With United sweating out its gritty draw on the road, Johnson asked Barton if Sir Alex Ferguson would be pleased with the result.

Best of luck to Johnson, for the sake of America’s soccer TV audience.  Somehow, over the next five years he will have to make himself smarter and more perceptive than his viewers, a majority of whom have been playing, coaching and/or officiating the game much of their lives.  At the moment, the thinking behind Shanks’ needless gambit remains a mystery.