Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Improving the World Cup

We are now at the sharp end of the World Cup. In my blog post summing up November I mentioned that I'm not fully engaging with it. There are several reasons, but the overarching theme is that it's an egregious example of "sportswashing" by an undemocratic authoritarian regime. 

My personal protest about the World Cup is boycotting collecting the football stickers, although I have been given a sticker of the Wales team (thanks Clare!)

So, obviously a major improvement would be less corruption, no more blatant profiteering by the grifters in charge at FIFA, and a tournament where football comes first instead of being co-opted into a crass money-making scheme. Well, I can dream.

But away from the institutional level changes, what about the way the World Cup is structured? 

This World Cup was weakened from the start by having a laughably uncompetitive host nation playing in it. My fellow Barry fan, John, suggested a solution to me last week as we prepared to watch Barry play Cwmbran Celtic. (I'm not sure whether this was John's own idea or if he heard it from someone else, but I heard it from him so I'm going to give him the credit.)

John's suggestion was to introduce a team composed of players from teams that didn't qualify for the World Cup. The all-star team would play off against the host nation for the right to compete in the World Cup as the "FIFA World XI". I think Qatar would have struggled to beat such a team. 

I like this idea. Having the wild card World XI would mean that incredibly talented players who just happen to play for smaller nations who rarely or never qualify could appear in a World Cup. There are plenty of players for whom this would have been a great opportunity. Wales have had several world class talents over the years who never had the privilege of playing at a World Cup. 

A different possibility would be for each team to start the competition with a smaller squad, say just 18 players. After the group stages, half the teams are eliminated. The players from the eliminated teams get put into a "draft". The qualifying teams pick players in order of the teams' world ranking prior to the tournament. They pick 3 players each and can use them in the next round. Meanwhile, the rest of the players go home.

After the round of 16, the players from the eight eliminated squads go into a draft and are eligible to be picked again, with teams picking two players each. After the quarter-finals, players from the four eliminated teams are put into the draft again and the semi-finalists can all pick one extra player to take their squad up to 24 for the semi-final and final.

This means that stand-out players from smaller nations have a realistic chance of a winners medal. Admittedly a player could play for a team that was eliminated in the group stages, get drafted to a team that lose in the round of 16, get picked again for the quarter-finals and play in a losing team again, and then get picked by one of the semi-finalists. 

As long as the fourth team the player played for won a semi-final and the final, they would be a World Cup winner, despite potentially being on the losing side five times in the competition. I would find that darkly amusing, which makes it worth doing.

It would also benefit weaker nations that get out of the group stages and progress - imagine if Australia had been able to add Kevin de Bruyne to their team, or if Croatia had been able to draft Richarlison after they knocked Brazil out. 

I think it would also break down some of the nationalistic hubris surrounding international football. FIFA makes a big thing about the 'football family' and how football brings people together. Turning international football into intra-national football would really bring that about. 

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