In the world of FIFA politics if the electorate needs pandering to come presidential election times no idea is too silly, no gerrymander too outlandish. That would be my take on UEFA supremo Michel Platini’s recent hypothetical regarding the expansion of the World Cup finals from its current 32 team basis to 40, which if it got up would mean two and a half times as many teams participating say in 2026 contrasted with 1982. As interviewed in the British Times newspaper Platini stated:
“Instead of taking away some European [nations], we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American and one from Europe. I support this idea totally.” (source)
This comes in the wake of recent comments by the arch-Machiavellian at FIFA HQ, Sepp Blatter, regarding the supposed under-representation of African and potentially Asian nations at the World Cup finals:
“From a purely sporting perspective, I would like to see globalisation finally taken seriously, and the African and Asian national associations accorded the status they deserve at the FIFA World Cup. It cannot be that the European and South American confederations lay claim to the majority of the berths at the World Cup (18 or 19 teams), because taken together they account for significantly fewer member associations (63) than Africa and Asia (100).
Africa, the confederation with the most member associations (54), is woefully under-represented at the World Cup with just five places. As long as this remains the case, African sides may never win an intercontinental trophy, regardless of progress on the playing side.” (source)
So on one hand you have the man who has seen off every rival since his own ascension to the throne of world football looking at CAF and AFC, loving the numbers of national member associations and thus considers that ‘from a purely sporting perspective’ particularly African teams have no chance to win the World Cup due to under-representation. On the other the man who is in charge of the richest and most important continental football federation in the world wanting to retain his power-base but also bring into the tent those 8 nations who miss out now, making a bigger cake not just for Asia and Africa but also for other continental federations.
Excuse me whilst I laugh cynically.
Let’s put aside for now the relevant (but far weightier) issues of the social and economic cost of a 40 team World Cup Finals. Instead, how about a momentary reality check regarding the nominal strength of each affected confederation and their worthiness to be represented at the World Cup simply according to their FIFA rankings. Right now nineteen UEFA teams are in the top 32 ranked countries in the world, followed by six from CONMBOL (South America), three from CONCACAF (North & Central America), three from CAF (Africa) and none from AFC (Asia) or OFC (Oceania). It seems a little rich for Sepp to be talking about increasing the exposure of the World Cup Finals to more African and Asian teams when they represent less than 10% of the actual 32 highest ranked teams in the world right now. Admittedly there is the potential for this to change in the future, but can anyone seriously suggest that European or South American continental groupings will become less capable of fielding better teams in the near to long term future? There has been talk about both Asia (since 1966 and the North Koreans) and Africa (since 1990 and the Cameroon team) becoming the new forces in world football and after at least 23 years these supposed seismic changes in world football have not substantively occurred. Yes, it is fair to say that both these two continental areas have generated some increasingly sizable numbers of good individual players and competitive national teams, however the status quo in terms of actual national football achievement still lies in the game’s continental heartlands of Europe and South America.
So on that count Blatter seems to be hold a less tenuous grip on reality than his current rival Platini, however the numbers still barely improve for African and Asian teams if we include the teams currently ranked 33-40. AFC fails to add any more current candidates from these places whilst CAF can only add two more to the pot. Again there is the possibility things may change over time, but as long as UEFA particularly holds all the economic and political power, and South America continues to have a dominant cultural role in football then the capabilities of either African or Asian teams to drastically revolutionise things in the process of world cup structures is far less significant than the raw political power of their FIFA general assembly numbers. And that, dear reader, is where the true crux of Blatter’s argument lies.
What is most fascinating is that the man who is championing Africa’s right for more representation at the World Cup was back in 1998 at his election as president able to work with the man who is arguing for an expansion of the entry list of nations for the finals to knock off a far more corporately transparent candidate backed by UEFA and CAF. Lennart Johansson was forced to back out of a 2nd round ballot for the role of FIFA president after Blatter and Platini both successfully split the bloc of European and African votes behind the Swede’s candidature (source). Since the selection of the 2010 World Cup Finals Blatter has used the plum prize of hosting the event to help either facilitate his own agenda (such as pandering to CAF via the South African successful bid) or undercut rivals (as seen in the negation of AFC boss Mohammed Bin Hamman’s presidential candidacy with the Qatar 2022 selection). If a continental federation’s support was deemed important for his continual presidency it was given certain benefits (such as the 2002 confirmed direct qualification route for Oceania to the 2006 Finals which was then removed by FIFA’s ExCo in 2003). President Blatter has always found it very convenient to use continental and federation aspirations for world cup success as a tool for political power, and he is again dabbling in this murky world in the lead up to 2015’s election.
Blatter’s 1998 henchman, UEFA president Michel Platini is using the same playbook as his old boss in hanging out offers of prestige, wealth, power and fame to national federations and their delegates, whilst making damned sure he doesn’t piss off his core constituency. We’ve already seen Platini fight against the insanity of the scheduling of the ridiculous Qatar 2022 World Cup, and more recently the Frenchman has tackled Blatter’s stumbling comments on racism in the sport (which funnily enough seems most problematic in Platini’s own European backyard, in Italy, Spain and Russia particularly). Unlike Sepp who is willing to hunt for votes and dollars from the increasingly wealthy and powerful African and Asian delegate associations whilst not giving in to European sensitivities, Platini wants to make sure he has his arse covered whilst growing the World Cup golden goose for other greedy parties. It could be a political masterstroke from the first truly great and globally recognised French footballer, however the inevitable questions over cost, relevancy, bloating bureaucracies etc will be useful tools for Blatter to exploit, as well as Platini’s obvious protection of UEFA power (something the FIFA delegates from CAF, AFC and maybe CONCACAF and OFC will always have problems with).
In summary the undeclared war for FIFA’s presidency in 2015 has begun to hit its stride, with two the two leading contenders (i.e. the old master Blatter and his now disaffected old henchman Platini) using the avarice and lust for power inherent in every national and continental delegate to FIFA as a means to their Machiavellian ends. As Brazilians protest about the exorbitant and socially destructive cost of 2014, as Russians are engaged in racist and homophobic politics in the lead up to 2018, as Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is mired in controversy over scheduling, corruption, worker’s rights and political freedoms, the king and the king maker at FIFA HQ are duking it out for the right to lead the rotten empire.
Whether there are 32 or 40 teams at the World Cup Finals, eventually the only winners are Blatter or Platini.