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Thoughts on 48 from the Lower 48

Tuesday 18th October 2016
New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino was unwilling to go so far as to officially confirm a North American country  or countries, would host the 2026 World Cup during a press briefing late last week, but did announce any interested European and Asian contenders would only be treated as alternatives should "none of the received bids fulfill the strict technical and financial requirements." 

Given a) Brazil just took a turn for South America, b) the United States and Mexico are both interested in hosting the tournament, with each having the necessary stadia and infrastructure already in place to do so, and c) Canada would be willing to partner with the Americans, or both nations, to exploit the growing sentiment within FIFA for bidding partnerships, it seems to be all but a foregone conclusion the tournament will finally be entrusted to CONCACAF for the first time in thirty-two years.

I won't delve too deeply into the three nations' comparative merits to host the tournament. Suffice it to say, as an American-born, Canadian-raised gringo, I might be a tad biased towards the two countries where English is the predominant language. I'll happily admit Mexico's continued dominance in the CONCACAF Champions League indicates they still hold the region's finest footballing pedigree. El Tri and the US are as close in quality as a Rolls Royce and a Bentley, however, or a Lamborghini and a Ferrari.

Unfortunately for me, on the pitch, Canada come off as something more like a Vauxhall or a Fiat. Despite my love for the Great White North, I do believe a host nation should be capable of fielding a qualified team, rather than merely combing the local bakeries and coffee houses for weekend warriors willing to be embarrassed in front of the world (put your hand down, Qatar). While co-hosting the World Cup could help grow the game in Canada, I think they should earn their way onto the big stage before being given a free pass. For now, it's enough to know no one can touch us when we lace up our skates and take to the ice.

With that in mind, if the Yanks and Mexicans decide to freeze the Canucks out, I won't complain, although I think it would be silly for two countries to join together when both have the resources to easily host the tournament alone. Especially when, in terms of land mass, they are also two of the world's largest nations. Forget suitcases, fans would be living out of airports.

It would be much more fun to watch these two rivals go toe-to-toe to win hosting rights, like Trump and Clinton. FEMEXFUT President Decio de Maria can say Mexico is the more accomplished footballing nation. USSF head Sunil Gulati can testily counter Mexico has already hosted the competition twice, now it's America's turn. De Maria can stick out his tongue, then claim America is just in it for the money, whereas Mexican fans are the more passionate about the game. Gulati can snort derisively, then ask, if Americans aren't the more passionate about the game, why have Sam's Army bought more tickets, thus traveling in greater numbers to every World Cup than any other nationality since they hosted in 1994? In fact, he might add, FIFA's probably been taking our willingness to travel for granted in not awarding us our second opportunity to play host sooner, so there. It would be great theater. Handbags at ten paces. Who knows? Even if Trump doesn't get elected, Mexico could end up paying to build a border wall.
The more pressing controversy for the rest of Planet Football, though, is the new guy in charge's notion the tournament should expand. It's become very apparent Gianni Infantino is an expansive guy, and I'm not just talking about his eyebrows. He won the FIFA presidency on a platform of more transparent, ethical governance and advancing Sepp Blatter's legacy of inclusiveness beyond hosting privileges to a bigger, forty-nation tournament. Once Johnny Baby had the keys to Sepp's Zurich office, he sidestepped a minor scandal, then--not, mind you, to distract from any bad press or perhaps help pay for the larger salary he asserted as his due--took his vision a step further. Forget a forty-nation tournament. Let's make it forty-eight. And here you thought Jack White was a visionary.
Many people are upset by this, but I have to wonder why? Your average Billionaire getting his knickers in a twist, I can understand. It's just become slightly more probable someone who needn't even ask permission to borrow one of his shiny new €30-80 million toys might accidentally break it, yet be under no obligation to provide compensation. There are insurance policies for that sort of thing, however.

Supporters, of course, view their passion for club not in the tens of millions of euros, but as priceless. That I understand less, not because I lack emotional investment in my favorite club, but because there's a sort of implicit hypocrisy in flipping through the back pages during your coffee break, hoping to discover your side has finally spent through the nose for that foreign talent you believe it so desperately needs to contend, then failing to understand that, like you, that foreign talent has passions beyond what he does for a living, only his are not vicarious. Representing his country is a dream beyond taking your money to provide for his family, starting a mega yacht collection, or getting in the habit of leaving expensive sports cars in the long-term parking at international airports. It's why a hobbled Cristiano Ronaldo was jumping up and down in the coach's box for the entire half of the Euro '16 Final, mimicking Fernando Santos' every gesture, handing out water bottles during injury stoppages, and exhorting the players who had been called up solely to help him score goals go on to achieve the Impossible Dream without their talisman.
Players have a passion for the game first, not the club, as should we all. So, why not grow the game by expanding the tournament field? Sure, there will be more appearances by the North Korea's and Saudi Arabia's of the world, but there will also be more South Koreas, Cameroons, Senegals, New Zealand's, and Switzerland's. Matches won't be as dull and predictable as some think. Any FA Cup or Leicester City fan should be behind the opportunity for a few more upsets.

The notion a larger tournament will afford players significantly less recovery time ahead of their club season is also exaggerated. With the proper format, the competition will only be lengthened for the clubs who make it to the knockout rounds, and then by just the one match.

What do I mean? As it is, matches are unevenly staggered. Some countries have four days rest between matches. Others receive only three. Simply make recovery time uniform by playing matches from the same group on the same day. If all forty-eight teams are assigned to twelve groups of four, for instance, the group stage will still consist of three matches per team, seventy-two all told. Playing six matches (three groups) per day guarantees every side three full days rest between matches, with the entire stage complete in twelve days. In Brazil, with the host nation playing the lone match on 12 June, the group stage ran through the twenty-sixth, a fortnight in all. With a bit of organization, two days can be trimmed off the schedule while leveling the playing field.

With two teams progressing from the twelve groups, the math doesn't allow for elimination rounds to begin as yet. That's the tricky part. My suggestion is to divide the two dozen countries into eight groups of three via what will admittedly be a controversial lottery spawning mini-groups of death--as if we haven't seen such a thing before - then play another round robin, with the group winners advancing to the quarter-finals.

The extra days needed to stage a second group stage would be offset by two benefits to the players' recovery. Each nation would enjoy a bye for one four-day cycle while the other two countries in its group face off, plus there needn't be extra time. Exhaustion does increase the probability for injury, so postponing the possibility of having to play one hundred and twenty minutes for an extra round would be welcomed. Of course, whereas the existing round-of-sixteen takes place over four days, there would be seven or eight days added to the middle of the tournament, but over that twelve day span, each side would only play two matches. The winners would all enter the quarter-finals with a second win, hopefully making for more compelling matches. In terms of net time, we are six days in arrears now, but I'll get to that in a minute.

First, there's the issue of determining winners from a two-game group stage. With one less game being played, there does exist greater potential for complications when it comes to tiebreakers. In the event the traditional methods within the group cannot decide a winner, rather than requiring two teams play extra time in the final group game while a third is watching, simply have the combined record from both group stages decide who advances. There is also the option to have penalties for all draws after 90 minutes, the winner earning a point, rather than three, with the loser coming away empty-handed. I would actually be for such a scoring system in both group stages, to further encourage sides to play to win. In any event, at the conclusion of the second group stage, the tournament would revert to the traditional knockout rounds.

Finally, to compensate for the extra time needed for an expanded tournament, stage it earlier. Limiting nations to ten to twelve days, rather than eighteen to prepare for the tournament (the 2014 Champions League Final ahead of that 12 June opening match in São Paolo took place on 24 May) makes room for the extra six days required, while a forty-eight nation competition would still conclude in mid-July, allowing players the same window to rest before returning to their clubs as in a thirty-two team format. If countries can play qualifiers with as little as three days preparation, they can also adjust to being permitted slightly under two weeks ahead of the tournament proper, rather than three.

So let's give Johnny Baby some love by signing on for his expanded World Cup. I'm a firm believer if you're going to throw a party, the more the merrier.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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