This has been a World Cup of many firsts. The first World Cup held in an Arab nation, the first World Cup held in the Muslim World, the first time the World Cup was played in the winter due to the extreme heat of the Qatari summer. To Messi fans, this was Messi’s first win in his last ever World Cup. But this World Cup, with the familiar format of 32 teams split into 8 groups, was also the last of its kind. The next World Cup in 2026 will have 48 teams.
In 2017, most of the football world was engrossed with the build up and qualification stages of the World Cup in Russia. Russia 2018 in its time was as controversial on the human rights front as the recent World Cup. And much like this time, people complained on Twitter and boycotts were planned. But in the end, once the football started, everyone was completely enthralled. While all this was happening, thirty seven football administrators, collectively known as the FIFA Council, met in Zurich and unanimously voted to expand the World Cup to 48 teams.
Let us now move from Zurich to Geneva, to the headquarters of UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations. It is here that tournament number two enters our tale- the UEFA Champions League. To the uninitiated, the words “Champions League” may not mean much, but it is the world’s third largest sporting event and the pinnacle of European club football. The Champions League has the same format as the World Cup, with 32 teams in 8 groups of 4. But there is a difference: rather than national teams, the competitors in the UEFA Champions League are the top 32 clubs from across Europe. In 2021, the UEFA Executive Committee voted to expand the Champions League from 32 to 36 teams. More importantly they changed the format to double the number of matches in the tournament.
The Impetus For Growth
While there are superficial similarities in the decision to expand these two tournaments, the factors driving FIFA’s and UEFA’s decision differ in some important ways. Let’s begin with the less dramatic story, FIFA’s decision to increase the number of teams in the World Cup by 50%. Now, to be fair, it isn’t as if this decision is unprecedented. After all, the World Cup was a 16 team affair until Spain 82, when it was expanded to 24 teams. Indeed, it only became a 32 team tournament with France 98. So the FIFA Council has tried to insist that this latest expansion is no different than the ones that came before. To hear them tell it, it is just part of the march of progress leading to a more and more inclusive World Cup, with a greater number of teams from Africa and Asia. Regardless of how they spin it, one look at the members of the FIFA Council will make it evident that things are not necessarily so straightforward.
Infantino and the Prime Minister of Qatar : Photo credit https://indianexpress.com/article/sports/football/gianni-infantino-unopposed-to-get-4-more-years-as-fifa-president-8274579/
The expansion plan is the brainchild of Gianni Infantino, the current FIFA President. He took over from Sepp Blatter, a bonafide Bond villain, in 2016. While not quite in the same league as his predecessor, he has nevertheless cozied up in a very public and open way with authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, and across the Arab world. During the last two World Cups, he vigorously defended Russia’s and Qatar’s human rights records. His defence of Qatar during the recent World Cup reached its lowest (highest from an entertainment perspective) point with this absolutely ridiculous press conference.
So it is not hard to imagine that Mr Infantino’s new associates, who are the Sheikhs and Secretary-Generals of various autocratic states, would lean on him to expand the World Cup to make it easier for their nations to qualify. After all, authoritarian regimes going back to the Nazis have used international sporting events as a way of boosting national prestige and their own legitimacy. Infantino may also have had a more direct personal motive for expanding the World Cup: the FIFA President is elected by the General Assembly, a body in which each of 200 odd countries have one vote. Most of these have of course never qualified for the actual tournament. An expansion of the World Cup would therefore be popular with a majority of them. There is also the oldest and simplest of all motives, the profit motive. According to leaked internal FIFA projections, expanding the World Cup will lead to a massive increase in revenue for FIFA.
The reasons behind UEFA’s decision to expand the Champions League on the other hand are simpler, but the story of how it happened is far more dramatic and involves everything from secretive cabals to Boris Johnson calling an emergency cabinet meeting.
Before multi-billion dollar broadcast deals and Sheikhs and oligarchs as club owners, it was the domestic leagues that mattered in football and Europe-wide tournaments (like the forerunners of the Champions League) didn’t mean much. Then, the modern Champions League was created, Russian oil billionaire and oligarch Roman Abrahamovich bought London club Chelsea, the Qataris bought Paris Saint-Germain, the Emirati’s bought Manchester City, and the world of football was forever changed.
Clubs began to field weaker sides in domestic league matches to make sure that their star players were well rested for Champions League matches. This was all happening because the Champions League had become a far more meaningful tournament as it was where the giants of the footballing world competed with each other. After all, fans would rather watch Manchester City play Real Madrid over Manchester City vs Stoke on the proverbial rainy night. So for a major club like Manchester City, playing matches against other major clubs would lead to a larger broadcast revenue. So the major clubs have long pushed for an increase in Champions League matches.
All this came to a head in 2021, when 12 of the largest clubs announced their plan to withdraw from their domestic leagues and form a so-called “European Super League” that would be composed of the 20 biggest clubs across Europe. This led to immediate outrage across Europe at all levels, from simple fan groups to the British House of Commons. Heads of Government like French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italian Premier Mario Draghi all condemned the announcement as an act of greed. Simultaneously the domestic football associations and UEFA began planning bans and other disciplinary actions against these clubs. The pressure was on, and within 3 days of the European Super League being announced, Manchester City became the first of the 12 to buckle. City announced it was pulling out of the ESL, and within 24 hours, 8 other teams withdrew. The European Super League was stillborn but the idea had still revolutionised club football and UEFA knew that.
For UEFA understood that the only thing that would satisfy these clubs was an increase in the number of Champions League matches. To achieve this, UEFA moved away from the standard format it used, the same one as the classic World Cup format, to something called a Swiss-model tournament. This would guarantee each team 8 matches at least, and there would be the 4 elimination rounds as usual. Basically, a Swiss style tournament is just a hybrid between a league, where everyone plays each other, and an elimination tournament.
The Challenges To Expansion
The fact that avarice and backroom dealings drove FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup is not in itself a problem. The problem with the expansion is the new format they chose: In 2017, when the FIFA Council voted to expand the World Cup to 48 teams, they chose a format of 16 groups of 3 teams, with the top 2 teams from each group moving on to the elimination rounds. This change in format seems rather innocuous at first but it is in fact a serious problem. It opens the door to the possibility of a repeat of one of the lowest moments in World Cup history, rivalling Maradona’s hand of god or Suarez’s goal line handball.
This is the infamous “Disgrace of Gijon”. Rewind to Spain 1982. Going into the last group match between Germany and Austria, Algeria and Austria were on the top of the group. If Austria had won or the match had ended in a draw, Algeria would have qualified for the knockout round, and become the first African team to ever make it that far in the World Cup. On the other hand, a 1-0 win for Germany would have meant that both Germany and Austria qualify for the next round, and Algeria would be eliminated. So that is exactly what they conspired to do. Germany scored once within the first 10 minutes of the match, and then both teams passed the ball around aimlessly until the final whistle. There wasn’t even a pretence of competition and the German manager openly admitted that his team had conspired with the Austrians. And in response to Algerian dissatisfaction at what had essentially been a daylight robbery, this is what Hans Tschak, the Austrian FA President of the day, had to say –
“Naturally, today’s game was played tactically. But if 10,000 ‘sons of the desert’ here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he’s entitled to open his gob.”
In response to this shameful incident, FIFA changed the format, and from then on the last two games of the group have been played simultaneously. So no team knows exactly what result will guarantee them qualification to the next round, and there has never been a repeat of what happened in Gijon.
However with this new “Groups-of-Three” format, it is impossible to play the last two games in the group simultaneously, so there is again a chance that teams will collude. When Marco Van Basten, the former Dutch striker and current FIFA Chief Technical Officer, was asked about this, he said that FIFA will consider using a different format, but that too makes little sense as the FIFA Council has already approved this problematic format and there are less than 3 years to go before the qualification for the next World Cup begins.
For the Champions League, there isn’t any problem with the new format itself, as the Swiss style tournament is a well established format used in most Chess tournaments. In fact, switching to the Swiss style tournament will reduce the role of luck in the Champions League and make it a more fair tournament. But there is still a two fold problem with this new avatar of the Champions League. First, as many players have already noted, doubling the number of games will lead to a football calendar that is even more tightly packed. While this may be good for the pockets of club owners, it certainly isn’t good for players who are already playing more games a season than is reasonable. The other issue is that Swiss style tournaments are inherently scalable. So what is to stop clubs from demanding an increase in the Champions League’s guaranteed matches from 8 to 10 or even higher? This is why some fan groups claim that this new format of the Champions League is just an introduction of the European Super League via the backdoor.
For UEFA, the tournament format was dictated by their need to provide more Champions League matches. However for FIFA, the aim was somewhat the opposite, as they needed to accommodate more teams within a World Cup that wouldn’t exceed its usual span of about a month. UEFA on the other hand was completely disinterested in including more teams, going to the extent of deciding to award the 4 extra spots in this new Champions League to underperforming giants rather than deserving teams from smaller leagues.
Thus, while the decisions to expand these tournaments do differ in some ways, both UEFA and FIFA are choosing to sacrifice the spirit of the beautiful game at the altar of profit. What a sorry state of affairs!
SY B.Sc Div 2