The pressure is building on Brazil to be ready by June with some stadiums only partially completed whilst infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired. However the tournament itself is under more scrutiny than ever before as it attempts to live up to its hefty billing. The World Cup is and always has been football’s global showcase but it’s a title that is slowly losing its grip of. With the luxurious Champions League pulling in a growing number of admirers especially in its latter rounds due to exciting football and a soon to be revamped European Championship that will encourage better fan participation with more teams than ever before, the World Cup is starting to show her age. The old girl has been around for a considerable amount of time but has lacked the panache in recent years that it once had.
Not since France 1998 have crowds been held on the edge of their seats from day one all the way up until the last kick of the ball in the final. Not to say that viewers are turning away from the World Cup as globally the audience continues to grow but there has been a shift in recent years towards a lack of care or enthusiasm for what was unfolding. Watching smaller nations like North Korea face Brazil in a one sided match was less entertaining and instead more painful. China’s approach to the 2002 World Cup was pure survival, preferring to enjoy the spectacle rather than compete; resulting in three losses and no goals (they boasted a total of two shots on target during the entire tournament). Not that these teams did not deserve to be there as they fought hard to qualify from their respective groups but the sizable gap in performance and skill is so evident that you wonder why they wanted to get there in the first place. Yes reaching the World Cup is magical but so is competing in it. Give it your best shot as it may be your only one should be the battle cry but more often than not teams appear with a whimper than a roar.
The World Cup should be as it’s billed – the planets best 32 teams competing for the right to be called World Champions. If Iran and North Korea are in that 32 then great as they deserve to be there but not in the way that they are right now. Personally I blame FIFA’s spot allocation system that dictates how many teams each region can send to World Cup. Being fair is one thing but if the main event suffers then surely questions need to be asked over it validity? How can a region with an average FIFA ranking of 101 be given 4.5 spots whilst another with an average of 90 is allocated only 3.5? Both regions have a similar number of teams but it would appear that FIFA favours one over the other for reasons unknown. Perhaps it’s the fact that the region with the higher number of spots also helps to contribute to a larger share of money going into FIFA’s coffers than the second mentioned region. Either way what has happened is that the World Cup has become a competition for a handful of teams to win rather than all 32. Heading into Brazil, fans will be placing their bets on who will lift the coveted golden trophy at the end but few bets will be placed on the likes of Costa Rica, Algeria, Honduras or Iran. Do they have a shot? Of course they do but it’s a very long one that will require more than just good fortune along the way for them to win the tournament. In fact qualifying to the knockout stages may be a challenge for most of them given the gap in quality between them and the other nations in their group.
FIFA has taken a gamble by focusing on growing the World Cup brand, focusing on the pre show rather than the main event which may come back to haunt them. A radical overhaul may be required to keep interest in the World Cup high and keep the competition itself competitive. Realignment of the qualification process including a mixing of the groups by FIFA rankings or through knock out stages may be necessary to protect the World Cup’s long term health. There is still life in the old girl yet but without something to keep her interesting; she may just start to fade away from the public eye. That really is the last thing that FIFA wants.