In a little over a year, the United States could be handed what would amount to be a free pass into every World Cup.
As wonderful as it would be for the U.S. to be guaranteed a spot in soccer's biggest showcase, the proposed qualification reshuffle that may lead to such an eventuality is nothing short of a horrible idea.
It has all come about because of the political rumblings within FIFA, international soccer's governing body, and the power struggle between current president Sepp Blatter and former French soccer superstar Michel Platini, who wants to oust Blatter in 2015 when he comes up for re-election.
Blatter wants to increase his power base in Africa and Asia by proposing additional World Cup spots for representatives of those continents among the current field of 32. Platini accepts the fact that Africa and Asia are under-represented, but he wants to increase the total number of World Cup participants to 40, effectively keeping everyone happy.
Given the series of embarrassments under Blatter's reign and Platini's recent gains in momentum, it would be no surprise to see the Frenchman – and his new World Cup blueprint – come into power.
Under Platini's plan, an increase of eight countries would add two extra spots for Africa, two for Asia, one for Europe and one for Oceania. Critically for the U.S., it would also add either one or two additional places for the CONCACAF region that comprises North and Central American teams and those from the Caribbean.
[Slideshow: Teams that have qualified for 2014 World Cup]
Currently, CONCACAF sends "3.5" teams to the World Cup, meaning that its top three finishers automatically qualify and the fourth-placed finisher is matched up against a nation from another region in a playoff. For example, Mexico faces New Zealand next month in a home-and-home format with a single berth at stake.
Expanding the World Cup field so that four or even five CONCACAF teams were certain of a spot would strip any drama out of the qualifying process as far as the U.S. is concerned.
The national team has now qualified for the last seven World Cups, but it has at least been forced to put in a healthy amount of hard work and weather some struggles to get there. Those efforts have helped mold the Americans into a more hardened unit and prepared them for the rigors of the tournaments ahead. Qualification matches would start to resemble little more than glorified exhibition games with the stronger teams of the region like the U.S., Costa Rica and Mexico needing only a couple of decent results to be sure of going through.
More than anything, Africa is a huge continent that has been under-served in terms of its World Cup representation, but it is hard to make such an argument for CONCACAF (or Asia).
Adding more teams would only dilute the talent pool of the World Cup, which is a wonderful spectacle at least in part because of its high level of competitiveness, a factor Platini seems to have overlooked as part of the feasibility study he has had carried out. An extra team in each of the eight groups may only add three days to the month-long tournament, but it would also bring in a level of stragglers unlikely to be able to match up with the big boys.
Based on how things have gone in qualifying for Brazil next summer, the additions would open the door to teams like Uzbekistan, Oman, Venezuela, Panama, Ethiopia and New Caledonia. No disrespect to any of those countries, but none of them are at elite world level or could be said to inject much quality into a World Cup field.
The unfortunate part about all this is that, for the most part, Platini's ideas for a healthier global game are generally better than those of Blatter. As head of European governing body UEFA, Platini has tried to curb the excessive spending of the biggest and wealthiest clubs to create a more level playing field, and he genuinely seems to care about developing the sport in a positive and harmonious way.
But Platini is way off base with his expansion plan. Due to his growing political muscle within the game, it may not be long before he and his flawed new system have become part of the fabric of the World Cup.
- Sports & Recreation
- Michel Platini
- Sepp Blatter