When it comes to expanding the FIFA World Cup to 48 teams, people fall into two clearly defined groups – those who are for it and those who are against it. There’s very little in the middle.
For the record, I am part of the former.
With a growing number of ‘middle-tier’ nations, keeping it at 32 would’ve limited their ability to compete at the highest level, as the qualifying spots went to the more established nations. It gives these nations a realistic target to aspire to, which can help stimulate more investment in facilities, players and leagues which is better for football across the world.
Remember, FIFA’s remit is to grow the game in all corners of the globe, not protect the interests of the elite in Europe, and let’s be clear, it’s from those nations that objections have been the loudest.
But the ham-fisted way FIFA has gone about trying to bring the expansion forward by four years leaves a lot to be desired. But who didn’t see this coming?
The biggest criticism, especially here in Australia, is that expansion will make the qualifying process utterly meaningless and will give the Socceroos an easy path to the World Cup.
But, especially in the case of an expanded 48-team tournament for 2022, that will not be the case.
Of course, Qatar first has to agree to expand the tournament to 48 teams, which would mean having to share the tournament with their neighbours. From all reports, Qatar are lukewarm, at best, on the idea. But FIFA pushes on in any case.
Back to qualifying though.
FIFA has already announced the allocation each confederation would receive, with Asia set to receive eight spots at an expanded 48-team tournament, with the possibility of more coming through the proposed playoff tournament to decide the final two spots.
What FIFA has also announced is that the host nation’s automatic spot would come from the respective confederation’s allocation. If FIFA does get their way in expanding the tournament, it will mean sharing the hosting duties with at least two other countries.
With Oman and Kuwait flagged as the most likely, given the ongoing blockade which makes the likes of UAE, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain impractical.
It’s hard to see either Oman or Kuwait agreeing to host without being given an automatic spot, which is common practice. That would mean of the eight spots allocated to the AFC, three have already been distributed, leaving just five spots to be decided in World Cup qualifying. How it would be if the tournament stays as a 32-team tournament.
When you consider that Australia, only just scraped through qualifying for 2018, had Omar Al-Soma’s free-kick been 5cm to the left, it would’ve ended in heartbreak. On the evidence of the AFC Asian Cup in January, then we can’t consider ourselves certainties to claim one of those five places on offer.
The competition will only be tougher this time around too.
Bert van Marwijk, who guided Australia at last year’s FIFA World Cup, has just accepted an offer to take over as coach of the UAE. Having masterminded Saudi Arabia’s campaign for 2018, the Dutchman knows what is needed to get the job done and he will make the UAE a much tougher prospect over the next few years.
Let’s not forget, as shambolic as they were under Alberto Zaccheroni, this was a UAE side that defeated Australia at the Asian Cup without their star talisman, Omar Abdulrahman. Now picture them with Omar back in the side and with van Marwijk in the dugout.
Australia battled to get past Thailand both home and away in qualifying for 2018, and all the evidence since points to Thailand having improved even more since then, especially with players like Chanathip Songkrasin, Theerathon Bunmathan and a handful of others making the move to Japan to further their game.
We also saw Vietnam emerge at the recent AFC Asian Cup, and they will only improve over the next few years, while Qatar is now a genuine power at the top of the Asian game.
When you throw in Iraq, who impressed at the Asian Cup and have a strong generation of talent coming through, Uzbekistan, who looked good under Hector Cuper, and who Australia struggled to get past, and perennial qualifiers in Japan, South Korea and Iran then there are realistically any of nine or ten nations who would fancy claiming one of those five spots.
Suddenly the path to Qatar 2022, or should that be Qatar/Oman/Kuwait 2022, no longer resembles the breezy straight road of the Nullarbor that most pundits here predicted, but more like one of those precarious dirt mountain roads you see on YouTube.
Whether it’s 32 teams or 48, fans better start preparing for a white knuckle ride on the road to 2022.