32. The number of pieces in Chess. The number of the winning car in the first Indy 500. And also the number of teams that participate at the FIFA World Cup finals.
However, this could be set for a change. The president of world football’s governing body, Sepp Blatter, has suggested that both the African (CAF) and the Asian (AFC) confederations are under-represented. It all comes down to numbers.
Blatter’s argument is this: UEFA, the European confederation, has 53 FIFA members (this does not include non-FIFA member Gibraltar). CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, 10. These 63 nations fight, every 4 years, for around 18 or 19 spots at the World Cup – an average of about 0.3 spots per team.
On the other hand, CAF (54) and AFC (46) have 100 teams within their ranks, all fighting for just 9 or 10 places – about 0.1 per team. Bear in mind that CAF includes such giants as John Obi Mikel’s Nigeria, Asamoah Gyan’s Ghana, and of course Côte d’Ivoire, with Didier Drogba, Gervinho, and the mighty Yaya Touré. The top Asian sides are no slouches either, with Keisuke Honda of Japan, Ji Dong-Won of South Korea, and Mark Schwarzer of Australia all included in the continent’s top 5 nations.
But what of those just outside the qualifying spots? Going purely on the latest rankings, those for November, this includes such teams as former greats Saudi Arabia, surprise 2010 qualifiers North Korea, and Wigan keeper Ali-Al Habsi’s Oman. Even the Australians, whom you may think would be certain qualifiers, are only fifth in the 4-qualifer AFC. They only just avoided the play-offs this time round.
In Africa, it sounds even worse. Amongst those outside of the top 5 are 7-time continental champions Egypt, Cameroon (including striker Samuel Eto’o) and Togo, the country for which Emanuel Adebayor plies his trade. And this is before I mention previous hosts South Africa, Northern giants Morocco, or 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners Zambia.
In place of these teams come a few you might not expect. Greece, although winners of the 2004 Euros, have only qualified for 3 major tournaments (notwithstanding possible qualification for Brazil). Bosnia, despite the efforts of Man City striker Edin Dzeko, are still up-and-coming. Croatia are arguably past their prime.
South America’s qualifiers may include Brazil, as hosts, and Argentina, but they also include Colombia, Ecuador, and, barring a monumental slip-up against 70th-placed Jordan, Uruguay. Whilst Uruguay, whose front three consist of Forlan, Cavani, and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, are expected to do well, Colombia and Ecuador traditionally have not – they have qualified for just 8 world cups between them, and 2 of those are 2014.
So it looks like an inarguable case. The World Cup should include more teams from Africa and Asia. But the real question is, how? UEFA president Michel Platini weighed in by suggesting a 40 team World Cup, with 8 groups of 5 – 3 days more action, and potentially more viewers for the hosts and for FIFA. Blatter’s right-hand man, Jerome Valcke, disagrees. And if he disagrees, then it is more likely that Blatter takes this view as well.
But before I go any further, I must point out that one area of the world hasn’t even been mentioned (North America aside). An area of the world with English Championship squad members. An area of the world with former UEFA Champions League players. And an area of the world where, despite it not being the most popular of sports, the spirit of football still lives on. I am of course talking about Oceania.
Admittedly, there are no professional international teams there, not since Australia left for the AFC. New Zealand’s part-timers are by far the strongest team in the 11-nation confederation. Yet the stories there are some of the best – not of tournament wins, but of battling against the odds. New Zealand emerged as South Africa 2010’s only unbeaten side. American Samoa recently achieved their first ever win. And then there’s Tahiti.
This tiny, French-owned island, of less than 200,000 people, less in fact than Swindon, qualified, on merit, for this year’s Confederations Cup. Having become the first side other than Australia or New Zealand to win their continental competition, they then went on to play, and play well, in Brazil. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being genuinely astonished at just how impressive they were. And followed up by albeit heavy losses to Spain and Uruguay, they lost 6-1 to Nigeria.
But what is important to remember is that they were, with the exception of former Lorient striker Marama Vahirua, all part-timers. People like you, or me, that play football for the love of the game. One member of the squad spends his days climbing up trees to fetch coconuts; another works for the Tahitian postal service. Yet they managed to score against a team over 100 places above them in the rankings. Imagine, if you will, Kenya scoring against Spain. And with most of the (supposedly) neutral crowd behind them, their forwards completely outplayed the Nigerian defence, in the few moments they had the ball.
Now back to the debate. If each confederation should have about 0.2 slots per team, as seems to have been suggested, then Oceania should have 2 teams in the World Cup. Yet all they have, now and for the foreseeable future, is a playoff against the fourth placed team of North America, a game they are unlikely to win – especially given that this year’s opponents are the skilful Mexicans.
So perhaps a future World Cup could look like this: 40 teams, in 8 groups of 5, consisting of 7 teams from North America, 3 from South America, 10 from each of Europe and Africa, 8 from Asia, and 2 from Oceania. This gives each continent about 0.2 places per team, and removes the need for playoffs. It also includes one ingredient that the current format is missing:
It would be a truly global World Cup.