World Cup's status means two into four does not go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 1999, 12:00am

IT is difficult to devalue something priceless but Sepp Blatter may yet manage that if he gets his way with the World Cup.

Voted in as president of FIFA to protect and promote football, his latest half-baked idea is akin to a jeweller leaving the door of his shop open and issuing an invitation to thieves to enter.

The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on Earth. It is without equal and no small part of its allure is the fact that it remains relatively rare. Under various names and guises we have intercontinental football tournaments yearly, superb club events and continental showdowns.

But there is only one World Cup. And it happens every four years.

FIFA has shown itself to be poor a custodian of what is best for football over the years and, even in recent months, its insistence on going ahead with a parody of a tournament, the Confederations Cup, shows little regard for one of its important tasks: protection of the interests of national associations.

Like so many other hybrid tournaments that have sprung up - various under whatever age World Championships spring to mind - the Confederations Cup is nothing more than a gross attempt at extracting money from the public in exchange for very little.

It was switched from January, when world champions France withdrew, to Mexico next July and August. The French, however, are still refusing to play so the tournament, it can safely be said, lacks any credibility it may have had.

What Blatter has done with his bizarre World Cup idea is to drive a firmer wedge between FIFA and EUFA and that is potentially very, very dangerous.

For whatever political or other reasons, when Blatter floated the biennial World Cup idea he did so without proper consultation with those who actually matter most: the national associations of Europe.

Let's not kid ourselves. It is good to have Asian and African representation in the World Cup but, as events in France proved last summer, they remain make-weights.

In fact, the evidence might suggest that nations from both continents have regressed and any hopes of providing a World Cup winner in the next 20 years seem decidedly remote.

As in America in 1994, it was European teams who forged through to the final eight with the obvious and always notable exception of Brazil. And by the look of things in world football, it will always be Brazil or, possibly, Argentina.

The European Championship in England in 1996 was extended to 16 teams and spread over three weeks, bringing back some very pleasant memories of World Cups of yore which did not run to five weeks and 32 teams.

Euro 96 was an excellent tournament just as Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland is likely to be.

And what will it lack? Of the world's best team, only Brazil.

It is a rather sad fact that many early games in the World Cup, when it is made up of 32 teams, are ordinary affairs.

We do not actually have the 32 best teams in the world because some of them have made their way to the finals from areas where the game is not as strong and dominant as it is in Europe and South America.

Fine. It is a World Cup and they all deserve their chance.

But when it comes to sheer quality - usually emerging late in the World Cup - that can only come from the best.

How Blatter can expect to juggle a biennial World Cup without upsetting the European Championship and the Copa America is beyond me. The logistics alone are mind-boggling but the basic, salient point is that any attempt to do so could destroy what is at present a majestic, magnificent tournament.

And one for which it is worth waiting four years.

UEFA will not stand for a biennial World Cup - nor should it.

While there may well be residual bile between Lennart Johannson and Blatter over the bid for the FIFA presidency, the fact remains that FIFA must have UEFA and the national associations firmly behind them in any bid to change the current World Cup structuring.

Bluntly put, FIFA needs Europe for the World Cup more than Europe actually needs FIFA.

It is inconceivable to have a World Cup without European teams but, as we have seen from most recent European Championships, it is relatively easy for Europe to have a first-class tournament without the rest of the world.

The strength lies in Europe and Blatter risks too much by alienating countries from that part of the world.

It has been said that Blatter is going in for considerable political posturing on the World Cup proposal, particularly in relation to the International Olympic Committee.

I rather wish this was true but tend to doubt it. Again, it is a matter of strength and dealing from that enviable position.

FIFA dictates what happens in world football and if it tells the IOC that the Olympic football tournament will be for Under-23 teams only, that is the end of the matter.

Dress it up and present it tied up in pretty ribbons but the end result is the same: FIFA decides and that's that. The IOC is powerless in the matter and if it got in a huff over it and decided football would not be an Olympic sport, who loses? Not football.

Sadly, there is no merit to Blatter's idea and it only opens up the distinct possibility of dissension.

FIFA would be much better cutting down on some of its fringe tournaments, concentrating on assisting its various continental confederations with their tournaments and putting even greater effort into the development of youth football.

The World Cup takes care of itself.

Every four years.