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Fifa

Asian soccer must rise to the challenge of an expanded World Cup

The expansion will see more teams from the region able to take part, and will hopefully lead to higher standards

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 2:18am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 2:18am

For something that is not going to happen for 10 years, an expansion of the World Cup soccer tournament to enable more countries to take part has created spirited debate. China for one has welcomed it, given President Xi Jinping’s vision of radically improving the country’s current world ranking of 82.

The world congress of Fifa, soccer’s international controlling body, has voted to expand the tournament by 50 per cent from 32 teams to 48, who would play a total of 80 matches as opposed to the current 54. The aim is to allow less celebrated footballing nations to “live the dream” of taking part in the world’s biggest sporting event. To some people, however, it is more about money. Estimates of how much extra revenue Fifa could expect to raise by expanding the tournament reach US$1 billion. That has sparked some wry scepticism, given the recent financial corruption scandal that resulted in a major shake-up at Fifa.

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The concern of fans who have moved on from that with their love for soccer undiminished is that the expansion dilutes the status of the finals. We already have a qualifying stage of matches between four teams in eight groups, with the top two in each group advancing to the finals. The aim is for the finals to showcase the world’s soccer elite to a vast international audience. Now the proposal is to have 16 groups of three teams each, with the top two in each group, or a total of 32 as opposed to the current 16, advancing to the finals.

Celebrated club manager Jose Mourinho points out that groups of three, with teams playing two games each, would mean every game was crucial, unlike those under the current system that end in tame draws between two sides already assured of going through to the finals.

Many of the 16 additional teams would be eliminated in the group stages after “briefly living their dream”. Strong support for the expansion can be expected from Asia and Africa, which would each get four more teams in the tournament. Hopefully in 10 years they can rise to the challenge of being competitive. That can only be good for the “world game”.