In Soccer’s Hinterlands, World Cup Expansion Opens a Door

Uganda, celebrating a goal against Botswana, is one of the teams that are likely to benefit the most from the coming World Cup expansion. Credit Monirul Bhuiyan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While the soccer world was chewing over FIFA’s controversial decision on Tuesday to increase the size of the World Cup finals to 48 teams from 32, Milutin Sredojevic was trying to block out the noise.

Sredojevic, a Serbian coach, is in Dubai preparing Uganda’s national team for the Africa Cup of Nations, the continental championship that begins Saturday in Gabon. Uganda, which is in the tournament for the first time since 1978, is a heavy underdog. Yet despite Sredojevic’s best efforts to focus on the task ahead, news of the expansion, which could benefit smaller federations like Uganda’s, filtered through anyway.

“Of course, my mind is fully concentrated on the tournament ahead of us,” Sredojevic said by phone from the Cranes’ training camp. “But I still heard the news.”

He added, “The planet stands still during the World Cup, and that excitement could be shared now with 48 qualified countries.”

Coach Bob Bradley led the United States national team to the 2010 World Cup, but narrowly missed the 2014 event as coach of Egypt. Credit Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

FIFA’s decision to vastly expand the number of teams in the World Cup finals, beginning with the 2026 tournament, was viewed skeptically in many quarters, especially in Europe, where officials, clubs and fans saw the move as a money grab by FIFA and an attempt by its new president, Gianni Infantino, to curry favor with its national associations.

China’s national team celebrated a win over Qatar last year in a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup. Credit China Stringer Network, via Reuters

But in places like Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and in dozens of countries across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, the change was welcomed as the opening of a golden door long closed to them.

Bob Bradley knows well how narrow that door can be. He coached the United States, which has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, in the 2010 event, but narrowly missed out on the 2014 tournament as coach of Egypt when his team lost in a two-leg playoff to Ghana.

“For any team that’s come close, the idea of an expanded World Cup sounds exciting,” Bradley said. “Having worked in a country where getting to the World Cup is so important, you understand.”

While Bradley admitted he was skeptical about the motivations behind the expansion — “I still sometimes think these decisions are made for the wrong reasons, and ultimately the quality of the competition suffers,” he said — Sredojevic was not the least bit concerned.

Iceland proved smaller countries could compete with traditional soccer powers when it eliminated England in a surprising run to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championships. Credit Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Teams like Uganda, which is currently 72nd in FIFA’s much-maligned world ranking, are likely to benefit the most from World Cup expansion. Africa currently has five qualification spots for its 54 member associations, making qualification a tough task for any team not already among the continent’s traditional powers.

World Cup qualification by an African country, Sredojevic said, can have a transformational effect, helping to develop and showcase the abundance of talent that exists on the continent.

“Football is a second religion in Africa,” said Sredojevic, who has also coached in South Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda. “Having more places widens the door.”

Other coaches have changed their mind about the benefits of expansion after seeing the game for themselves at the grass-roots level. The Dutch-born coach Thomas Rongen said he saw how important the World Cup was for smaller teams when he took charge of American Samoa’s national team in 2011. Back then, American Samoa was FIFA’s lowest-ranked team. In fact, it had never won a game.

“I was pretty much a typical soccer guy steeped in tradition, believing the best should play the best,” said Rongen, who was recently appointed chief scout for the United States national team. “The sophisticated countries say that; protecting their interests, money and players.”

But after leading American Samoa to its first victory and narrowly missing out on advancement to the next round of the 2014 Word Cup qualification, Rongen had an epiphany.

“I’ve become a romantic — I’m all for it,” he said of expansion. Still, the Oceania confederation, of which American Samoa is a member, currently does not have an automatic place in the World Cup; it is guaranteed only a playoff spot. In 2014, that went to New Zealand, but it was trounced by Mexico in an intercontinental playoff, leaving Oceania unrepresented in Brazil.

“The game is the people’s game, the world’s game,” Rongen said. “Smaller countries, they deserve an opportunity to belong, or maybe not to belong. There will be a few games we might need a mercy rule. That is the beauty of the game.”

An expanded World Cup is likely to have the biggest impact in Asia. It is the world’s most populous continent, with 47 member associations and two of the biggest underdeveloped soccer markets in the world, China and India, which have a combined population of over two billion people. China has qualified for the World Cup finals once, in 2002; India, despite recent multimillion-dollar investments in a nascent domestic league, has never taken part.

Asia currently has only four guaranteed World Cup berths, plus an intercontinental playoff spot.

“You can look at a 32-team tournament and say it is not inclusive,” Stephen Constantine, the coach of India’s national team, said. “It is maybe overdue in terms of expansion.”

Soccer has long lagged behind cricket in India, and its national team was eliminated from contention for Russia 2018 after finishing at the bottom of its second-round qualification group. Asian qualification, Constantine said, is far more competitive than many think.

“If you look across Asia, there are maybe 12 or 14 teams that are very strong,” he said, noting that expansion, if nothing else, offers new incentives.

“It does give hope to those teams who are getting there that if they are a little more professional, or do things a little better, they might make it,” he said. “To those countries, and India is one of them, it says that there is an opportunity.”

For other Asian countries, the recent expansion of the European Championships — to 24 teams from 16 — offers a blueprint. The tiny Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan played its first World Cup qualification matches in 2014, and achieved back-to-back victories against Sri Lanka. Bhutan was shellacked in the group stage, losing all of its matches, conceding 52 goals in the process.

But the president of the Bhutan Football Federation, Ugen Tsechup Dorji, said he was inspired by the success of tiny Iceland at the European Championships, where it eliminated England in a surprising run to the quarterfinals.

“If Iceland can do it,” Dorji said, referring to a country with a population of about 320,000, “Bhutan, with a population of 700,000, can definitely do something, too.”

He added: “It will take a little time to get there, but it is not beyond us. We have to dream big. If we stop dreaming, what’s the point?”

Source: NYTimes