In fairness it hasn’t been a bad tournament so far. Yes, nobody has been overly impressive, but there have already been a few shock results and the host nation, to their credit, have had a real go despite their diminished status.
However, as the second round of matches in the group kicked off, a number of sides have reverted back to the usual ten behind the ball malaise. It leaves you yearning for more well-matched sides to encounter one and other more often, and give us all a bit more to look at – as least we got one two nights ago, thanks to Croatia’s dismantling of Messi’s Argentina.
Two banks for four
Portugal’s dramatic three all draw with Spain, and last night’s shocker for Argentina against Croatia, are the only two occasions when the big boys have met. The results have been much more pleasing for the neutrals. Better football played by more capable players has led to more of a spectacle and plenty of flash points to discuss.
Croatia are a well balanced side with a nice blend of top talent and hard working pros. Modric and Rakitic are always worth a watch. Their nation’s match with Argentina was a genuinely exciting prospect. Despite the nervy performance from both sides it didn’t fail to deliver as Croatia secured a famous win. The results are not only more pleasing for neutrals, but a better indication as to the quality of sides on display. How much do we really learn about players as they try to dance around two banks of four defenders?
Expansion is the problem
Unfortunately as the World Cup has expanded there has been a shift of focus from FIFA. The competition no longer seems to be about the best nations competing for the overall prize. It now seems to be a tournament with the aim to giving as many nations as possible a go in the group stages.
No doubt this has opened up lucrative markets for FIFA but it has led to some terrible matches and a diluting of the quality on display.
The recent games between Spain and Iran, or France v Peru were good examples of this modern phenomenon. On paper it should have been a goal fest for the dominant nations, but in fact the opposite was the case. The football is often dull as the inferior side resorts to ultra defensive positions and cynical game craft. You can’t blame them, but it is so frustrating to watch.
North America 2026: the big test
The 2026 tournament in North America is set to contain forty-eight nations. A new format brought forward by FIFA President Infantini will bring a monster first round of sixteen groups. These will contain three teams as well as a new rule to see penalty shoot outs eliminating draws.
This is ambitious to say the least, but in all probability it is likely to only bring more mismatched games and dour football. It also takes away the drama of a penalty shoot out.
Will traditionally larger nations be happy with yet more matches of attrition? Perhaps a better model for improving quality would see two splinter tournaments of twenty-four teams. The first twenty containing the higher ranked sides in a snappier format. A second tier tournament may not contain as many exciting teams but at least they would be better matched and even have a chance of real tournament progression.
Whether or not the European sides will be happy with the 2026 format remains to be seen. The World Cup needs the European sides but they don’t really need it in return. It could be a future sticky issue for Infantini to navigate as he looks to innovate and expand like his predosessor.