Most previews leading up to the competition had written them off before it begun, particularly after they lost striker Aleksandr Kokorin in March. The tale around Saudi Arabia has been the same. Ranked just three places higher than the Russians in the official FIFA rankings, there are few who expect them to do much of note this summer.
A few with mouths left agape
Both sides were almost a metaphor for the tournament itself. Expectations about a World Cup in Russia are low, to say the least, the prevalent belief being that it will fail to live up to the grand spectacles that have preceded it. So when Russia powered through to an impressive 5-0 victory to open the tournament in style, there were more than a few with mouths left agape.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side was impressive from the beginning, playing attractive football and putting Saudi Arabia to the sword in ruthless fashion. Denis Cheryshev’s excellent pair of goals was the icing on the cake of a display that absolutely nobody, including the Russians, would have dared to predict.
While their performance was impressive, Saudi Arabia’s was anything but. Hopeless, pathetic and out of their depth were just some of the ways in which Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team were described following the demoralising defeat. The reality is that each of those descriptions, as harsh as they may sound, are accurate. They were simply shocking and far below the level that the World Cup demands.
While Russia may have celebrated an impressive win and a glorious start to a World Cup that has more than one dark cloud hanging around over it, the win only helped to darken the skies around FIFA’s future plans for the tournament.
Quality of the competition
By 2026, 48 countries will take part in the World Cup, as FIFA looks to cash in on their prize asset even further.
It means that the lesser-celebrated nations of the various confederations around the world will get their chance at shining on the big stage. On the face of it, that is a great idea. International football is not solely the domain of the European elite, after all.
The main detractors for such a plan have pointed out that such a format will severely hinder the competitiveness and quality of the competition. Their point is one that is well made. We have already seen throughout the qualification process, particularly in Europe, that there is a staggering gap in quality between some of the nations. It is a similar issue across the other federations.
The bigger sides regularly hand out beatings to the lesser nations; one only has to look at England’s regularly strong performances in qualifying to prove it.
Saudi Arabia’s performance on the opening day added weight to the argument
In the proposed plans, Europe would move up to 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5) and Oceania 1 (0.5). The host nation would, of course, remain at one.
A look at who would have qualified if that had been the case for Russia highlights the issue. From Africa, the likes of Zambia (76th) and Uganda (82nd) are teams that would have benefitted. South America would have brought along the likes of Honduras (62), while Asia would add Syria (73), Uzbekistan (95) and the United Arab Emirates (77).
The point could not be clearer: adding such teams means the World Cup would no longer be a competition of the world’s best teams. Instead, there would be an even greater gap between the best sides and those at the lower end of the spectrum.
Such teams would only be cannon fodder for the better-financed and more talented sides in front of them. That was shown in the opening game; Russia may be lower ranked than Saudi Arabia but the difference in quality was telling.
All of the aforementioned sides are ranked lower than Saudi Arabia at this moment in time. It is hard to believe any of them would not have fallen as easily as Pizzi’s side did.
Nobody will argue that these teams do not deserve their chance at a World Cup and the idea of the tournament representing the entire world is certainly a pleasant one. In a modern world in which culture is continually being challenged, presenting such countries on the world stage is only a positive. In terms of football, however, it is hard to see any.
On the evidence provided by Russia’s demolition of Saudi Arabia, it will do little to improve the competitiveness or quality. Instead, both will only take a further nosedive and that is sad for football’s showcase event.