One of the more unnerving recent events in the domain of the world’s most popular sport is indubitably the descent of the Italian national football team into World Cup also-rans long before a finals ball has even been kicked in anger. Their absence from Russia 2018 following a single-goal aggregate play-off defeat to Sweden means that next year’s must-view extravaganza will not feature one of soccer’s great – and richly successful – brands; Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon – by some distance the most charismatic and loved goalkeeper of his generation – has accordingly slumped tearfully into retirement.
However, Italy’s non-appearance at football’s highest table is by no means the only key absence; moreover, it also throws into sharp relief a serious problem that global governing body FIFA is arguably failing to address: the overall standard of play is improving faster than tournaments can expand to accommodate this very trend.
What this means in practical terms is that because the qualification process for football’s showpiece event is now so relentlessly competitive – and the margins between success and failure correspondingly and preposterously slim – the preliminaries risk fatally devaluing the finals.
Going into the final ninety minutes of qualifiers, the teams of neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo were guaranteed a place in Russia; Messi’s Argentina in particular were in enormous danger of missing out altogether. Goal difference condemned Holland; a single freak reverse did for Bosnia-Herzegovina; while Algeria – who gave Germany the game of their life at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil – were placed into a ‘group of death’ alongside Nigeria and Cameroon over a year before the commencement of the tournament proper.
FIFA has reacted to this reality by promising a numerical extension to a 48-team finals from 2026 onwards. However – and after some contemplation – we at Mediolana aver that this is simply not sufficient. Within a decade, yet more nations that are presently not on the radar will have attained a level of footballing expertise that will doubtless shock many members of the old guard; moreover, the consolidation of professionalism in Asia will give countless more players the opportunity of a first-class career, and their national teams a yet better tilt at success.
Revising the 2026- finals intake upwards to 64 teams will not make any significant additional organisational demands on potential hosts and co-hosts; it will, however, help minimise the risk of the most coveted guests not even receiving an invite to the party. For the good of the game – and to preserve its own commercial interests – FIFA should take a giant step towards protecting its beloved World Cup from eating itself, and think bigger.