The debate has been re-ignited again. There is talk of bringing forward the start of the 48-team FIFA World Cup to 2022 instead of 2026, as originally scheduled. There have been rumblings in the past against the idea, but objective analysis can reveal that this will be good business for the international federation, FIFA, in terms of greater ticketing revenue, broadcasting rights and sponsorship arrangements for the event.
The Southern Times Africa Sports Forum has no doubt that there are some great national teams that struggle to succeed in the qualifying rounds for the FIFA World Cup. It is a sign of the stiff competition for places and unfortunately sometimes luck runs out and these teams do not make it to the greatest football showcase on the planet. Countries such as Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guinea, Mali and Zambia have wonderful individual players as well as great teams that can give any top side in the world a good run for their money. One wonders why, after years of trying earnestly, these teams have never made it to the FIFA World Cup. It is a sign of the rigorous competition on the African continent when one considers that the Egyptian Pharaohs last qualified for the event in 1990. As brilliant as Egypt are, it has taken them 28 years to qualify again for the World Cup. Morocco, another great footballing nation on the continent, last qualified in 1998.
Other great teams such as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have failed dismally to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia have graced the tournament on more than one occasion. However, the best results for the African continent are quarter-final placings for Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
It is really exciting that FIFA is looking into the possibility of fast-tracking the 48-team World Cup. Chances of Brazil, England, Germany or Spain being eliminated by Burkina Faso, Cape Verde or Zambia are real. That is why the traditional powerhouses and their backers are very much unsettled and wary of the idea of expanding the World Cup.
With regard to Southern Africa, one can only hope and pray that Zimbabwe can put its house in order in terms of football administration and leadership. The maladministration of the national football governing body of that country has caused serious problems for the development of the game. Zimbabwe has produced great players who can easily walk into any club in the world and perform. Sunday Chidzambwa, Bruce Grobelaar, Moses Chunga, the Ndlovu brothers, Madinda, Adam and Peter, Mercedes “Rambo” Sibanda, the Mugeyi twin brothers, Wilfred and William and Benjani Mwaruwari are just examples of the great potential the country is endowed with. The passion for the game in the country is unique, but there are no tangible development programmes to continuously unearth talent like what happens in other countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. While a good number of African countries can be proven to have developed, Zimbabwean football has been stagnant. If they were to benefit, somehow, from the 48-team World Cup, chances of them making a meaningful impact are next to zero because of the current and temporary dearth of extremely talented players.
At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Costa Rica did not need much encouragement and incentive to dump the famous English and Italian teams out of the World Cup. Their performances were like a breath of fresh air, full of energy, creativity and innovation compared to the dull chess-like matches of the traditional heavyweights characterized by too much caution and defence. In most cases, the traditional heavyweights just limp into the semi-finals or final without any entertainment value. Cape Verde in Africa, is the equivalent of Costa Rica, playing fast flowing and entertaining football. Cape Verde, with just a population of just over half a million people, have made it a habit of embarrassing the traditional football powerhouses of African football.
Increasing the number of slots at the finals brings a lot of diverse footballing strategies and types of play, which increases the entertainment value of the event. Of course, others might be hammered heavily, resulting in rugby score-lines. However, that is exactly how people learn. Adversity teaches a lot of valuable lessons. When it comes to Africa, there are a quite a number of teams who have shown good potential and need to be thrown into the deep end to sink or swim. The gradual increase of African countries at the World Cup to the current five does not match the contribution that Africans or players of African descent have made to world football. Sadly, it is now too late for His Excellency, the President of Liberia, George Weah, to play in the FIFA World Cup!
At this juncture, in organisational terms, a 48-team World Cup might pose serious challenges for 2022 hosts, Qatar, but a solution should and will be found by FIFA and the hosts. This might mean other nations in the region chipping in and hosting some of the early group matches. Southern African football needs to be prepared to grab with both hands, the big opportunity presented by the increase of teams in the FIFA World Cup.