When you play the FIFA18 World Cup game on Playstation4 (or Xbox, depending on which category of game-freaks you belong to), ace commentator Martin Tyler is programmed to say one thing over and over again. “I think we can easily say this World Cup month grips people all over the world, and even the non-sports ‘fans’.”
So, here’s an obvious assumption. Whether you are living in India, or elsewhere in the world, you are indeed watching the FIFA World Cup, currently on in Russia. The question to ask here then is: when did this football World Cup actually begin for you?
Did it begin with the first heavyweights’ game between Portugal and Spain? For most football fanatics, it began with the kick-off between Russia (ranked 70) and Saudi Arabia (ranked 67). Cynics put it down as ‘arguably the worst first game of the tournament in recent memory’ simply because they are among two of the lowest-ranked teams at present.
Despite a bonkers first round of the tournament, wherein Iran led their group ahead of Spain and Portugal while Germany lost and Brazil and Argentina dropped points, the theme on social media this past week has been one of debate. There are those who question the wisdom of a 32-team tournament. ‘Why are the likes of Netherlands and Italy sitting at home when Saudi Arabia or Panama are playing?’
The answer is simple. It is a World Cup. By definition, it defines the coming together of participants from across the globe, bringing in different cultures and playing strategies with them, to put forth a brilliant showcase of football. There is a stringent qualification process, with each continent having a certain number of spots up for grabs. The Netherlands and Italy didn’t make the cut, while Saudi Arabia and Panama did, on merit, coming through the ranks. Yes, there is an obvious disparity in quality, but will a 16-team competition (or one with fewer but only top teams) be a proper representation of the footballing world wherein there are 206 ranked teams?
No, is the vehement answer. Let it be said here that FIFA has done plenty wrong in the last few decades. But to hold a 32-team World Cup consistently has been their best decision. Starting in 1930, the FIFA World Cup stayed at 16 teams before progressing to a 24-team competition in 1982, and then 32 teams in 1998. Why, this tournament is all set to expand further to 48 teams from the 2026 edition. This is what you call progression of a truly global sport.
This brings us to cricket, and the other debate about the other World Cup — yes, the ten-team one to be played in England in 2019. Over the last three weeks or so, this discussion has cropped up time and again — when Scotland beat England by six runs after scoring 371/5 in a one-off ODI, when India smacked Test debutants Afghanistan within two days, and when former Indian skipper Sunil Gavaskar batted for the 10-team tournament.
Football is blessed to have just the one format, and cricket’s biggest problems — whether scheduling or indeed streamlining the international sport — stem from the fact that it has three vastly differently paced formats. As such, the Afghanistan issue is really apples and oranges, or in other words, totally moot.
Just because they got beaten in five sessions — even when two hours were lost to rain — doesn’t mean they are not a force to be reckoned with in white-ball cricket. The mere fact that more and more Afghanistan cricketers are being employed in various T20 leagues across the world stresses this point even further.
It is their skill with white-ball cricket that Afghanistan could entertain lofty ambitions of Test cricket, even if there is a huge gap to be bridged over time. But that is a different debate.
For now, like Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Iran and Panama in the FIFA World Cup, Afghanistan came through a proper qualification process to qualify for the ODI World Cup. They did well enough as an ‘Associate’ team to come into reckoning and then came back from the brink in Zimbabwe (in March) to win the ICC Qualifiers. Hell, they beat two-time champions West Indies in doing so.
In that light, Gavaskar’s words have perhaps been taken a bit out of context. “The point here is simple that if Ireland and Scotland, from where most of the noise comes about the number of teams for next year's World Cup, were not good enough to qualify in an associate members event then how can they even think in terms of playing with the big boys in the World Cup? It's like subcontinent teams asking to be included in the football World Cup.”
First and foremost, the analogy isn’t applicable. Sub-continental teams do get a chance to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. For example, India did take part in the 2018 qualification process, but the three-tiered route for four-and-a-half spots is so tough that they didn’t make it past the second stage. The underlying point here is of inclusion — low-ranked football teams like India did get a chance but the qualification is so rigorous that none without enough quality can make it through.
This debate about the ten-team World Cup then takes a different turn. Did teams like Ireland and Scotland get a chance to qualify? Yes. However, is the process fair or rigorous enough and were there enough spots up for grabs? No.
From 2011 and 2015 ODI World Cups, the 2019 tournament has been condensed to 10 teams and that means four spots have been clearly taken away. It is the very crux of the matter. Add the two-lowest sides in the ODI rankings for the qualification process, and the World Cup pie is further shared between at least four teams that ought to be making the cut.
The argument that these teams register only one-off wins in World Cups (or otherwise) doesn’t hold water, either. Until India won the 1983 World Cup, they had one win in six matches in 1975 and 1979 (Gavaskar was a part of those teams). Imagine, if India had been excluded from the 1983 event on this basis, and never got to change its cricketing destiny.
The bottom-line, as such, here is this. No one, as Scotland skipper Kyle Coetzer tweeted, is complaining about the qualification process to the England event next year. It is just the lack of opportunity for the lower-end teams in 2019 that everyone is angry about.
Perhaps cricket, unlike football, isn’t really a global sport. To borrow from Tyler then, the ODI ‘World Cup’ won’t grip people all over the world in 2019, least of all in Ireland, Scotland and Zimbabwe.