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Sunday, 4 November 2018

About that FIFA Club World Cup ...

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Football Confederation's new headquarters the other day, FIFA president Gianni Infantino reiterated plans to expand the Club World Cup. He said he wants to make it a "real competition" that "every club in the world can target".

Thank goodness it’s going to be a genuine World Cup for clubs and not, as some had suspected, a ‘let’s get all the big teams playing each other in the middle east and then rake in TV millions’ Cup. Mr Infantino is clearly looking after the interests of the global game and not just building strategic alliances by courting dodgy regimes with big barrels of cash; FIFA’s spotless reputation means that we can trust them to look after the best interests of the sport.

The claim that ‘every club in the world can target’ this new competition is, though, worth a little bit of scrutiny. In what meaningful sense can, say, Ayr United, Bolton Wanderers or Carshalton Athletic ‘target’ the Club World Cup? 

FIFA has 211 member countries; the big, traditional footballing nations have thousands of professional and semi-professional teams (if you want to make a whole morning disappear, go look up the number of teams and leagues in Brazil). Even a small country like Scotland has 276 registered professional and semi-professional teams; England has 480 affiliated divisions with more than 5,000 registered teams. It would not be unreasonable to estimate that, across FIFA’s member countries, there might be an average of, say, 750 professional or semi-professional clubs. If they can all legitimately ‘target’ (i.e. enter) this new competition, the Club World Cup could start with 158,250 entrants. How might that work? 

First, let’s address the question of whether games should be organised on a one-off ‘knockout’ format, or on a ‘home and away’ basis. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’ll be going with a straight knock-out format (to avoid the tournament becoming a tad unwieldy).

The observant reader will have noticed that an ‘all-in’ draw featuring 158,250 teams in a knock-out format will, at some point, throw up an odd number of surviving competitors. If all the teams went into the hat for the first round draw (it will have to be a big hat … maybe a barrel would be more appropriate. Or, now that I think about it, a skip; or rather, several skips), by round 5 we’d be left with 9,875 teams; put simply: odd numbers don’t work in cup competitions.   

My guess, therefore, is that FIFA will arrange a preliminary round in which the bottom-seeded 56,416 teams will play each other for the right to enter the full competition. Once that preliminary round has eliminated 28,808 minnows, the first round ‘proper’ will feature 129,792 teams playing 64,896 ties.  

There are one or two practical issues to consider.   

I estimate, based on extensive research (i.e. watching the draw for the quarter-finals of the League Cup on TV the other night), that it takes an average of 38 seconds to draw two numbered balls from a hat or barrel, or skip (or skips).  With 64,896 games to arrange, our first round draw will, therefore, take somewhere between 28 and 29 days to complete. 

I think FIFA should brand this draw as a month-long celebration of football administration. Factoring in time for commercial breaks, celebrity appearances and bringing on substitutes when people collapse from exhaustion, the draw would be a terrific televisual sporting event, a bit like the Super Bowl, but with less Beyonce.   

As a Scottish football fan, I’d love to see our smaller clubs get a chance to compete on the world stage. Imagine the tantalising prospects such a draw might deliver:

Inverurie Loco Works v Fótbóltsfelagið Giza

Whitehill Welfare v Jagiellonia Białystok

Esportiva Guaxupé v Newtongrange Star

(One of the downsides of that last tie would be that, since deregulation, the bus service between Newtongrange and Guaxupé has been shocking; this, combined with kick-off times designed to suit TV channels, might put off some Newtongrange fans from travelling to Brazil).   

Once the matches get underway, they’ll probably be spread over several days in order to maximise TV revenues; by scheduling around 1,000 games per day, the first round could be completed in two months. I won’t go into the logistics of rounds 2 to 14, save to say that by the time we get to round 4, the number of competing teams will have been reduced to 16,224; by round 7, we’d be pretty much down to the ‘elite’ level of 2,028 teams.

Only by round 12 will we have reached the magical number of 64 teams, proven by scientists to be the highest number that football fans easily understand (it’s a bit like the theory that birds can only count up to 5, which makes it OK to steal eggs from their nests if there are 6 or more in it. Or maybe they can count up to 6? Whatever).

If one or two of the smaller teams manage to benefit from kind draws and a bit of luck, there would be an outside chance of some mouth-watering quarter-final games. How about Real Madrid v South Normanton Athletic or Kakamega Homeboyz v Manchester City? The prosaic truth, though, is that the last eight will probably feature world football’s most popular ‘super clubs’, plus Bayern Munich.

With tight scheduling and round-the-clock fixtures, it should be just about possible to complete the entire event within a calendar year (remembering that the first month of each new year would be entirely devoted to making the draw for the first round). And yes, I’m aware that the preliminary round draw must always precede the first round. In a tight footballing calendar, it is therefore possible that we might have to play 28,208 preliminary round ties for ‘year two’ while the tournament for ‘year one’ is still running. Not ideal, I know, but it would at least help FIFA advance their strategic goal for the total football environment, i.e. televised football happening all the time. Everywhere.           

The final will probably be played in Riyadh or Doha on Christmas Eve, kicking off at 3.25am GMT.

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