Football: Danger of losing that rarity value

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The Independent Online
SO 16 go on and 16 go home. And, apart from Spain, how many prayers for the departed will there be? Indeed, it is difficult to see what most of the eliminated teams have brought to the banquet. The World Cup is in danger of becoming a bloated golden goose that could end up as foie gras.

Fifa's decision to expand the finals to 32 teams was designed to encourage the lesser nations in the game and provide more colour and excitement to what has become the world's biggest sporting event. All very laudable, and it may even have gone some way to achieving those aims as Paris in particular has - with the odd Anglo-Teutonic exception - thrived as a cosmopolitan centre with good- natured fans in replica shirts brightening up the city.

In reality, however, the whole exercise smacks of politics and economics. More and more outposts of the game get their month in the sun while the powers that be in world football can then rely on their votes when important issues are considered. Such is also the reason why referees from all over the world are recruited rather than simply the best. The finance of it all, meanwhile, is visible.

Games in the World Cup finals used to be big events that would be forever etched on people's minds. There was a rarity value to them that made them compulsive. Such is football these days - and the Premiership is in danger of going the same way - that some matches have become merely television wallpaper. Once upon a time we could and would watch all the first-round games. Now we are not too worried about missing the odd less significant one; moreover, they too often clash. The relentless nature of at least two games a day for 17 days has at times bred contempt rather than content.

The one thing to be said in favour of having 32 teams is that it is a good round number for a tournament, avoiding, as with the 24 of the United States four years ago, all the contorted permutations for the second round: how are the four best third-placed teams defined, and doeswinner A play the third-placed team in Group B, C or D?

That, though, is the least of the reasons why Fifa will persist with the number. At the same time, they should consider changes for the better. Otherwise, fans - and consequently the paymasters of television - may lose some interest.

It really should be that the 32 best in the world qualify for the finals if we are not to witness the sight again of teams well organised by coaches often foreign to the country but otherwise deficient in the skills of forward play that really matter.

Geographical considerations, in these days of fast air travel, are less relevant and it should not be beyond possibility to organise seeded qualifying groups that have more to do with merit than boundaries. The finals themselves cannot stand another round of mediocrity with quantity replacing quality.

Thus far France has largely handled this first 32-nation finals well, with its infrastructure of transport and accommodation admirably suited to the needs of the media age as well as the travelling fans. Mind you, it may come as some consolation to the latter to learn that ticketing arrangements for the press can be as chaotic and indiscriminate as they have so often been for them. Car parking passes are another story altogether.

In addition, there is an arrogance to the English always trotting out the assumption these days that they have the best stadiums in the world. France's 10 are the equal of most in the Premiership, and often more spectator-friendly, being refurbished completely rather than simply patched- up.

Mostly they have been full, too - unlike English grounds at Euro 96 - with enthusiastic home supporters; those who have not sold their tickets, that is, to visitors who have found it easier to get in than was anticipated with prices none too outlandish either.

All have, in fact, deserved better than some of the matches on offer to them and only Spain v Nigeria really stands out from the first round. Thank heavens, after two and a half weeks, that we have finally reached the real World Cup.

AN EVEN more dangerous idea. A Moroccan newspaper proclaimed their team "Champions of the Eliminated" after their last-gasp ousting by Norway. We will leave aside the Spanish and merely note that planting such a seed as a competition for first-round losers, like the old Wimbledon Plate, in the minds of Fifa could lead to even more matches than we have now.

IT WAS noticeable how the countries who sacked their managers after their first two games improved in the third. South Korea drew 1-1 with Belgium after ditching Cha Bum-Kun; Saudi Arabia drew 2-2 with South Africa after parting company with Carlos Alberto Parreira; and the Tunisians held Romania 1-1 after letting go Henry Kasperczak. It was a good job the FA didn't react in the same way.

FOOTBALL IS a simple game; you don't have to be Einstein to play it, unless you think you have scored, according to Sepp Blatter. Fifa's new president has asked the FA to investigate whether technology could be used to adjudicate on controversial goals. "We need a new Einstein to find the right solution," Blatter said. How about finding a new Wittgenstein? "I can see it's a goal."

NOT all the people of Toulouse were glad to see the back of the English last Monday. Several bars stayed open until the early hours and consequently quadrupled their usual takings as fortune favoured the brave. Furthermore at least one owner appeared content with the behaviour. "The English queue nicely for the toilet," he said, "Which is good because they order another beer while they are waiting. You give them beer and a toilet and they are happy."