While refereeing standards have been the subject of much debate at this World Cup, and some have decried the paucity of goals, the re-assertion of "Old Europe’s" footballing pre-eminence has escaped serious analysis.
These have been very disappointing finals for non-European nations. Not one team from outside Europe got past the quarter final stage of this tournament, and only six of 16 teams managed to qualify from the groups’ stages. When one considers that exactly half of the 32 teams that qualified for the World Cup were not from Europe, the results look even worse for the non-European nations.
At present, CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Carribean) is awarded three and half places, CONMEBOL (South America) receives four and half, CAF (Africa) receives four and half, AFC (Asia) four and a half, UEFA (Europe) receives 16 and OFC (Oceania) receives half a spot.
Much criticism has been levelled at FIFA over the present arrangements, with some arguing that the present division of places is designed to ensure that lucrative TV markets in North America and South-East Asia are well served. The result is better TV ratings, but a drop in the quality of the football played early in the tournament.
While some would say that the pre-eminence of European teams at this tournament proves that the places allotted to the various federations should be re-distributed, there are strong arguments to the contrary.
The counter-argument made is that FIFA’s job is to ensure the continued expansion of the game throughout the world. While the occasional team may qualify and then perform less than brilliantly, on the whole there is much to recommend the present arrangements.
Saudi Arabia, to take just one example, performed quite poorly at the World Cup in 2002, highlighted by a rampant German side scoring eight goals against them. At this World Cup, however, the Saudis have given a much better account of themselves; in the time between the two tournaments, the Saudi federation invested much money in both the domestic league, and in coaches for the national teams.
It could be argued that the approach FIFA has taken is in some ways similar to the approach the AFL has taken to developing its code of football in Australia. For years, the AFL gave a “helping hand” to the two teams in the “heathen” northern states: the result has been that the AFL has emerged as the pre-eminent code in Australia. No team from Victoria has won a premiership since the year 2000, and, particularly in Queensland, this form of football is now starting to take root.
As far as FIFA is concerned, nothing could be better for the round-ball game than for a team from Asia, Africa or North and Central America to win the World Cup. To this end, Japan and Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup, and South Africa is hosting the 2010 World Cup.
While is probably reasonable to argue that FIFA does have one eye on its pocketbook when it allocates places to the various federations, is this actually such a bad thing? FIFA is the international custodian of the game, and does have a responsibility to its members to grow interest in the game worldwide. To do this, it needs full coffers, and needs to look beyond the narrow self-interest of the European nations.
FIFA was widely derided for awarding the finals to the US in 1994, but the tournament was a success, and the world game has (finally) started to grow there, after a couple of false starts.
In the coming months, as European nations, and the European federation UEFA, point to the results in Germany 2006, they would do well to remember two things. The long-term pre-eminence of the sport rests on the world game continuing to be adopted by non-football nations, and on younger federations seeing that it is possible for them to actually participate on the games greatest stage.
Second, the Europeans would do well to remember that no European nation has ever won the trophy outside Europe. (Argentina and Brazil have both won outside South America, by way of comparison.) While the Europeans have performed well at this World Cup, it remains to be seen if these results can be reproduced in South Africa in 2010.