In 1974 the Football World Cup in West Germany had 16 teams. Three of them were minnows who were out of their depth. Zaire scored no goals in three games and lost 14, including a 9-0 defeat by Yugoslavia. Their performance was used to ridicule black African football for years to come (they were the first black African team to play at the Football World Cup). Haiti broke Italy’s sequence of 13 internationals without conceding a goal but still lost their three games scoring 2 goals and conceding 14, including a 7-0 defeat by Poland. While although Australia only conceded five goals and gained a point they failed to score.
While those teams were out of their depth traditional football powers like England, Spain, France, the Soviet Union and Uruguay did not qualify. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous that the three minnows were there when the big countries mentioned above were not. UK football journalist Brian Glanville called Zaire “an African team with little right to be there at all”. People called for Africa, Asia and North America to lose their guaranteed places in the Football World Cup.
To FIFA’s credit (this is 1974 remember!) they did not remove the Afro-Asians guaranteed World Cup places. FIFA were well aware if football was to go global it had to allow African and Asian teams access to the World Cup. And only sixteen years later a black African country Cameroon got to the quarter finals of the World Cup and but for two Gary Lineker penalties would have got to the Semi Finals and embarrassed England. It is fair to say that if FIFA had over reacted to the mismatches of 1974 football might have remained a European/South American sport and Major League Soccer in the US would not exist nor would the African players who grace the elite male Leagues of Europe (including of course Riyad Mahrez star of Leicester’s amazing season and surely a dead cert to be England’s Footballer of the Year).
Now to another sport. In 2007 the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean had 16 teams. And again some were out of their depth. Bermuda lost games by 257 and 243 runs, while Holland lost games by 229 and 221 runs. But unlike the 1974 Football World Cup there were upsets. On one day – March 17 – there were two sensational upsets when Bangladesh and Ireland defeated and eliminated India and Pakistan respectively. And were those triumphs celebrated? No. Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2008 (page 1015) said that “the untimely departure of the two subcontinental giants robbed the tournament of several luminaries”. Well so what? Sport is all about giant killings – which is why Leicester are getting so much support. No one has a divine right to win. Incredibly the minnows in cricket got criticised both for being hammered and for causing upsets. Matthew Engel in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2007 (page 18) called the expansion of cricket an “outright menace”. That remark was cricket’s equivalent of the Glanville remark mentioned above and should have got the UK press banned from any sports event held outside of the UK. How in the hell can it be a menace to have more countries playing a sport?
But unfortunately the International Cricket Council (ICC) unlike FIFA back in 1974 over reacted. The next two Cricket World Cups (2011 and 2015) were cut to fourteen teams and the 2019 one will be cut to ten. Incredible. Most other sports are expanding, cricket is going the other way. Cricket has a dreadful image problem. It’s reputation is that it is snobbish and elitist and out of touch with the real world – a sort of sporting equivalent of the UK Conservative Party. Cutting the number of teams in the World Cup does nothing to de toxify the sport. If anything it makes the reputation appear true.
Nor does the Twenty Twenty World Cup – currently being played in India – treat the minnows any better. In theory there are sixteen teams but in practice there are only ten. The big eight get a bye and the other eight teams have to fight for two places in an event that is a qualifying round in everything but name. But six of those eight had to qualify to get to India. In theory they qualify for the World Cup but in practice they qualified for another qualifying round while the big countries were actually playing warm up games during the Qualifying Round – showing arrogant contempt for the minnows.
The World Twenty Twenty really should be split into four groups of four with the top two in each group going into either knockout quarter finals or two further groups of four either way would produce the semi finalists. The ICC won’t do this for fear of either producing mismatches or having big teams knocked out. Yet mismatches are a short term price to pay for the longer term goal of expanding the sport while giant killing is part of sport. England, Italy and Spain all exited the 2014 men’s football World Cup early and the event did not suffer. No team or player should be bigger than the sport.
Cricket likes to think of itself as a model of fair play. Well it is time for the sport to practice what it preaches. It is time for fair play for cricket’s minnows. For contracting the World Cup is anything but fair.