World Cup expansion comes too late to save Italy

ZURICH, (Reuters) – Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years showed that soccer still has a unique knack for toppling the mighty, although such upsets are far more likely in the international game.

The club game, on the other hand, is increasingly the preserve of a affluent few — as shown by further titles for Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Juventus.

Four-times world champions Italy, last absent from the finals in 1958, were beaten 1-0 on aggregate by Sweden in a two-leg playoff, their fate being sealed by a goalless draw on a surreal November night at San Siro.

The United States, South American champions Chile and three-times runners-up the Netherlands will join Italy on the sidelines as will Cameroon, winners of the African Nations Cup in Gabon at the start of the year.

Argentina also came perilously close to missing out on next year’s tournament in Russia after an indifferent campaign in which three different coaches occupied the hot seat.

Lionel Messi came to the rescue, scoring a hat-trick at 2,800 metres above sea level as they squeezed home with a 3-1 win away to Ecuador in very last of their 18 games.

The chances of the traditional powers missing out will diminish greatly from 2026 onwards after global soccer body FIFA voted last January to increase the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.

The new-look tournament will also feature an unwieldy opening phase with 16 groups of three, from which the top two in each will proceed to a round of 32. FIFA president Gianni Infantino said it would give more smaller nations the chance to “dream” of a place at the finals.

Iceland and Panama needed no such help as they qualified for their first-ever World Cups while Peru made it for the first time in 36 years – an eternity in the soccer-mad country which twice reached the final eight in the 1970s.

FIFA continued to push hard for the introduction of video replays (VAR) despite some chaotic scenes at the Confederations Cup in Russia and in both Serie A and the Bundesliga where it is being used on a trial basis.

National team football is often criticised for lacking the quality of the club game and England fans were reduced to throwing paper planes around Wembley during a dull 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Slovenia.

Yet, it remains a purer form of the sport where success cannot be bought — unlike the club football which is increasingly dominated by a handful of wealthy clubs.

Real Madrid won the Champions League for the third time in four seasons, beating Juventus in the final, and Zinedine Zidane’s side also won La Liga and the Club World Cup where they beat South American champions Gremio 1-0 in the final.

Juventus, meanwhile, won the Serie A for the sixth season in a row, while Bayern made it five consecutive Bundesliga titles and were well on course for a sixth by December, reflecting a worrying trend of one-horse races across Europe.

England’s Premier League, so often seen as the most open of the major leagues, joined the club as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City won 18 games on the trot to effectively seal the title race by the New Year.

Transfer fees continued to spiral and, after Brazilian forward Neymar’s record-shattering 222 million euros ($266.2 million) move from Barcelona to Paris St Germain in August, FIFA announced that it would set up a task force to review the entire system.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, meanwhile, said that restoring competitive balance was the game’s biggest challenge.

“How can we continue to develop football in Europe and avoid widening the huge gulf between the most powerful and the rest? That is the million-dollar question,” he said.

Former Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo and Brazilian Kaka, both World Cup winners, were among those to retire as did former Germany captain Philipp Lahm and Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso.

But the most poignant departure was AS Roma’s playmaker Francesco Totti who called it a day after a remarkable 25 seasons at his only club and the one he supported as a boy.

“Now it’s really over,” he said during an emotional speech to a packed Stadio Olimpico after his final game. “I take off my shirt for the last time and I fold it nicely; even though I’m not ready to do it yet, and maybe I never will be.”

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