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Australia must qualify for the World Cup - before FIFA ruin it

Soccer

Tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier at Adelaide Oval is the most crucial international ever played in South Australia, argues Paul Marcuccitti. Not least because after 2018 the prestige of the World Cup will never be the same.

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June is actually the best month of the year.

Because, leaving aside my preference for the colder seasons, it invariably means international soccer.

By that I mean country versus country, not meetings of billionaire behemoths – which can barely be called clubs these days – that happen to be based in different nations.

I know I’m in a minority. When European seasons (in which top clubs play up to 38 games in their domestic leagues alone) are interrupted for a fortnight to enable rare international matches, many fans moan.

(Oh, the pain of having Slovenia v England on the telly when your beloved Premier League club could have been playing Bournemouth!)

But give me the national teams, the unsponsored shirts and, in particular, the green and gold.

Sure, a few clubs are important to me; however, I cling to the idea that a meeting of nations is something greater, no matter how outdated it may be.

When my teenage self was glued to the 1990 World Cup finals, there was no doubt that international soccer was supreme.

But the changes rolling through Europe back then weren’t just political. The nineties would see UEFA rebadge the European Cup as the Champions League. It quickly became a misnomer as the competition was expanded to include clubs that weren’t domestic champions.

And those clubs were able to maximise TV money through more matches, which resulted from the format including round robin groups (the old European Cup had knockout rounds from beginning to end).

The twentieth century’s final decade also gave us the Bosman ruling which removed restrictions on footballers within the European Union.

Jean-Marc Bosman’s intent was to challenge the existing system which allowed a club to demand a transfer fee for a player when the player’s contract with that club had ended.

But an even bigger effect of the Bosman decision was that it meant that UEFA had to drop a rule in its club competitions which limited teams to three foreign players (as it compromised EU footballers’ freedom of movement).

The FIFA president, dreadfully, appears more likeable and progressive than his discredited predecessor but is, in practice, far worse

Shortly before the 2002 World Cup finals were played in Japan and South Korea, Real Madrid defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final. Of the 14 players that took the field for the winning team in that match, seven – including every midfielder used by Real that evening – weren’t Spaniards.

And for the first time, many observers were questioning the standing of the World Cup – and national teams generally – in light of the richest European clubs’ ability to hoard the game’s best talent through the combination of fewer restrictions in signing players and rapidly increasing revenue.

In case you were wondering, none of that bothers me. I can accept the realities that have elevated club competition while still preferring international matches and tournaments.

But the future of internationals might be even shakier. They are largely in the hands of a FIFA president who, dreadfully, appears more likeable and progressive than his discredited predecessor but is, in practice, far worse.

One of the things FIFA has managed to do is protect international matches and tournaments from clubs’ excesses.

While the power of the clubs rose, FIFA was maintaining an international calendar which continues to ensure that, at particular times, players must be allowed to represent their countries.

And one of those times is June. Wonderful June.

If Australia is going to play a part in June 2018, victory in tomorrow night’s Adelaide Oval match against Saudi Arabia is a must

In even numbered years, June gives us a World Cup or European Championship. In the odd numbered years it could be the Copa América or the Women’s World Cup that provides an international soccer fix.

And at the very least there will be World Cup qualifiers.

These next few weeks will give us both a Socceroos qualifier and the Confederations Cup (which will also feature Australia). Apparently we’re playing in a friendly soon too.

But if Australia is also going to play a part in June 2018, victory in tomorrow night’s Adelaide Oval match against Saudi Arabia is a must.

I won’t go through all the permutations and you may have seen them anyway. Let’s just leave it at this: to qualify for the World Cup finals, Australia must finish in the top two teams in its group; the Socceroos are three points behind both Japan and Saudi Arabia with three rounds to play; and a draw tomorrow will leave them three behind the Saudis and probably six behind Japan with two rounds to play.

That would leave the Socceroos needing a strong finish in their last two games, which include a tough trip to Japan, and other results to go their way.

A draw tomorrow makes a third-place finish the most likely scenario (a loss would almost certainly mean finishing no higher).

And let’s not kid ourselves about how tough the road to Russia would be from there: a sudden-death playoff against the team that finishes third in the other Asian group and then the winner of that faces the fourth-placed team in CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean) for one last shot at qualification.

It would be somewhat galling if we see the Socceroos at the Confederations Cup while World Cup qualification is in jeopardy.

Which would be a pity because, while it’s no World Cup, the Confederations Cup is another provider of international football in June.

And this time qualifying might be more important than ever.

The 2018 World Cup might also be the last one before the famous competition’s reputation among fans suffers blows that even the increasing power of clubs hasn’t delivered

Firstly, Australia has qualified for the last three editions (after a 32 year drought) and missing out for the first time since the 2002 tournament would revive the pain.

But, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the 2018 World Cup might also be the last one before the famous competition’s reputation among fans suffers blows that even the increasing power of clubs hasn’t delivered.

Australia’s Brad Smith and United Arab Emirates’ Ismail Al Hammadi during their Sydney World Cup qualifier in March. Photo: Dean Lewins / AAP

The decision to take the 2022 edition to Qatar – and the extreme heat in that part of the world in June – means that, for the first time in its history, the tournament won’t be played in the middle of the year.

Instead it will be in November/December, which might look like an interruption rather than the festival that is perfectly timed for the major European leagues’ off-season.

By 2026, the number of teams at the World Cup finals will have been increased from 32 to 48.

While it will offer welcome opportunities to countries outside of Europe and South America, the tournament’s format will be farcical: 16 three-team groups with the top two in each going into an elephantine 32-team knockout phase.

Each group will have just three games and one team must be inactive while the final match is played. That leaves the possibility of a result that might suit both teams playing the final game.

Another possibility is that all three matches in a group are drawn and penalty shootouts decide the finishing order. (Penalties are fine for knockout matches; using them throughout round robin groups will be ridiculous.)

Then when we get to the large knockout phase, unless it’s well seeded (something FIFA has struggled with in the past), meetings between competition favourites might take place in the early rounds. That might add some spice but it doesn’t do much for the competition’s integrity.

Only tournaments with eight, 16 or 32 teams work well, and that was shown once again in last year’s 24-team European Championship, which brought teams that finished third in four-team groups into the knockout rounds. One of those third-placed teams went on to win the tournament.

The Euros were increased from 16 to 24 teams for the same reason the World Cup finals are being increased to 48 – these decisions help soccer politicians win support from more national associations. Even the next Asian Cup finals will have 24 teams (also up from 16).

Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and these larger tournaments will be a hit, with more countries giving more people the chance to see their nations on the big stage.

But if they don’t look authentic, international soccer’s prestige – which is already under threat – might be lost.

I am nervous about the game against the Saudis and, as a fan, when your country is struggling to qualify for a tournament that’s exactly how it should be.

Because that tournament means something, because it’s elite, tomorrow’s match truly matters.

We’ve never seen such a crucial international played in Adelaide and, given the changes the next decade will bring us (never mind the rarity of these games being played outside the eastern states), who knows if we’ll ever see anything like it here again.

So don’t miss it. And come on Socceroos.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.

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