In 1930, Jules Rimet, the creator of the Football World Cup, crossed the Atlantic in a steamship to attend the inaugural competition in Uruguay. In his bag he carried a small trophy, the World Cup; in his heart he carried the belief that the World Cup could unite nations and smooth nationalism. ‘Men will be able to meet in confidence without hatred in their hearts and without an insult on their lips,’ he declared.
Rimet would have been horrified by what the World Cup has become. A tournament that has funded the endemic corruption and racketeering within Fifa exposed by the FBI. A tournament whose dubious hosts — Russia this year and Qatar in 2022 — allegedly won the right through bribery; of the 22 members of Fifa’s executive committee who awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar, ten have subsequently been banned for corruption. And a tournament that has literally killed people — the immigrant workers who perished while building World Cup stadiums in Qatar.
Yet he would also be awed at how his concept has been turned into one of the world’s greatest spectacles: an event which, for a month, can make the mundanities of day-to-day life or geopolitical summits irrelevant set against a football competition.
For many years after it was conceived the World Cup was run like a snooty Victorian club. This was a World Cup for those who thought only two continents, Europe and South America, mattered. From 1934 to 1970, no African nations took part. Europe even provided nearly all the referees.
Then, the rest of the world had its revenge. In 1974, Stanley Rous, a bespectacled Englishman who had wanted apartheid South Africa to remain in Fifa, ran for re-election as Fifa president. ‘We want Europe to retain the leadership of football,’ Rous told officials before the vote. But he lost easily to João Havelange, a Brazilian who vowed to open football up to the world.
The years since have been marked by skulduggery but they have also turned a European and South American sport into one that is almost universal. So far this century, football’s worldwide popularity has grown, not just in absolute terms, but relative to other sports, according to viewing data from the consultancy Futures Sport.
The instinctive reaction, perhaps, is to credit this growth to the beauty of football alone. Yet football has globalised not in spite of Fifa, but largely because of it. A series of choices that Fifa has taken — often born of self-interest and greed — has galvanised the sport across the world.
Havelange was elected and then re-elected five times, after pledging to distribute more of Fifa’s cash to Asia and Africa, create an U-20 World Cup to help young players develop and, most importantly, to expand the World Cup. Later, he promised to create an U-17 World Cup and increase the size of the World Cup again. If the desire to win re-election drove him to deliver on these promises — he remained president for 24 years, and reportedly received $1 million a year in expenses from the 1980s — he still shook off the sport’s elitism and geographical exclusiveness. It later emerged that Havelange was spectacularly corrupt, too. He remains the perfect embodiment of the new Fifa: driven by gluttony and yet taking decisions that accelerated football’s global growth.
In 1978, the last World Cup to feature only 16 teams, the 85 per cent of the world living outside Europe and South America shared only three places between them. At this year’s World Cup, there are 13 nations from beyond Europe and South America. When the World Cup is expanded, once again, to 48 teams from 2026, there will be either 25 or 26 berths for the rest of the world: the first World Cup without a majority from Europe and South America.
All the while Fifa itself has grown, endlessly looking for new members. These countries receive financial support and, through playing in qualification tournaments, gain the chance to improve against the best teams, even if they never come close to making the World Cup.
Today, there are 211 members of Fifa, but only 193 of the UN. And while the UN is beholden to the five Security Council members, Fifa is a democracy in which every country has an equal say. The same structure, of one member, one vote, that has facilitated corruption has also helped the game globalise at a quicker rate than any other sport.
The day before the 2018 World Cup began, the 68th Fifa Congress met to determine who would host the 2026 World Cup. North America’s joint bid won. The reason was simple: they promised an $11 billion profit for Fifa, twice what the 2018 World Cup will bring. That could mean $50 million for each member association. ‘That has to sink in,’ the US soccer president said before the vote. It did. Rimet would not have approved of the politicking but he would have approved of all the new pitches, academies and coaches that members can fund.
There are many arguments against the expansion to 48 teams: it will significantly reduce the quality in the group stages, reduce sporting integrity (as there are three teams in each group, the chances of collusion are much greater) and it is driven by greed. But while every time the World Cup expands it is derided as debasing the competition, the actual tournament becomes only more popular, as more countries become more besotted with the game.
With hindsight, what Fifa has done seems obvious. But consider sports like rugby and, especially, cricket, which have stuck to a governing structure as elitist as in Stanley Rous’s days. Those who lament the 48-team World Cup should consider what is worse: expanding a World Cup because of greed or reducing it because of greed. The majority of the International Cricket Council’s members oppose the decision to cut their World Cup to ten teams but it doesn’t matter, because the biggest members, such as England, support it, and the smallest members are voiceless. This could never happen in Fifa, whose governance structure means that a commitment to expansionism runs through its core.
Dreams of the World Cup leading to a world ‘without hatred’ died long ago. But Rimet’s other hope — that the World Cup would become so popular it would become a universal language — has been realised.
This is the paradox of Fifa. An organisation with corruption and cronyism wired into its core has simultaneously been a shining light when it comes to the most fundamental role of any sports governing body: to grow their game.