By Tim Wigmore
It could never have happened in cricket. Well it could of course. Indeed it did – twice – on March 17, 2007. On that same World Cup day, Ireland beat Pakistan, knocking them out in the opening round; Bangladesh beat India, too, setting up India for an ignominious first round exit of their own.
Sadly, we know what happened next. The Super Eight game in Barbados that was meant to be India-Pakistan was Ireland-Bangladesh instead. Broadcasting companies were aghast.
And so, because of emerging nations doing too well – those outside the top ten won nine games from the 2003-15 World Cups, with Ireland beating more Test nations across the last three tournaments than England – and fears that they would eliminate the sport’s heavyweights too soon, the size of the World Cup was cut, with the England & Wales Cricket Board especially aggressive in pushing for the cut to ten teams.
Some double-think attempted to claim that this was to make the World Cup more dynamic – except the 2019 World Cup will actually be two days longer than the 2015 tournament.
The 2019 World Cup manages to be both longer than 2015 and contain four fewer teams: quite the conjuring trick. That is because the format used a ten-team round robin format, which will mean the longest group stage in the history of any World Cup in any sport.
If the International Cricket Council – or, more accurately, the Full Members like England and India who have made the crucial decisions on the ICC’s executive board – ran football, then Germany’s early elimination would not be the cause for rejoicing about the increase in global depth and expanding the World Cup.
Instead, it would be the cause for reducing the World Cup.
Imagine a 10-team tournament, stretched out over seven interminable weeks, all designed to ensure that Germany, Brazil and England are guaranteed nine matches – even if they lose every single one. Sounds absurd doesn’t it? Replace Germany and Brazil with Australia and India and you have the 2019 Cricket World Cup format.
Germany’s plight in football shows that football’s World Cup is not just about inclusiveness – although, for all their faults, FIFA have done a brilliant job of this. No: it is also about excitement. Nearly every game in the football World Cup is exciting because they matter. A team only needs to lose two games in the group stage and, no matter how storied their history, they are gone. And then there are 15 games of knockout football, the lifeblood of the competition – when, in each game, the stakes are unimaginably high.
Contrast this with cricket’s lamentable World Cup when there are only three knockout games. Next summer, a country could well lose their first four games, be mathematically eliminated – and then have to play five more. This will make for unimaginably tedious viewing; it will also, incidentally, create exactly the sort of conditions beloved by match-fixers, with teams playing in matches in which they have nothing but pride at stake.
In the process, the dreams of young cricket players and fans all across the globe is being shattered – all so that cricket can be unique in cutting the size of its World Cup, and make extra lucre for England and India, who have already essentially hijacked the sport for their own ends.
In the last rugby World Cup, Japan toppled South Africa. This football World Cup, South Korea have eliminated Germany. Also in defiance of the sport’s traditional hierarchies, Croatia defeated Argentina, Iceland drew with Argentina, Switzerland drew with Brazil, Iran drew with Portugal, and Spain drew with Morocco.
There have been plenty of such stories in the cricket World Cup, of course: an Associate has beaten a Test nation in every World Cup since 1992. From Sri Lanka’s victory over India in 1979 to Zimbabwe beating Australia in 1983 to Kenya bowling the West Indies out for 93 in 1996 and reaching the 2003 semi-finals, and then Ireland’s magnificent wins over Pakistan in 2007, England in 2011 and the West Indies in 2015, great underdog triumphs have been at the heart of the World Cup.
Yet such stories are what the cricket World Cup, the most exclusive and elitist competition that still likes to masquerade as a global event – with fewer teams than the kabbadi World Cup – will now lack, and will be entirely dependent upon Afghanistan, who navigated the excruciatingly tough qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe, to provide.
But Scotland, Ireland, Zimbabwe and the UAE, who all would have made a 14-team World Cup, will sadly be absent. So will Nepal, whose population are far more enraptured by cricket than those in England and are rapidly improving; they would have made a 16-team World Cup – like that cricket had way back in 2007. And, had Ireland and Bangladesh not had the temerity to win when they were not supposed to, a 16-team tournament may well have become the norm.
In the short-term the football World Cup will probably lose some viewers because of Germany’s elimination.
But in the long-term it will win many millions more because it has an inclusive tournament in which all countries are welcome if they are good enough – and no one, no matter how much money they bring the sport, is immune to an early exit.
Football fans have seldom had much to be thankful to FIFA for. But all those who love the game, and want it to expand, will be grateful that those who make the crucial decisions on the sport’s governing body have actually taken decisions designed to help the game expand.