WORLD CUP 2018

More drubbings yes, but it's not all bad

NIZHNY NOVGOROD • After nearly two weeks of World Cup play, one thing has become abundantly clear: The drop-off in quality is readily apparent once you move past the world's 15 or so best teams.

Through Sunday, seven teams had managed a single goal in two games. Four had yet to score, although Morocco and Saudi Arabia finally did in their third, and final, games on Monday. But the Saudis also gave up six goals in their first two games, including five in the World Cup opener.

Statistics like these - but also more nuanced metrics like possession time - have emboldened those opposed to expanding the Cup to 48 teams, which is set to happen for the 2026 World Cup in North America, and maybe even sooner.

Those critics of competitive imbalance got all the evidence they needed on Sunday when England thrashed Cup debutants Panama 6-1. It had Panama coach Hernan Gomez grasping for moral victories when it was mercifully over. He said: "We qualified (for the tournament). We have to celebrate that."

That is the strongest argument for expanding the World Cup from 32 teams: Inviting more teams gives those countries perpetually shut out at least a chance of one day joining football's biggest party.

Try telling a Panamanian that Felipe Baloy's late consolation goal - the country's first in the World Cup - was meaningless.

Still, the Panama massacre was one of a slew of games at this World Cup that involved teams that were completely overmatched, all of which makes the idea that this tournament is about to get 50 per cent larger - and go far deeper into the world rankings every four years - a troubling thought.

SOME GOOD CAN COME OUT OF IT

A World Cup shouldn't be a charity, but it is also more than a score line.

ALEXI LALAS , former US international, sees the positive side of expanding the World Cup to 48 teams.

Under Fifa's formula for a 48-team tournament, even more teams with little hope of success will be invited. Asia will get eight spots instead of 41/2; Africa nine spots instead of five... you get the idea. The current eighth-best Asian team is world No. 77 United Arab Emirates.

Expanding the World Cup field had been a priority for Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who wants to build excitement for the world's most-watched sporting event in more countries and grow revenues.

"Football is more than just Europe and South America. Football is global," he said last year, after the expansion was approved.

Those who support a 48-team field say the matter is more complicated than seeing a lopsided Panama-England score and concluding that more drubbings are on the way.

Alexi Lalas, the former American international and Fox Sports commentator, said he did not see how having, say, the United States, Chile, the Netherlands, Ghana and Italy - five teams that failed to qualify - in Russia would be detrimental to the tournament's quality.

"Look at the scenes after Panama scored against England," he wrote in an e-mail of the celebration in the stands when Panama got their first World Cup goal.

"A World Cup shouldn't be a charity, but it is also more than a score line. I also think that, faced with the possibility of a World Cup appearance, teams will actually be motivated to improve in an effort to put their best foot forward in front of the world."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'More drubbings yes, but it's not all bad'. Print Edition | Subscribe