I feel sorry for Americans who tuned into the World Cup to watch soccer for the first time in their lives during the past week. Yes, there have been a couple of exciting matches. But by and large, the soccer has been pedestrian and disjointed. With 32 teams in the tournament, there is a huge gap in ability between the best and worst -- and we can fix that.
The World Cup started out in the 1930s with the object of having 16 teams travel from the Americas and Europe to compete in a short tournament. As soccer's popularity grew, so did the Cup. It expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and then to 32 teams in 1998. Over the same period, the Cup became much more international; Africa wasn't included in the early days, and now it commands five of the 32 spots. Asian football has progressed, too, as demonstrated by Japan's victory over Cameroon last Monday.
Despite these improvements, the expansion of the tournament has watered down the quality of the soccer to a considerable degree. Because of idiosyncrasies in the geographical quotas and the playoffs through which teams qualify for the main event, quite a few low-caliber squads have somehow made it to South Africa. For example, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) ranks North Korea 105th out of 207 teams from around the world, and New Zealand is 78th. (The hosts, South Africa, qualified automatically despite languishing at number 83.)
This dilution of talent has led to some appallingly poor matches. Algeria versus Slovenia and France versus Uruguay offered some of the most mind-numbing excuses for soccer I've seen in my life. And yet we could have avoided these travesties of sport. If we had reduced the World Cup field back down to 24 teams, only one of those squads, Algeria, would have made it to South Africa. In fact, taking out the eight teams that were last in line to qualify would also have removed Greece, Honduras, New Zealand, Nigeria, and North Korea, none of which seemed up to the task in the first round. All of them lost except New Zealand, which drew with Slovakia at the last minute and drew with Italy.
It would be easy to structure a 24-team tournament. We could have four groups of six teams playing a round robin, with the two top teams from each group going directly to the quarterfinals. This system would keep the fans of the 24 teams interested for longer, as each one would play at least five matches. The quality of the soccer would be higher, and so would the television revenue; the tournament would have 68 matches instead of 64. Moreover, because of its longer group stage, the new system would guarantee that the best teams moved on in the tournament.
Some of my fellow soccer commentators have responded to my idea by saying that having 32 teams expands the global market for soccer. I think that market is already pretty huge, and it's not likely to grow very much in places like Nigeria, Greece, and Honduras because of their participation in the final stages of the World Cup. In fact, the soccer market is probably growing most quickly in countries whose teams didn't even come close to qualifying for the final 32 -- countries like China, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
What would increase the global market for soccer -- especially in the United States -- would be matches where the incredible talents of the world's best players were on display in suspenseful games of non-stop action. That's why we need a 24-team tournament again.
Follow Daniel Altman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tryargovino