Formatus Novus: FIFA and the Storm of Progress

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE CAMBRIDGE GLOBALIST ON JANUARY 14th 2017

The Storm of Progress

Theses on the Philosophy of History is an essay that appeared in early 1940 from the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin. It comprised twenty numbered paragraphs that Benjamin wrote shortly before he fled Vichy France where the French collaborationist government were handing over Jewish refugees like Benjamin to the Gestapo. Theses would prove to be his final work: shortly after he arrived in Spain, in September 1940, Benjamin committed suicide.

In spite of the untimely death of their author, the theses themselves remain remarkably prescient. As an example, the ninth thesis reads as follows:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

As Benjamin recognized all too well, the expansive readings of history that had dominated Western philosophy were about to be torn down by the machinations of the German Third Reich. Where Hegel and Marx, Comte and Mill had developed notions of history in which history itself had been bequeathed with an innate capacity for self-improvement, Benjamin adopted a more cynical approach: the Angelus Novus exists as a helpless creature, borne backwards on the winds of fate into the future, compelled to watch a past that is depicted as an endlessly compounded catastrophe. Historical progress then, at least as far as Benjamin viewed it, was not the gentle uphill roll of advancement that science had promised and Marx had hoped for. And as the horrors of Auschwitz unfolded, it became increasing difficult to disagree with him.

Vestigial Remainders

Nevertheless, here we are in the twenty-first century and still we find the vestiges of the old philosophies of progress. Including some in the most surprising of places. Take, for instance, the conclusion of Rory Smith’s recent article on FIFA’s decision to rejig the World Cup format for the 2026 tournament:

There is… a consensus that the time has come for another change, that the World Cup must start to reflect the world — both real and sporting — of the 21st century, not that of the late 20th. That is what the World Cup does: It expands and grows and blossoms and becomes something else. The World Cup has not existed as it is forever; nor should it expect to. There is nothing wrong with the current format. But sometimes, hard as it is to admit, FIFA is right to change.

The history of the World Cup, as Smith would have us believe, is one of glorious ‘expansion’, of ‘growth’ and ‘blossom’. Predominantly, this history of positive progression is argued through a gradual erosion of the ‘elitism’ of the international game: earlier on in the piece, he suggests that as ‘the alterations of the last 40 years have aimed to… address the longstanding imbalance between soccer’s traditional powers and its emerging nations.’ As such, the move by football’s governing body, FIFA, to extend the current 32-team format of the World Cup to a 48-team format is argued for along the lines of the march of progress that has purportedly ensued between the 20th and 21stcenturies. At this point, the narrative becomes confusing—however you decide to view the ‘world of the 21stcentury’, it can hardly be supposed to be much of an improvement on the previous century. (Not least when you look at the inauspicious history of FIFA itself. But this is a story for another day.) Smith’s argument, then, seems to be: progress is a good thing as far as the World Cup is concerned; therefore FIFA’s decision to expand it must be viewed positively; because even if, as he claims to be at pains to point out, FIFA is pushing a format change that benefits them to the tune of $1bn; the subsidiary benefit of ‘effective representation’ will occur organically.

The Elitist Argument against Elitism

Now FIFA’s President, Gianni Infantino, must be thankful to have a journalist at one of the world’s premier broadsheet newspapers defending him. For despite Rory Smith’s demand for modernization within one of the principal global sporting events in the calendar, he seems to be operating with an account of historical progress that is centuries out of date. Of course, it is true that the previous format changes in the World Cup—in 1982, when the 16 team format was extended to 24 teams, and in 1998, when 24 became 32—have generally been positive moves for the tournament as a whole. It is also true that these format changes have generally been badly received by the so-called ‘elite’ teams who feel threatened by such developments. However, it does not stand to reason, therefore, that any such expansions in format are good expansions. The question must be raised, then: will there be any benefit for future World Cups following FIFA’s call for a formatus novus?

First and foremost, Rory Smith sees this format change as encouraging ‘effective representation’ that promotes a ‘universalism’ that calls into question the ‘elitism’ of game’s international grandees. (In this manner, Smith places Infantino squarely in the tradition of João Havelange, the FIFA president who presided over previous expansions of the tournament.) The charge of ‘elitism’ levelled at a competition with the express aim of determining the preeminent football team in the world is a curious one. It is hard to see how the selection process for entrance into the tournament should proceed other than through some qualifying system which whittles the teams down to a manageable number. Increasing that final number is no more or less elitist so long as every country is eligible to qualify—which is the case. The expansion of places from 32 to 48 is not, therefore, solving a problem of elitism: it simply extends the qualification stages into the tournament itself.

Where elitism could creep in is in the allocation of spaces for the competition itself which has traditionally been divided across continental lines. There is certainly a bias towards European teams and a bias against South American, African and Asian teams as things stand. However, it is not entirely clear how the proposed format change would address these biases. Europe would gain an additional three spots to South America’s one and a half. Africa benefits the most going from four to nine. Asia, which the more cynical reader will note includes the huge markets of China and India, is likely to gain an increased allocation which almost doubles from 4.5 to 8.5. Viewed from the perspective of the international rankings, these additional four teams are not teams that are currently missing out on a World Cup place through the exigencies of the format: most probably Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, UAE, and China PR. On the other hand, in spite of an additional 1.5 teams added to the South American allocation, Ecuador would miss out on a World Cup spot as things stand. Ecuador are currently ranked 20th in the world—a full sixty-one places higher than China PR. Whilst this would certainly call into question the ‘elite’ status of the tournament, the only real example of elitism here seems to be the capacity for FIFA to extend their reach into the Asian and African markets.

What is a Format for?

With the proposed expansion to the format of the World Cup clearly not as anti-elitist as he claims, Rory Smith’s positive reading of the history of the World Cup is left with precious little evidence to support it. Of course, if the new format offered an improved organizational structure to previous years, then FIFA’s plans should be welcomed. However, Smith seems to give very little consideration to the notion of what function a format plays in the running of a tournament. For formats are not simply important insofar as they allow a set number of teams to play against one another to the point that one is declared an overall champion. Formats are also imperative to the overall spectacle of a competition. They are there to encourage fairness but also should be straight-forward enough that the audience can appreciate the manner in which they will unfold.

As a general rule, knock-out competitions are best suited to the rule of the squares of two: for a competition to whittle down to a final two it is best to begin with a number that is a square of two—4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc. Anything outside of this begins to become trickier. For example, the recent European Championships saw a move from 16 to 24 teams which led to a complicated qualification process in which a number of third-placed teams progressed in a group of four. This resulted in Portugal going through to the knock-out stages despite failing to win a single group game. The Copa America in 2016, on the other hand, moved from a 12-team format to a 16-team format—a move that was almost unanimously deemed a success.

The 48-team format proposed by FIFA for 2026 entails a similar problem, the solution to which is sixteen groups of three teams. Rory Smith does admit that ‘FIFA itself has acknowledged that having an odd number of teams in each group is less than ideal’. But he fails to expound on this lack of ideality. In a four-team group, matches can be played simultaneous between all the teams in that group. This prevents teams from being unfairly disadvantaged by breaks in fixtures and also prevents the sort of collusion that can occur in the final game of a group stage. (In an event in the 1982 World Cup that became known as the Disgrace of Gijón, West Germany scored early and defeated Austria 1-0 in a result which guaranteed both teams progressed.) In a three-team group, it is impossible to avoid either of these problems as one team will always benefit from a long break between fixtures and the final fixture of the group will always put the non-playing team at a disadvantage.

FIFA and the Angel of History

Between these two then—the incapacity of the proposed new format to the World Cup in 2026 to overcome either elitism or organizationally improve the tournament—it seems nigh impossible to replicate Rory Smith’s sanguine attitude to the historical development of the World Cup as a sporting phenomenon. Despite his thinly-veiled claim that it is ‘hard to admit that FIFA is right’, Smith seems to view the Angel of History as winging boldly forwards to FIFA’s advantage, heralding in a new age of World Cup success. Yet given the recent events in FIFA’s history it is looking increasingly like Smith should take a page out of Walter Benjamin’s reading of the progress of history. Then he might see the Angel of History being buffeted backwards by the winds of face, staring helpless into a past in which catastrophe begets catastrophe and driven onwards towards a future beyond her own control.

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