World Rugby’s countercurrent bet, which is the same as FIFA’s
Juan Antonio Belmar
May 2, 2024

World Rugby announced the expansion from 20 to 24 teams for the Rugby World Cup Australia 2027, an event that will last almost two months. This commitment to a long-running competition runs in the opposite direction to that of other elite world sports, which seek to shorten times, make them more dynamic for quick spectator consumption and, moreover, compete with other entertainment offerings that surpass our own imagination.

Rugby -and football in particular- are looking inwards and making relevant decisions that will mark the future of their sports by removing themselves from this new consumerist reality. They assume, legitimately, that they are activities with a large attendance and an exponential and infinite market, therefore, this power allows them to decide on their full or associated members, showing them unilaterally which is the path that corresponds to them.

When FIFA decided to increase from 32 to 48 slots for the 2026 World Cup, the football federations applauded their president Gianni Infantino, because according to FIFA “World Cup qualification is the most powerful element for the development of football in the country. And that’s why we have decided to increase to 48 teams, 22 percent of FIFA members, it’s not much,” he said. The question is: will a World Cup set the path for a country’s football development?

I think of those teams that are just developing, I imagine Brazil facing Moldova or Argentina, the current world champions, facing Barbados. I insist, the World Cup is not a platform to start the journey, but should be the achievement of that sustained work that will catapult them to climb and project themselves over time. Just one piece of information to complement this editorial: FIFA will collect around 6,000 million euros for different concepts with the 2026 World Cup, including television rights around the world. There is no other event on the planet capable of reaching this stratospheric sum, which is also distributed in part to the 211 football federations.

THE DISTRIBUTION OF SEATS IN WORLD RUGBY

Let’s go back to rugby, the debate was opened during this week because it was known the decision of the Executive Committee of World Rugby on the recommendation of the Office of Managent of the body, a criterion for the allocation of the 12 places to distribute for the tournament in Australia 2027, when it rises from 20 to 24 teams, the best 12 of the last World Cup in France qualify directly, that is, South Africa, New Zealand, England, Argentina, Ireland, France, Wales, Fiji, Scotland, Italy, Japan and Australia. And, the remaining 12 places or quotas were ordered as follows: 4 for Europe, 3 for the Pacific Nations Cup (Oceania and North America, excluding Fiji and Japan, already qualified), 1 for South America, 1 for Asia, 1 for Africa, 1 for a playoff between the second of South America and the fourth of the Pacific Nations Cup, 1 for a final playoff in which will participate; South America 3, Europe 5, the loser of the American playoff and the winner of a playoff between Asia 2-Africa 2.

Under this World Rugby order, voices were raised from South America, Europe and other regions that are part of the 114 full members and 18 associate members. South America openly says that Canada and the United States were favoured, the former because it is part of the Executive Committee and the latter because it will host Rugby World Rugby USA 2031, and because it has a better chance of qualifying, including the level of the teams competing in its regions.

If the questioning rests only on these two arguments, to anyone’s eye they are valid, but they are still discreet and the counterpart could argue something similar and do not represent in the end the spirit of this particular sport, such as fair play and respect for the opponent. Now, when I draw a parallel with football, we are back to the same discussion, perhaps with less impact than FIFA alone, but it is no less true that rugby is the second sport worldwide that attracts the largest number of people attending the stadiums or watching on television the planetary event.

FRANCE 96-0 NAMIBIA

The revenues for World Rugby are also sidereal, so it is not unthinkable to say that it follows in the footsteps of football. Development in rugby is a theoretical and, perhaps, a value issue, but to have a World Cup that lasts almost two months of competition is superhuman, to add more teams for the sole act of inclusion, that everyone has the same chances of access. It is not a solid argument for those who saw the France 96 – Namibia 0 match, that result does not represent evolution for Namibia, it definitely showed that they are light years away from competing with a power like France.

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But, sorry, Namibia qualified on the field, they have been part of this event for 7 World Cups in a row, their first experience was the 1999 World Cup in Wales. I ask myself again, is it Namibia’s fault to beat Kenya 36-0 and get the World Cup tickets? This African country is not responsible for the bad sporting distribution that exists in the world of rugby, the world map of this sport is poorly distributed, not only rests on the representativeness or equality to compete, because with some of their peers in the region can dispute hand to hand the oval, but when it crosses the border we realize that it is not up to play as equals.

THE CASE OF SPAIN

Spain has to fight and dispute its possibilities with world elite powers, today it is in Tier 2 of the World Rugby Ranking, it is in the fifteenth place ahead of other powerful European teams such as Romania and Portugal, its most important achievement to date has been to qualify and compete in the 1999 World Cup in Wales, the same where Namibia began its journey uninterruptedly until today.

Quantity does not mean quality or excellence, FIFA and World Rugby, in their metaphorical language, believe in equal competition, where everyone has the same access, not necessarily the same conditions or possibilities.

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