Messi and Ronaldo stay home? How to make sure all the best players go to the World Cup.

As qualifying wraps up this week, we’re staring at the very real possibility next year’s FIFA World Cup will be staged without Lionel Messi and/or Cristiano Ronaldo.

That the greatest competition in world sports, save possibly the Olympics, would fail to include the men most regard as the two greatest players alive (and certainly two of the greatest of all time), seems unthinkable. But it could absolutely happen.


The Situation

Messi and Argentina are in trouble.

Currently sitting in sixth place in South America’s CONMEBOL qualifying table, Argentina could yet finish fifth and secure a two-legged playoff against New Zealand with a draw in Quito if Peru lose to Colombia, but the 1978 and 1986 world champions are in no position to chance their luck by relying on the results of others, so they have to win to be sure.

Ecuador, eighth in the 10-team group, is a side Argentina should handle (not that “should” has mattered a whit in their campaign so far). Thing is, Quito is the highest capital in the world at 9,350 feet, an oxygen-free elevation that’s utterly hellish on visiting players not used to it. Which is to say, all of them. So this is a dicey test, to say the least.

If they get that fifth spot New Zealand should be a formality. Again, though, “should.” Football can be an odd game, and Argentina’s inability to play up to the level of its abilities (admittedly, against exceptional competition) has it in a predicament that’s uncomfortable, at best.

Ronaldo’s Portugal also find themselves in a bit of a spot. They play Switzerland in Group B tomorrow. If they prevail, they win the group and advance. Pretty straightforward, except that the Swiss are a perfect 9-0-0 in the group. Should Portugal draw or lose, they face a home-and-away playoff with one of the other runners-up, a group that might serve up Sweden, Italy, Denmark or Croatia. Not a cakewalk in the bunch.

The Implications

While the Messi/Ronaldo scenario is unprecedented due to their quality – between them they have won the last nine Ballon d’Or awards for best player in the world – the truth is world-class players miss out on the Copa all the time. In some cases their national sides get nudged out by fierce competition (especially in Europe). A quick look at the UEFA table as it stands today shows that, thanks to the fact Europe only gets 13 slots, several talented sides will be staying home. The list of at-risks includes nations like Sweden, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Serbia, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Iceland, Croatia and several more.

In other cases you have talented players who simply hail from smaller nations with weak programs. One of my favorites some years ago was Iceland’s Eiður Guðjohnsen. Iceland has emerged as a serious football enterprise in the last few years, but at the time Guðjohnsen acknowledged that he had to set his sights on club glory because he understood national success wasn’t in the cards. Guðjohnsen wasn’t an elite star like Messi or Ronaldo, but he was certainly quality enough to have deserved a shot at the Cup. If only he’d been born 1,000 miles to the southeast…

The Solution

FIFA’s move to expand the tournament to 48 teams beginning in 2026 will alleviate some of the problem. Under that system one imagines Portugal and Argentina are, at least, closer to safety than they are today. Still, since one the primary goals of the new process is to afford more slots to the less powerful regions, we can still still expect the Copa to leave any number of worthy players at home. I’m not just talking about Europe and South America, either. There are exceptional individual talents in most African nations, and MLS has provided a means for Central American and Caribbean players to hone their skills against much stronger competition than ever before.

So what if a slot were reserved for a team featuring players whose countries didn’t qualify? Team FIFA, Team World, Team UN. Make it charitable – Team UNICEF, Team Red Cross, Team Oxfam. 

To assure wide participation, you might institute a limit of two players per nation (or not – we can hack out the details later), but this idea would accomplish multiple goals.

  • First, as indicated above, it would assure that the world’s greatest tournament featured the world’s greatest players. All of them.
  • It would provide an opportunity for talented footballers from weak footballing nations a chance to compete on the biggest stage – something that may never happen for them with the present system.
  • It would widen the Cup’s appeal. Expanding to 48 teams means you’ll have 48 nations invested. Adding Team World means another 15-20 nations now have something to cheer for. Consider this year’s US qualifying. Unless disaster strikes, the Yanks will qualify for Russia, but our prospects were far from certain even a week ago. What if we had failed to qualify? Under a Team World system, American supporters would at least be able to cheer on Christian Pulisic, the kid who seems destined to be our greatest player ever. That would be a wonderful thing for everybody, having the world’s largest economy paying at least a little attention, don’t you think?
  • Finally, maybe there’s a global harmony angle. If Team World featured players from, say, the US, Iran, Syria, Slovenia, China, North Korea, Cuba, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Libya, Papua New Guinea… See where I’m going with this? For a few weeks nations that know little about each other, or maybe don’t like each other at all, would have cause to learn more, to interact, to bond, to pull together. You never know.

I’m sure there would be a variety of logistical hurdles, but I can’t see a downside, especially since FIFA clearly wants to be more inclusive.

And having your best players sitting at home? That’s not good for anyone.

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