John Riordan: Mexican waive? Co-hosts will be there but 48-team World Cup is overkill

Fifa plan to make the tournament even more bloated at the 2026 renewal. 
John Riordan: Mexican waive? Co-hosts will be there but 48-team World Cup is overkill

EL TRI: Mexico fans in the stands before the match at the Lusail Stadium. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

If you're Mexican and living in Cork, you're probably a member of the “MexiCork 2022” WhatsApp group. There are over 200 of you.

My brother-in-law and his Rebel County-dwelling compatriots enjoy this brilliant and necessary resource while navigating life so far from home. I love the group's name but also the fact that the pocket of Mexicans calling Cork home is simultaneously significant enough while also adequately tight to yield one large text group.

Of course, the vast majority of Mexicans who choose to leave home or are forced to leave home will end up in the US and have done so since before America was voraciously expanding and annexing Texas and California away from their southern neighbours in the 1800s. Mexicans and people of Mexican heritage make the country I live in better and it's really as simple as that. As do the good people of "MexiCork 2022" for Ireland. They've endured a tough week and my sister kept the rest of us up to speed on the meltdowns unfurling in real time.

Like so many online Mexican communities and social networks across the diaspora and of course back home in the motherland, the mounting stress and incredulity that greeted Group C's climactic showdown with Saudi Arabia and the dual threat of what was happening over at Argentina v Poland made for frenzied communications that probably sent servers soaring to their limits.

When Mexico's Edson Álvarez needlessly received a yellow card after just 16 minutes, Mexican Twitter erupted in dismay. The portent of doom was sharper for them than it was for the rest of us neutrals who were desperately trying to keep up on two screens. They knew long before us that even one yellow card was an irreversible move in the wrong direction as the prospect of fair play points deciding their fate loomed large.

It didn't come to that but it shaped how both second halves played out and the end result was as cataclysmic a failure as can be thought of in modern Mexican football. This is the first time since 1978 that Mexico failed to get out of the group stages; eight World Cups in a row of being semi-reliable dark horses, causing headaches in the knockout rounds.

And to make matters worse, players, coaches and fans will be back home watching (or more likely ignoring) their less accomplished, more inexperienced rivals north of the border enter the Round of 16 on Saturday as one of the least likely darlings of this World Cup.

Tuesday's scrappy and tense 1-0 win over Iran was good for the soul, no matter what you think of the United States. Despite being drawn in one of the weakest groups, the passage through was not straightforward, especially after they threw it away in the opener against Wales.

They made it tough for England - as most teams tend to do - but there wasn't too much in the way of confidence ahead of the Iranian decider.

The obvious geopolitical tensions going into the game were momentarily exasperated during Monday's combative press conference which pitted popular captain Tyler Adams and his team's coach Gregg Berhalter against Iranian journalists.

Adams, like a worrying amount of Americans, tends to pronounce it “eye-ran” rather than “ee-rahn” and an Iranian state-owned PressTV representative took the opportunity to correct the Leeds United New Yorker before asking him about racism back home. Both valid points that Adams embraced in a masterclass of diplomacy, apologising for the mispronunciation before offering his perspective as an African-American who grew up in a white family.

“There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” he said. “In the US, we’re continuing to make progress every single day... through education, I think it’s super important. Like you just educated me now on the pronunciation of your country. It’s a process. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.” The US and Mexico are the big dogs in CONCACAF and they have tried to drum up a rivalry with each other over the last couple of decades. It's hampered slightly by the fact that Mexico generally prefers to look south for a real footballing rivalry. And it's probably not helped by the fact that they will be happy allies for the 2026 World Cup when they host alongside the much more relaxed neighbours to the north, Canada.

As badly as Mexico performed, Canada were almost as underwhelming but at least that was to be expected. My deadline for this column was before the 7pm kick-off in Group E but I'm going to hazard a guess that Germany saw off Costa Rica and removed the third of four CONCACAF teams.

This has been a shock-heavy World Cup but as lacklustre as the Dutch have been, the US are simply not on their level and by lunchtime Saturday in New York, it’s difficult to imagine that there will be any teams left from CONCACAF.

Just one game into the Round of 16 and the region rendered infamous by the actions of Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer and Jeffrey Webb should be fully exited and with them will go some of the odour of the process that brought the tournament to Qatar.

The opportunity to cleanse begins soon as preparations begin for the next Men’s World Cup. With Canada, Mexico and the US all automatically qualifying as hosts to the expanded 48-team drudgery that awaits us less than four years from now, there could be as many as four more countries from this region making their way in. Three teams will automatically qualify and one more will be set the task of an extra round of qualifying that will involve the other weak regions in a format that has yet to be confirmed.

I’m sailing close to (if not over) the line of unhealthy elitism here but I can’t countenance any other option than the World Cup being maxed out at 32 teams with the Round of 16 being as good as it can possibly be.

The basement of the 41 CONCACAF footballing federations make European minnows look like world beaters: the Cayman Islands, Saint Martin and their neighbours Sint Maarten, Turks and Caicos, both sets of Virgin Islands, US and British, and Anguilla.

Mercifully, the teams drawn out of these less populated and less resourced (in footballing terms) islands have very little chance of making it through to the main qualifying group which produces the ultimate representatives at the big show.

Based on those same rankings, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica and Haiti are currently primed to qualify in 2026. Great news for diversity of experience and expansion of the game, not to mention morale back home, particularly poignant in Haiti.

But if the threat of three-team groups and a Round of 32 is seen through in 2026, the opening round of games will be mostly avoidable or even unwatchable. As painful as Wednesday evening was for Mexico, I will greatly miss the drama of the simultaneous finales.

And it’s not just CONCACAF that will enjoy an uptick in representation. South America will have six or potentially seven, up from four in 2022 - one of which was the erratic Ecuador. The Oceania confederation will be guaranteed a slot for the very first time, and could potentially have two representatives. Africa will have nine or 10 slots, up from five in 2022, while Asia’s participation will increase from six to eight or nine.

The playoff tournament involving six teams will produce the final two teams in what is set to be an exciting event with one playoff team coming from each of the confederations except UEFA.

The very obvious counter argument to my snobbery is how well Japan and South Korea performed in 2002. Maybe the three 2026 hosts will benefit from the pride and healthy pressure of hosting and maybe Canada and Mexico can combine that with the chastening experience of their failure this time around.

No matter what happens against the Netherlands, Gregg Berhalter has all but assured his role as the man to lead the US - four years older and more experienced - into the next tilt at home in the States.

And for the "MexiCork 2022" WhatsApp group and the countless traumatised Mexican text groups around the world, there’s always the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer to begin the healing process.

@JohnWRiordan

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