Does competitive 2018 World Cup strengthen case for expansion?

Germany's Niklas Suele, left, is dejected as South Korea's Son Heung-min, right, celebrates after the group F match between South Korea and Germany, at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (Frank Augstein/AP)

When we look back at the 2018 World Cup, many will instantly recall the lack of 0-0 draws (just one in 64 matches) and the endless drama.

Germany out in the group stage after losses to Mexico and South Korea. Russia knocking off Spain. Japan nearly eliminating eventual semifinalists Belgium. Croatia reaching their first-ever World Cup final. From start to finish, there was always an unexpected plot twist.

Yes, there were also teams like Panama, who were clearly not up to the standard of the rest of the field. However, the players are hoping their historic qualification will serve as motivation for the next generation.

That is why the case for World Cup expansion, set for the 2026 tournament in North America, has been bolstered following this summer’s tournament.

The endless resources in the world game, technological advances, tactical revolutions and improved coaching factored in a few upsets. The small sample size of a tournament also leads to shock results, although 2018 produced more than usual.

However, this may not be an anomaly. It might signal a future trend, which bodes well for countries outside of the elite.

Regularly qualifying for the World Cup has helped Iran, for example. Twelve European-based players were on their 2018 roster, compared to just six from the 2014 squad. Despite drawing a tougher group in this tournament, they still drew with Portugal and troubled Spain throughout that match, particularly in the second half.

The World Cup is a brilliant opportunity for these countries to be showcased. European clubs take notice, a player moves to a club in the Netherlands or Greece, earns regular minutes, develops, then maybe he ends up in a top-five league.

Japan is another team that has experienced tremendous growth thanks to World Cup participation. The country had little soccer history before their first appearance in 1998. They haven’t missed a tournament since.

Tom Byer, an American-born coach who runs youth clinics in Japan, wrote a book called “Football Starts at Home” that preaches the importance of learning the basics as a young child, specifically ball control and dribbling. It has paid dividends for the Japanese game, as has regular World Cup participation.

Now Takashi Inui, a regular starter at the World Cup, will be playing in the Europa League with Real Betis. Midfielder Gaku Shibasaki just moved to Getafe in La Liga last year and will surely be linked to a few marquee clubs soon.

Even Peru, a country that is crazy for the sport, has implemented new plans to improve youth development and is opening its own national training complex. Reaching its first World Cup in 36 years has also lifted the spirits of the people, who were once incredibly negative towards the national team. The players themselves are already raring to qualify for 2022.

The quality of a 48-team World Cup may suffer at first, but if the federations of these newcomers invest in the sporting side, like in Japan and Peru, then it helps these countries improve.

Simply glance at any club in Europe and there will be a mix of nationalities, from South Korean to American. That’s because as these nations enhance their development and the domestic leagues’ academies continually produce quality players, the more enticing they will be to European suitors. The best method of improvement is to play with the elite, and that is where the best in the world ply their trade.

If Canada is granted automatic qualification for the 2026 World Cup, imagine the impact it will have on this country’s children. Young boys and girls will see a Canadian – wearing the red shirt with a maple leaf – on the world stage against Argentina or Spain and will be motivated by that image.

Some of the French players idolized the 1998 World Cup-winning squad. Now, 20 years later, they are world champions as well.

Soccer is the world’s game. It’s nice to see the best compete against one another, but sometimes unpredictability is fun, as we all experienced this summer.

Inclusion not only leads to more drama, but it can also have widespread influence in helping other countries become more established soccer-playing nations.

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