As next summer’s World Cup in Brazil approaches, almost all of the 32 nations have qualified, with only a few positions remaining for countries in playoffs to be determined before the draw on December 6th, 2013.
Despite not being the hotbed of football that Europe and South America are, amidst all the chaos and intricacies of World Cup qualification, the confederation closest to home seems to have it all figured out.
World football’s governing body, FIFA, is broken down into six continental organizations: CAF (Africa), CONMEBOL (South America), CONCACAF (North and Central America and Caribbean), AFC (Asia), UEFA (Europe) and OFC (Oceania). Each confederation holds its on qualifiers for the World Cup, and each is allocated a different number of spots in the tournament of 32 nations based on the size of the confederation and the strength of the competition.
FIFA’s largest sub-organization, UEFA, has 53 official members, with 13 awarded qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Comparatively, CONCACAF has 35 countries, with 3 gaining automatic qualification, and a fourth awarded to the winner of a home-and-away matchup with Oceania’s top country, which will always be New Zealand, since Australia left for the AFC in 2006.
On November 13th or 14th, 2013, Mexico (CONCACAF) will host New Zealand (OFC) at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, with a return date set for November 20th, at the Wellington Regional Stadium. The winner on aggregate will be awarded a spot in next summer’s World Cup.
In 2011, when FIFA announced that CONCACAF would receive only 3 automatic qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, the organization decided to alter the qualification format. Instead of having every country under the confederation’s umbrella enter group play, as is UEFA’s current model, it was broken down into four rounds. In the first round, teams ranked 26-35 played to reduce the field to 30, where the second round featured six groups of four with teams ranked 7-25 and the five qualifiers from the previous round. The third round was divided into three groups of four, with countries ranked 1-6 facing off against the six qualifiers from the second round. While this all may seem mundane, if not utterly boring, what this method did was limit the number of qualifiers played and separated the CONCACAF minnows from the perennial powers like the U.S. and Mexico.
From these three groups, the top two from each advanced to the final round commonly known as The Hex. This year, the fourth round featured the eventual automatic qualifiers the U.S, Honduras and Costa Rica, with Mexico finishing a disappointing fourth narrowly beating out Panama. Jamaica finished sixth.
The brilliance behind the Hex lies in the fact that the U.S. didn’t once have to play a Montserrat or an Anguilla, saving the federation from potential scheduling nightmares and the players from injuries suffered at the hands of lesser, non-professional opponents.
On the other end of the spectrum is UEFA’s qualifying format, which features all 53 nations broken down into eight groups of six, with one group of five. The top country from each group qualifies automatically for the World Cup, with eight of the nine second-place sides facing off in seeded playoffs similar to the one between Mexico and New Zealand, except continentally.
The problem with this system is the exact thing that CONCACAF has eliminated: world-class sides facing far inferior ones in crucial matches. More so, many of these matches take place during the club season, potentially risking injury to top class professional players in matches against the likes of the Faroe Islands.
For example, the lowest ranked of UEFA’s 53 sides, San Marino (ranked 207th out of 207 recognized countries) was in Group H alongside England, Ukraine, Montenegro, Poland and Moldova. While England won the group and gained automatic qualification with 22 points, and the Ukraine finished second, qualifying for the playoffs, San Marino finished last with ten losses in ten matches. To make matters worse, in those ten losses, San Marino scored only a single goal, surrendering 54 to finish with a laughable goal differential of -53.
Along those lines - but not nearly as absurd - Liechtenstein finished bottom of Group G with two draws, eight losses and a goal differential of -21. The tiny postage stamp of a country Andorra posted ten losses and a goal differential of -30 in finishing last in Group D. Similarly, the Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Malta all stunk up the joint finishing last in their groups, playing world-class sides on pitches inferior to that of your high school.
In the same spirit that CONCACAF adopted the Hex, UEFA needs to revise their qualification format. Take the bottom two countries from each of the groups, and have them play a first round of qualifiers before introducing the heavies.* If a Cinderella is to emerge, than they’ll have the same opportunity to challenge the world-class nations as they would with the faulty format currently in place. Furthermore, fans of the sides might take more pride in scoring a few goals against a similarly ranked side versus getting their asses fed to them disguised as Cincinnati chili by foes in a group that features far superior nations.
Surely if a lowly internet commenter can devise a far superior format, then FIFA could themselves consider an alternative for qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
On second thought, considering the empty promises FIFA boss Sepp Blatter has made concerning curbing racism and homophobia in the game and improving the conditions faced by workers in Qatar and Russia, we’d have a better chance convincing a dog to clean up its own shit.
* An Application:
For the World Cup qualifiers for Russia 2018, instead of dropping the worst 2 from each group, let's drop the lowest 18 from the 53 that competed in 2014's qualifiers based on points with goal differential as a tiebreaker.
Albania (-2), Lithuania (-2) and Scotland (-4) all finish with 11 points like Moldova, but escape the drop by virtue of goal difference. Four nations divided by three goals, adding excitement for both followers of countries qualifying for the World Cup, but also for those whose sides hope to avoid the extra qualifiers.
In order to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the 18 countries from the above table would have to play amongst themselves, in 6 groups of 3, with the winner of each group advancing to join the 35 top UEFA sides, who during this time have been resting key players and looking at younger talents by playing friendlies or banging models. That's only four matches each (home/away) per team per group for this extra qualifying round and shouldn't theoretically last for a duration of longer than a month.
Once these 6 teams join the other 35, they will be seeded, 7 groups of 5, and 1 group of 6. The winner of each group qualifies for the World Cup in 2018, with the next 5 with the highest point totals, regardless of group, advance as well.
Employing this format would greatly enhance the importance and value of each match, whether be during the first round or the second. It would also eliminate the playoffs and with 41 sides playing in groups of 5 or the one group of 6, it also cuts-back the number of matches played by each country and the decreases the potential that a top-flight player could be injured a month into his club's campaign as a result of a poor tackle from a Maltese holding midfielder/accountant.