Association Football known world-wide as football or futbol but tagged with soccer in the United States is the world’s game by any measure. I have my own complicated relationship with the game which has meant different things to me at different points of my life.
Right now it’s World Cup qualification season across the world. In each of six regional confederations, tournaments are ongoing to determine which teams will make the final cut of 32 nations at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. (England may claim to be the home of the game because it propagated the rules the World follows, but Brazil is the heart of the game where improvisation raises joga bonito to a level of beauty.) I offer a few modest comments on the various confederations’ qualification tournaments, the structure of the confederations themselves and some ideas on how to improve the overall system of qualification. Basically stuff FIFA will never ever, never, never, never ever do.
Asian Football Confederation: The AFC is huge with 47 members in it. It ranges from the Middle East to the Far East to the ‘Stans. It has hosted one World Cup — the 2002 edition co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Two former members, Israel and Kazakhstan, both left the AFC to join the European Confederation. Australia, formerly a member of the Oceania Confederation, recently joined the AFC.
AFC has 4 and 1/2 qualification spots this time around (the 1/2 refers to eligibility to play a team from another Confederation for a spot at the World Cup). Every confederation determines the structure of its own qualification tournament. Not all of them are really effective, particularly if the goal is to send the best clubs to the World Cup (and not reward political allies which sadly is rampant in the world of FIFA and its confederations).
For this qualification tournament, AFC held two rounds of two-leg knock-out rounds. “Two-leg” refers to a home and away set up where after two games there is one winner between the two teams, which is very common in futbol. There are often different tie-breaker rules though — often away goals are given a priority (but not always). The down-side of this kind of set-up is if you have two good teams paired up early. I haven’t tracked it down but I hope AFC had the common sense to seed these games (best teams played the worst teams). The third round of the AFC play-off consists of 5 groups of 4 teams. Group formats are great — you give countries a chance to show their quality over a longer stretch of games and minimize the possibility of eliminating good teams through the (bad) luck of the draw. The last round of AFC qualification are 2 groups of 5 teams, with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the 2014 finals directly, and the two third-placed teams playing-off for a chance to play a team from the South American Confederation for a qualification spot.
AFC will send Iran, Australia, South Korea and Japan to Brazil. Jordan will get to go if it beats a team from the South American Confederation later this year.
Oceania Football Confederation: The OFC is an interesting organization. Founded in 1966, it is by far the smallest of the six FIFA confederations. In 2006, Australia, one of its founding members, left to join the AFC. OFC nows consists of 11 island nations, the largest of which is New Zealand. The OFC qualification tournament gets the one winning nation a chance to play a team from another confederation (this time a country from CONCACAF) — the OFC does not get any guaranteed spots at the World Cup. Apparently, in the past between 1966 and 1982, OFC teams played in the AFC qualification tournament and it wasn’t until 1986 that the OFC held its own qualification tournament. So far all I can find out is that after a couple of rounds, OFC had a group of four teams left which played a group stage to determine the one winner — which this time was New Zealand.
Confederation status is inherently a political issue and there are many people who work for and represent confederations who like the status quo. But realistically the OFC should be merged into the AFC. Most of the OFC nations are too small to qualify for the World Cup and having their own confederation has not changed that. Moreover, without playing stronger teams, it’s hard for a national program to improve. Moreover, if the OFC had been part of the AFC for this qualification cycle, the AFC could have been given five full spots, avoiding a play-off with another confederation. Whether or not that would have put New Zealand into a better or worse situation for qualification is hard to predict, but playing in the AFC would certainly help to improve the New Zealand program over the long run. With certain commitments to development in the OFC nations that match the current efforts of the OFC, a merger with the AFC should be a positive for all of the program involved and FIFA as a whole. (An AFC + OFC would have 58 countries which would boost its membership number to slightly more than the African Confederation.)
Confédération Africaine de Football: CAF is another large confederation with 56 members. Anyone who has grown up, fooled by maps into thinking Greenland is almost the same size as Africa, might be surprised at the huge growth of soccer in the African continent. There are a number of strong teams in CAF and every World Cup, there are predictions that the strongest teams from Africa have the potential to go deep into the tournament.
CAF has five spots at Brazil and is approaching the final stage of its qualification tournament. Americans have probably paid more attention to the CAF tournament than ever before because the head coach of the Egyptian national team is Bob Bradley, the former coach of the U.S. national team. CAF has a crazy tournament if your goal is to get your best teams to the World Cup. It’s first round is smart — it pits the worse seeded 24 teams against each other in a two-legged knock-out format. The 12 winners join the other 28 CAF members and are placed into 10 groups of 4 teams. This also makes sense – group formats minimize the effects of the draw and give quality teams multiple games to demonstrate their strength.
Here’s where CAF goes off the rails though — and it’s the part of the format that is coming up soon. CAF takes the winners of those 10 groups and randomly matches them up for a two-legged knock-out round. Instead of getting something approximately close to its top five teams to Brazil, CAF has pitted some of its best teams against each other with only one to go forward. For example, Egypt has to play Ghana in its knock-out round. Ideally, given the records of both (and an awareness of Ghana’s recent success at the World Cup itself) CAF would want a format that allowed both teams to progress. CAF needs a format that sets up the year before the Cup with two groups of five (much like AFC) where the top two finishers qualify and the third place teams have a play-off for the fifth place. (Or they could run 4 groups of five with only the first place finisher guaranteed a spot and the four 2nd place finishers getting a chance to play-off for the fifth qualification spot). Not only would this ensure better CAF teams at Brazil but it would create additional consistency with other confederations, which is actually a good thing. The qualification tournaments do not need to be identical but they should borrow the best from each other.
Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol: Congratulation if you have read this far! Really this post has gone on far too long, donchathink? Oh well, in for a penny, in for euro I guess. CONMEBOL is the oldest of the world’s confederations and the smallest with only 10 nations. In contrast to OFC though, CONMEBOL national teams have won nine FIFA World Cups (Brazil five, Argentina and Uruguay two trophies each). And given that it has only 10 nations, CONMEBOL has a simple qualification format pitting all of its teams against each other in a single group format. This time around Brazil as host qualifies automatically so of the other nine South American nations the top four finishers will qualify automatically with the fifth place finisher in an inter-continental play-off for a spot.
Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football: CONCACAF has 41 members — consisting of North and Central America and the vast majority of Caribbean nations. CONCACAF’s qualification tournament is basically sound with an initial preliminary round for the worst seeded teams, then a second round of group play (interestingly the six highest ranked sides received a bye from the second round), than a third round of 3 groups of 4 teams and finally a fourth round of six teams (traditionally called “The Hex”). In that final round, the U.S. and Costa Rica have qualified. Third place gets a automatic qualification spot and fourth place will play New Zealand for a spot as well.
CONCACAF is an interesting place and has clearly gotten stronger over the past 25 years or so. Where traditionally only Mexico was very strong, it has now been joined by the U.S, Costa Rica, and arguably Panama with a few other nations on the edge. This tournament has been so competitive that Mexico will need very good results to get the third spot and conceivably could even miss out on the playoff with New Zealand if it does exceptionally poorly.
As a fan of the U.S., the shape of CONCACAF today ensures that the U.S. will qualify for the World Cup if it performs as it is capable. As a thought experiment though imagine if CONCACAF merged with CONMEBOL. A single Americas Confederation would have 51 members — getting it closer in size to CAF and a future AFC+OFC. Both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL already run qualification tournaments that work well — a merger would result in some serious changes but ones that could easily be managed. More lower ranked teams could be thrown into the first round to reduce the overall number of teams left for the second round. The second round would still consist of a number of groups and the top ranked teams could still get a bye in this round.
With a combined 8 qualification spots at stake, our merged confederation would probably need a final round with two groups — from each of which the top four would qualify. Would these be groups of 6, 8 or 10 nations? An alternative would be to have a final round of three groups where the top two finishers in each group got a spot, with the top four finishers below that playing a knock-out round for the last two spots. How would the U.S. and Mexico fare in this set-up? Assuredly, Brazil and Argentina would dominate as they already do in South America. Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay are also traditionally very strong. That leaves three more qualification spots with CONCACAF nations pitted against the remaining CONMEBOL members: Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The FIFA World Rankings are a pit of a mess, but looking at them Colombia is at 5th in the world right now; the U.S is 13th; Ecuador is 20th, and Mexico is 21st. I think CONCACAF would still be able to qualify 2 to 3 countries in this set-up. In the short term the results would be much more precarious than the current system of separate confederations but in the longer term it would raise the level of the game of CONCACAF nations. And I think it would raise the level of interest across the board among fans from all of the nations. Plus if a primary goal of qualification tournaments is to get the best 32 nations on the field at the World Cup than a single Confederation of the Americas would definitely contribute to that.
Union des Associations Européennes de Football: Really, you’re still reading?! Wow well you’re either nodding your head yes, these are sage points or you’re infuriated with me and preparing to write scathing comments below. All good I suppose. UEFA is the European Confederation with 54 members (50-55 members is a good target number if we are trying to get the confederations to a numerical parity). Outside of South America, UEFA has the strongest claim to being the strongest confederation in terms of quality on the field. They have 13 automatic qualification spots which is far more than any other confederation (more even then anyone else even in my imagined world of 4 confederations with CAF (5); AFC+OFC (5); and the Confederation of the Americas (8)). UEFA does run groups but has so many quality teams that which group a country is placed into can have a dramatic effect on whether they qualify or not. Still with 13 spots they don’t have too much to complain about.
One hypothetical approach to addressing some spots at the World Cup could be to replace the current system of intercontinental play-offs with a group tournament at the beginning of the World Cup year. Since I’ve gone to the trouble of constructing a hypothetical world of only 4 confederations let use that for this further flight of qualification imagineering. Let’s give each confederation 5 spots for just existing. That’s all CAF and AFC+OFC have right now so they will love this idea. I am going to add a caveat though that one of those five spots goes to the host if the host is in that confederation. That leaves 12 more spots in the 32 team tournament. Let’s give out 8 more spots to confederations based on how they did at the last World Cup. (Or some other combination of past performance — I am not sure what the right metric here is so long as it is as objective as possible). That gives a reward to confederations that get results and arguably leads to a stronger set of teams at future World Cups. Then let’s take those last four qualification spots; let each confederation send it’s top 2 not-yet qualified countries to a tournament — put them into 2 groups of four and let them play. The top two finishers in each group move on to the World Cup. Maybe this idea replaces the current Confederations Cup which is a nice tournament but has no real meaning (and as a separate competition does not have any stature compared to the World Cup).
As long as UEFA has so many guaranteed spots it would hate this idea as it would almost by definition ensure it gets fewer guaranteed spots (if it got all 8 of the spots allocated on past performance it would have 13 but it’s not likely that it would get them all even today and even less likely in the future — the world as a whole is getting better at soccer faster than Europe alone). But this system is fairer in the long term, more explicitly ties the number of spots to performance in the World Cup and gives every confederation a chance to take two more spots in the final intercontinental qualification tournament.