Following the latest round of international matches in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a number of questions were asked as to the value of several matches in significant qualifying stages.
With such big rewards at stake, surely the game’s governing body, FIFA, has a duty to ensure that the qualification phases are as efficient and well-run as possible—but at present, there is certainly an argument to suggest that they are not.
In truth, several of the qualifying zones have flaws with their current format which could, and perhaps should, be eradicated in time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The qualifying format for that competition will not be decided until 2015, so there is certainly still ample time to get it right and ensure that the qualification process is as high-quality and well-organised as the final tournament itself.
Before discussing improvements that could be made, it is incumbent upon us to assess the present format in each zone and where exactly the weaknesses lie. Are the flaws consistent? Is a strength in one qualifying zone a hindrance in another? Are there indeed viable alternatives?
We should also take into account that, from the point of view of those watching and enjoying the World Cup finals, certain caveats must be remembered when suggesting potential improvements:
- The qualification system aims to ensure the best football nations make it to the finals;
- A fair representation from each qualifying zone is able to gain passage to the finals;
- A reasonable-length qualification system must be in place, fitting matches within available FIFA international dates on the football calendar, which can be rolled out over approximately two years;
- While the system aims to allow the best nations to qualify justly, the system should not be overly weighted in favour of nations who have previously performed well.
Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
For the Asian representatives, four World Cup finals spots are available.
The Asia region qualifying phase, however, is incredibly long and unwieldy. The weakness of certain nations who begin the qualifying phase makes it necessary to eliminate some of them before the main group phases, but two separate knock-out rounds, followed by two separate group stages, seems excessive.
Forty-three initial nations took part in the qualification process, with Bhutan, Guam and Brunei the registered FIFA nations who did not partake from the outset. The first stage of the AFC system sees the 16 lowest-ranked sides paired off and playing a two-legged tie, with the eight winners progressing to Round 2.
Ideally, Rounds 2 and 3 are where a change could be made, condensing these elimination stages into one instead of two rounds. The only nations who are saved additional fixtures by this extra round are the top-five seeds, and as the likes of Uzbekistan are proving this time around, being a top seed is no guarantee of being a better side.
Thirty-five Asian nations could take part in seven groups of five teams, with the group winners and best runners-up progressing to the final group stage (two groups of five teams, as is currently Round 4).
Alternatively, only the seven group winners may progress, with one large final group playing out a home-and-away round robin format, with the 12 matches enough to decide which top four teams in the final group should make it to the World Cup.
The AFC zone also has another potential spot, with the fifth-place team receiving a spot in the intercontinental playoff.
Confederation of African Football (CAF)
Over into Africa now, where five World Cup finals spots are available to win.
For the 52 nations who began the qualifying process, three rounds of competitive action await before a trip to Brazil in 2014 is assured.
In principle, a fair observation might suggest that the CAF region is fairly well- structured. The initial qualification phase eliminates some of the extremely weak nations, while those who receive a favourable pairing make it through to the group stage, where a multiple-match system can be used to truly test their resolve and level of quality.
Round 2, however, is weighted heavily in favour of the best (seeded) nations, and pairing even two good sides together invariably either lowers the quality in the final round, or else means a growing football nation struggles to progress.
With only one team qualifying from each group, it would seem to allow more chances for developing nations to continue their progression if the groups were made larger, and multiple teams from each had the chance to go through.
Take the present Round 2 Group H as an example; Algeria, Mali and Benin are all within two points of each other at the halfway stage (Rwanda are bottom). The Algerians have the historically better ability in the World Cup, but should the other nations be hindered by having to progress past a big nation who they are clearly close to in terms of consistency and ability?
The argument against changing of course will mention that over six matches, individual and team quality will always shine through—but with FIFA ever-more relaxed in letting players switch nations, surely developing countries should be given every chance of accommodating potential star names by showing they have the chance to compete at the World Cup?
Be drawn in Round 2, even as a progressive, attacking and quality team, against the likes of Ivory Coast or Egypt, and African nations already know their chances of reaching the World Cup are as good as over.
Larger groups, with fewer groups, gives more qualification places than only for the winner, which in turn offer a better chance of success for more nations and therefore offers more incentive to prioritise the growth of the game.
The final round in Africa is a two-legged knockout. On the one hand, playoffs made from a draw are perhaps not the best way to determine which countries represent the continent as there is the danger that the two weakest nations are drawn together—lowering the continent's quality in the World Cup finals, whoever wins—or that the two strongest nations are—again lowering the talent on show in the finals.
However, the final two-legged knockout phase has been an exciting and at times historic point of reference for African qualifying for the World Cup, and localised traditions and preferences should also be taken into account.
North and Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF)
For those nations residing in North and Central America and the Caribbean, three World Cup finals spots are guaranteed.
Thirty-five nations begin the qualifying format, with the region now down to its final six contestants.
CONCACAF also starts with a knock-out two-legged affair for the lowest 10 ranked nations.
Given the number of small countries who are FIFA member states, the zone has a fair and just way of letting the weaker countries battle it out for a place at the top table. The first two rounds are necessary steps to avoid pointless clashes at the international level such as USA vs. British Virgin Islands.
The central rounds however, seem to offer areas for improvement.
Three groups of four (six matches to play) and then one further group of six could either be altered or held as one much larger group, given that from the 12 teams in Round 3, perhaps nine had a shot at qualification—three very clearly did not.
Guyana, Cuba and Antigua and Barbuda scored 10 goals and managed not a single victory between them in 18 matches, yielding a combined two points.
Work the qualification phase backward: if the final round were to be one large group format with the final six seeds (who only enter at Round 3 anyway) plus two more nations, the "best of the rest" as it were, it would encourage a more competitive format with greater chance for inclusion and growth for the smaller nations.
The number of rounds would remain the same, but Round 2 could be changed to five groups of four or five teams (depending on number of entrants), with each group winner progressing to Round 3. Here, the five winners would contest a group phase of their own, with the top two nations going on to Round 4—joining USA, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras and Cuba, or whichever were the top six seeds at the time.
This larger group of eight, replacing the current “Hexagonal,” could play a full round robin system of 14 games, as the top seeds would not have taken part in the additional six matches which the present Round 3 gives them.
Again, the larger group is to push sustained, long-term growth of the game in the qualifying region, as they will have more chance of competing for the top honour of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. The top three nations in this larger group would qualify for the finals, while fourth place could go on to the playoff utilised the present format.
Confederation Sudamericana de Futbol (CONMEBOL)
To South America now, and the most straight-forward to explain (yet arguably most difficult to play in) qualification system.
As well as Brazil, CONMEBOL residents are but automatic qualifiers as hosts of the 2014 World Cup, the South American section will yield four guaranteed entrants to the finals.
There are nine further nations who take part in this qualification campaign: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
The nations take part in a simple league system, playing each other home and away for a total of 16 qualification matches. The top four in the league table at the end of that time automatically qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
The low number of nations, yet high quality on offer, means that the CONMEBOL region already has arguably the perfect qualification system in place.
A long-term qualification process, yes, but it gives countries the chance to plan for the long term with regards to youth development and tracking those players to the senior team, as well as ensuring a fair and wide-ranging test of environments, from high altitude to high temperature and everything in between.
There is another potential place up for grabs though; the nation who finishes fifth goes into a qualifier playoff.
Oceania Football Confederation (OFC)
To the very Southern-most tip of the world of FIFA football now and Oceania, which has no guaranteed spot at the World Cup.
The qualification campaign comprises of three rounds and 11 nations, only one of which eventually get the chance to take their place in the finals. Despite finishing top of the entire OFC qualifying phase, New Zealand have not yet made it to the World Cup and must yet overcome another challenge to get there, by way of a playoff.
Oceania, like South America, has very little which needs altering.
Though Rounds 2 and 3 could easily be condensed into a single stage, as OFC moves from two groups to one group, this format gives what are very few countries a chance to play a handful of additional competitive games.
Unlike with CONMEBOL, the disparity in quality from, say, New Zealand to Cook Islands, means that one giant league format would not be productive or helpful to the competitive nature of the zone.
With Australia having departed for the Asian qualifying zone, New Zealand are the dominant force in Oceania, a situation which does not look set to change. While OFC backers would campaign for a full World Cup qualifying spot of their own instead of an intercontinental playoff, this would be tantamount to handing New Zealand a free pass to the finals, one which they would barely have to earn.
In this instance, the playoff phase is the right course of action.
Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)
Finally we march into Europe, where there are 53 initial member nations to take part in the qualification phase.
UEFA has the biggest allocation at the World Cup, with 13 nations eligible to qualify.
With so many nations taking part, multiple groups are really the only viable method of sorting out the qualifiers, and by offering the top-two nations (aside from one runner-up) the chance to progress, there is ample reason and motivation for teams to develop and improve.
However, the continued presence of very small nations in the main qualification stage in Europe, while all other qualifying zones phases them out, is both outdated, odd and unhelpful.
More than halfway through the group phases, Malta, Faroe Islands, Andorra and San Marino have not won a single point between them and have scored just three goals in 21 combined matches. Evidently, this is a vastly ridiculous state of affairs to ask those countries to merely make up the numbers in the qualifying zone, rather than compete amongst each other for a chance to take on the bigger nations.
Added into the mix can be Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, similarly minuscule and winless nations.
A first round league table between these six nations would give a chance to finally taste victory on the international scene for some, offer a chance to measure their growth and progress, increase confidence and heighten competitiveness.
The reward of finishing top of that group would be a place to be drawn amongst the other 47 nations for the qualification round. Forty-eight nations could then be divided into eight groups of six nations, with the eight group-winning teams qualifying directly for the FIFA World Cup, along with the best two runners-up.
Again, this provides increased competition for places and, for those perennial "third place" sides, hope that they can still challenge for the automatic spots even if they are paired in a group with the likes of Germany or Spain.
Not only that, but the fixtures would almost without exception be competitive and engrossing, with no need for such recent anomalies such as England beating San Marino 8-0 or Andorra enduring a run of games where they are routinely beaten 3-, 4- or 5-0.
For the remaining three UEFA places at the finals, the remaining six runners up would still be paired off and contest a playoff system, yielding three winners.
There is also the one remaining intercontinental playoff match to take care of. While Oceania certainly needs to be involved in one, perhaps their opponent should be alternated, playing against either a nation from the continent of the hosts of the tournament, or else against the next overall weakest continent (presumed CONCACAF by way of receiving less automatic spots).
While this time there is also a playoff between South America and Asia, with Brazil back in the mix next time around the CONMEBOL region should be allocated a fifth guaranteed spot as a result of the greater quality on offer in that region.
- One fewer middle round, condensed by larger groups in Round 2
- Possibly one large group format for final qualification round
- Larger groups with more qualifiers in Round 2 to allow progression of improving, non-seeded nations
- Maintain final two-legged tie playoff system
- Delay bigger nations joining until Round 4
- Alter Round 2 to give five groups and therefore five winners
- Round 3 sees these five winners in a mini-league format
- Top two nations, competitive and with ability, go on to face top six seeded nations
- Larger final round group phase with eight teams and 14 matches each
- Top-three nations qualify, with fourth place entering intercontinental playoff
- Maintain present format with full extra qualifying spot for future World Cups where continent does not host the final tournament
- Maintain present format
- Maintain intercontinental playoff system to give one nation opportunity to play at the World Cup finals
- Pre-qualification round for six weakest nations, with group winner progressing to main phase
- Eight groups of equal size
- Group winners and two best runners-up progress automatically
- Remaining runners-up contest playoffs to determine final three entrants
This restructuring of the FIFA World Cup qualifying system is borne not of a desire to make it easier for the best teams, nor for those of lesser quality, but instead to attempt to offer incentive and encouragement to those who develop their ability to win matches—without, importantly, harming those who already have.
There is nothing within the proposed changes which should hinder the countries who have already made great strides toward being competitive in their individual qualifying zones, but rather should reward them with the opportunity to develop further and not take part in meaningless or unbalanced sections of tournament play.
The 2018 version of the FIFA World Cup will likely have much to live up to, judging by past events and the hoped-for spectacle of the forthcoming tournament in Brazil.
Making sure that the nations most deserving of being there to participate is an important first step, and putting in place these changes should ensure that the qualification system is of the desired standard, fairness and equality.