World Cup qualifying: Is there another way?

Mexico is in the World Cup, and Egypt is not. And that seems unfair.

It’s not that simple, of course. One incorrect meme making the rounds: Egypt won seven games and Mexico won only four. Actually, Mexico won 10, sweeping all six of their third-round games to get to the Hexagonal.

Still, we can shake our heads at the notion that Mexico feasted on New Zealand in a winner-take-all playoff while Egypt’s reward for a perfect round-robin was a playoff with Ghana. Shouldn’t we give teams more of a fair shake?

Sure. And we can also turn the last stage of World Cup qualifying into a worldwide spectacle. And clean up a few things along the way. Here’s the proposal:

1. Bag the early playoff rounds for the minnows in Africa, Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF. Cut the small teams out of Europe’s group play. Go to a Davis Cup system in which the minnows play in zones, with the winners advancing to a promotion/relegation playoff against teams that finish last in qualifying.

2. Make six-team groups the norm. Have four in Africa, six in Europe, two in Asia/Oceania and three in the Americas (see below). The top team in each of these 15 groups automatically qualifies for the Cup, along with the host nation. (That’s 16 teams.)

3. The last-place team in each group faces the promotion/relegation playoff against the best of the minnows.

4. The second-place and third-place team in each group, along with the Oceania winner, advances to a global playoff round. That’s 31 teams. Add one more wild card: The highest-ranked team that hasn’t already advanced. Seed these teams into eight four-team groups. These groups would play single round-robins. Each team gets one home game, one away game and one neutral-site game. Top two in each group (16 total) make the Cup.

ADVANTAGES

– We’re not tallying up goal difference against San Marino as a possible tiebreaker.

– The rest of the world has achievable goals. The World Cup final (the technical term for the 32-team extravaganza) may be out of reach, but promotion might be attainable. And the best of the minnows would still have a chance to face the sharks in meaningful playoffs.

– Last-place teams have incentive to play out the string.

– Standardization. No more unfair comparisons across groups to determine the best or worst second-place finisher in Europe.

– The qualifying process doesn’t drag out forever. It’s 10-13 games for everyone.

– More teams can earn spots in intercontinental play, so the continental quotas will be less meaningful.

– More teams get a second chance to qualify.

– Those neutral-site final games would be immense.

CONSIDERATIONS

– It’s a shame to lose the grand 10-team double round-robin in South America. It’s also unfair to cut South America down to one six-team group. One alternative: Have an eight-team group with the top two automatically advancing.

– Dividing the initial groups among continents will always be controversial. To see who could be in the main qualifying pool and who could be out under this scheme, let’s use the FIFA rankings — they’re flawed, but they’ll give us a rough idea for this hypothetical. We’ll say it’s 2018, so Russia gets the automatic bid as host.

Main pool

Includes a few ranking numbers to show which teams we’re getting. For Europe and Africa, the last six are split off with slashes.

Europe (6 groups): Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, England, Croatia, Ukraine, France, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Romania, Scotland, Armenia, Turkey, Hungary, Austria, Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Wales, Albania, Slovakia (overall rank: 60) // Israel (62), Finland (64), Ireland (67), Bulgaria (76), Poland (78), Belarus (82)

Americas (3 groups): Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, USA, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Cuba, Paraguay, Bolivia (69), Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago (79). (If you prefer the Elo rating, substitute El Salvador and Jamaica for Cuba and Haiti.)

Africa (4 groups): Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Cape Verde Islands, Mali, Tunisia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Libya (63), Senegal, Guinea, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Togo (77) // Gabon (80), Congo DR (83), Congo (84), Uganda (86), Angola (89), Ethiopia (93). (If you prefer Elo, then put Benin and Kenya in place of Sierra Leone and Congo.)

Asia/Oceania (2 groups): Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Uzbekistan, Jordan, UAE, Oman, New Zealand (91), China (93), Saudi Arabia (99), Qatar (103). (Elo would argue for Kuwait ahead of Qatar.)

Top Zonal Pools

Europe: Only 16 countries left, so everyone on down to San Marino should get into the mix. Top teams: Macedonia (84), Northern Ireland (90), Azerbaijan (95), Estonia (96), Moldova (97), Georgia (101), Lithuania (102), Latvia (119).

Americas: For now, it’s all CONCACAF, starting with Jamaica (81), Dominican Republic (88), El Salvador (91), Antigua and Barbuda (109), Canada (114), Guatemala (115). We could make three four-team groups by adding Grenada (130), Suriname, St. Kitts and Nevis, Guyana, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico (152).

Asia/Oceania: Two groups from Kuwait (106), Iraq, North Korea, Tajikistan, Bahrain, New Caledonia (122), Lebanon, Afghanistan (129).

Africa: Four good four-team groups out of Botswana (98), Benin, Niger, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan, Gambia (134).

Third tier

Americas: Belize (157) and 14 teams ranked 160 or worse.

Africa: Lesotho (138) is the best of the 14 remaining nations, some of whom will struggle to field teams due to political reality.

Asia: This could be tricky — 28 teams, including some globally significant nations such as Philippines (133), Syria (135), Thailand (142), Vietnam (158) and Indonesia (162). And is India (148) really that bad, even with a substantial percentage of the world’s population?

Oceania: Tahiti (141), Solomon Islands (171) and the other seven teams could play off for an Asia/Oceania playoff spot.

ALTERNATIVES

– Add one more group per continent for a total of 19. The winners (19) and the host nation take the first 20 spots in the Cup. Then the second-place teams go to the playoff round, along with the five highest-ranked third-place teams. That makes six groups of four, and the top two in each (12 total) go to the Cup. The advantage there is that more teams will be in the main qualifying pool. The disadvantage: We have to use the rankings to decide among third-place teams.

– Single-elimination, FA Cup or U.S. Open Cup-style! Wouldn’t be fair, but it’d be fun!

3 thoughts on “World Cup qualifying: Is there another way?”

  1. Very interesting! A couple of points: first, goals scored against an ultra-minnow such as San Marino don’t currently count in UEFA’s tiebreaking (when second-placed teams are compared, the results against the last-place teams are dropped). Second, some of the “advantages” of your proposal would certainly be deemed disadvantages by the major stakeholders including national FAs (such as fewer overall qualifying matches).

    Also, under your proposed system more than half of FIFA members would be ineligible to participate in the World Cup Finals in any given cycle (just as a team starting the season in the second division of a league cannot win the title in that season). Under the current system, the minnows at least have a chance, however small. Seems like it would take away from the competition somewhat to split it into divisions where only a select few in the top flight can possibly qualify for the finals.

    The qualification process is, by-and-large, fair, with some notable exceptions, like Egypt. But the injustice of the Egypt situation can be chalked up to the uniquely unfair qualification procedure in Africa. There is no reason that, having played a full round-robin with 4 other teams, Egypt or any other nation should then need to survive a playoff. Being forced into a playoff should be reserved for second-placed teams who have not shown dominance throughout the cycle.

  2. A brief correction for Andrew: that setup was used this year because the UEFA groups were unequal in size, and it was the “easiest” way to include the second-place finisher from the small group in the home-and-home series.

    That said, I agree with Andrew overall. Yes, Egypt and Mexico are the unfortunate and lucky poster children of the current setup’s failures and successes. But if Iceland, Ethiopia, and Jordan succeed in their final stages, the storyline wouldn’t have been “same old, same old, plus Bosnia”, it would have been a collection of Cinderella stories. I think this year was just a disappointing reversion to the mean in that respect. We can’t write new fairytales every time.

  3. There had better be another way.

    After the groups were announced, anybody associated in any way with US Soccer should wonder what the USA had done to get dropped into the group they landed in. They only finished on top of the CONCACAF qualifying rounds.

    On the other hand, Mexico, which got into the finals through the back door, gets dropped into a group that, if they can’t get out of it and into the knock out rounds, clearly would show they didn’t belong in the tournament to begin with.

    The groups are so unbalanced. FIFA ever heard of seeds? What do they have that ranking system for?

    What a travesty.

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