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Nov 292013


Fifa World Cup 2014 Brazil 3 213x300 Re thinking World Cup Qualifying


There are very few things in life more beautiful than seeing your home country qualify for the World Cup. The joy of the fans, the relief of the players and the coach, there are very few things as emotionally intense as the end of World Cup Qualification. When it is done properly, the audience is witness to scenes like those in Panama and Costa Rica, where every man, woman, and child is nervously waiting to hear the result of a game.

As much as I love World Cup Qualifiers, the process has to change. Globally, far too many teams are being qualifying based on their position on a map rather than the quality of the team. Although having a global presence is always important for the World Cup, it should be the goal of FIFA to have as many of the best teams in the world playing in the competition. A tournament without the likes of Senegal, Sweden, and the Ukraine, all top teams in the world seems to point to a system that values global dollars over quality. I think that the World Cup can have both.

So before I get to my recommendations, I wanted to make a few things clear first. First, I am making these recommendations based off of the assumption that FIFA will be increasing the number of squads. As recently as last month, the head of UEFA and presumptive future President of FIFA Michel Platini told The Times that, “‘I totally agree with Mr. Blatter that we need more African and Asian. But instead of taking away some European [bids,] we have to go to 40 teams.”

Second, I am assuming that however FIFA chooses to allocate their qualification spots that Confederation of African Football (CAF) will be a benefactor. This seems to have been on the docket for quite some time now and thus talking at length would seem redundant

#1 Make all playoff matches inter-continental.

At the beginning of the playoff rounds, I tried to find some reasoning as to why Portugal could be able to play Sweden. But it got me thinking to why UEFA (Europe) should be the only continent that has a playoff system independent of the others. AFC (which represents greater Asia,) CONCACAF (North and Central America,) CONMEBOL (South America,) and OCEANIA (New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) all have their representatives face one another in inter-continental playoffs.  This system seems to be more in the spirit of the World Cup so it would only seem reasonable that FIFA should implement a true intercontinental playoff system with seeding determined by the FIFA World Rankings. Games would be scheduled on home versus home two-legged playoff with goals determining who qualifies for Brazil. If the 2010 tournament were to play out this way, this is how the matchups would have played out.:

Playoff Team A (FIFA World Ranking #) Playoff Team B ( FIFA World Ranking #)
Portugal (5) New Zealand (91)
Uruguay (6) Jordan (70)
Greece (12) Iceland (50)
Croatia (16) Romania (32)
Ukraine (18) Sweden (27)
France (19) Mexico (20)

Upon looking at the table, of course you still see that Jordan would have to play against Uruguay and probably would have lost by the same score-line. And Sweden will still have to play against a very difficult Ukraine team and may still lose. But under this system, Mexico is not awarded for their terrible qualifying campaign and thus would have to earn their qualification the hard way, playing against France. Also, Iceland-Greece is a much better matchup than what happened this year with Iceland-Croatia and may have given the World Cup another great story.

There are some problems with this system of course. The FIFA World Rankings system often rewards teams who rack up wins against cupcake teams (read: Greece) over teams that are able to get difficult draws or lose narrowly to stronger opponents (Sweden and France.) I am all in favor of creating a far more analytical method of ranking all of the national teams in the world, but for now it would still seem that this system gives fans a decent picture of who are the best teams in the world.

Of course the other major problem is that there are no representatives from Africa in the playoff system and OCEANIA has one spot. But that problem can be resolved by…

#2 Move OCEANIA into the AFC, and give their playoff spot to CAF.

OCEANIA, the as I previously mentioned, is a Confederation made up of footballing nations in the Pacific Islands, most notably New Zealand. Although New Zealand did make the World Cup back in 2010 and was the only team outside of Spain to go undefeated, they were crushed by Mexico this month by a score of 7-2 over two legs.  This on top of Tahiti’s spirited, but disastrous performance in the FIFA Confederations Cup (three losses, only one goal scored and twenty three allowed) showed that this is not a Confederation worthy of a playoff spot. The Kiwis are already considering a move to the AFC, joining Australia who left OCEANIA back in 2005. Perhaps it is time that the rest of the Pacific islands do the same.

So how would this work out? It is obvious that adding 14 nations to the AFC’s already massive 47 member body would require some serious restructuring. Due to the limited resources of these island nations perhaps the best thing would be to create a preliminary round where these clubs would play against one another and then have two to three teams move on to the next round of qualifying. New Zealand (91st in FIFA World Rankings) would be entered into the second round of qualifying, where it would likely play teams of equal strength like Saudi Arabia (101st,) and China (102nd.)

Ideally, it would seem that one day the AFC would need to break their countries down to those  who are in the Far East and those that are in the Middle East. Although having such a large group has meant teams get to play in vastly different environments and play different styles, two things that can only benefit players and their country, it can be very expensive for poorer countries like Afghanistan or Nepal to fly their players thousands of miles away. Having preliminary rounds based upon region would cut down on some of these expenses and reinforce already strong rivalries in the region.

Ideally, the OCEANIA World Cup Qualification spot should go to a member of CAF. Although AFC would be adding a large number of teams, the fact that CAF does not already have a World Cup Qualification spot puts them at the head of the line for allocation. It is far too strong of a Confederation to only have four qualification spots.

Based off of the results of New Zealand’s two legged playoff and Tahiti’s spirited but futile Confederations Cup run it is apparent that OCEANIA’s existence does not benefit FIFA or the World Cup.  Having these teams play against AFC opponents who are of are equal talent level.

#3 Add a preliminary round of qualifying  for UEFA.

Although OCEANIA may sport some of the poorest teams in the world, I will give them credit: at least they try to weed out their worst teams through multiple rounds of qualification. In fact aside from CONMEBOL, which only has 10 teams, every Confederation has multiple rounds of qualification. Except for UEFA. UEFA only has one round of qualification, with a playoff at the end of qualification. So instead of having gripping matches at the end qualifying, supporters of countries with World Cup aspirations have to hope that the likes of San Marino and Liechtenstein are not crushed by more than 8 goals.

Supporters of this system will argue that it gives countries like Iceland or Slovenia, who qualified for the 2010 World Cup, the chance to play against some of the best teams in Europe. But if you look over time, there has been very little deviation in the results over time for the minnows in UEFA.

Let’s first take a look at the success of the UEFA country Malta, which is ranked #140 I FIFA’s World Rankings.

World Cup  Record Goals For Goals Allowed Goal Differential Place in their Group
1990  0W-1D-6L 3 18 -15 4(Last)
1994 1W-1D-8L 3 23 -20 5 (Second to Last)
1998  0W-0D-10L 2 37 -35 6 (Last)
2002  0-1D-9L 4 24 -20 6 (Last)
2006  0W-3D-7L 4 32 -28 6 (Last)
2010  0W-1D-9L 0 26 -26 6 (Last)
2014  1W-0D-9L 5 28 -23 6 (Last)
Combined  2W-7D-58L 21 188 -167 N/A

Two wins in twenty-four years of qualifying. Now look at the lack of progress this team has made in comparison to Grenada who only started playing as a nation in 1998 and is only eight spots higher than Malta on the FIFA World Rankings.

World Cup  Record Goals For Goals Allowed Goal Differential Round Eliminated
1990 n/a
1994 n/a
1998 2W-0D-0L 9 8 1 First Round
2002 0W-1D-1L 4 5 -1 First Round
2006 2W-0D-2L 10 7 3 Second Round
2010 1W-1D-1L 12 5 7 Second Round
2014 1W-1D-4L 7 14 -7 Second Round
Combined 6W-3D-8L 42 39 3 N/A


Although we are unlikely to see Grenada qualify for the World Cup anytime, what you do see a team in Grenada and a Confederation in CONCACAF that is able to put together a system that encourages development in their small members. And the smaller teams do improve. Look at Panama or Trinidad and Tobago. Even Grenada was able to get a draw 2-2 against Costa Rica in 2009 and narrowly lost to the United States 2-1.   Qualification for the final round of qualifying is not handed to them on a platter. It is earned through development and hard work.

Now to be clear, I am not blaming the Malta Football Federation or any other minnow who is the punching bag for the major powers of Europe. But I do put blame on the head of UEFA who has essentially set up a glass ceiling for many of its members.

So how would a Preliminary Round in UEFA work? It would seem that the best way to do it would be to take Pot 5 and Pot 6 from this year’s UEFA qualifiers (plus Gibraltar) and have these teams play one another in home-home two legged playoff. Here is a list of the teams that would have played in this year’s two-legged playoff had UEFA established this system:

Faroe Islands
San Marino

The nine remaining teams would join the remaining 36 in a nine group second round with five teams in each group. The likes of Germany, England, and Spain would remain unaffected as only the lowest level teams would have to play the first round matchups. Furthermore, the major clubs in Europe would be happy as it would mean less qualifiers for their players (with the exception of Garreth Bale and Real Madrid,) and less opportunities for them to have injuries against the likes of San Marino. For the fans, it would mean less throwaway matches and make each game count more. No team could rely on being able to beat the Faroe Islands to pad their box score.

The World Cup, as it is, is one of the best major tournaments in all of sports. Time after time it is always seems to be able to pull together the best and brightest talent on the pitch from the far reaches of the globe and deliver a quality product. But like any good company, it has to change with the times. FIFA in recent years has tried to make up for decades of ignorance for failing to follow the trends of international soccer by allocating more spots in continents like Africa, Asia, and North America. Further restructuring of their qualification process will not only ensure that the best teams make it Russia (2018) or Qatar (2022,) but that their global audience will continue to expand.



Sean Maslin

Writer for Global Football Today, Soccerly, D.C. Soccer, Soccer Without Limits, and Blatter's Blotter. Lifetime D.C. United, Newcastle United, and Washington Warthog fan. Can be reached at @SeanMaslin on twitter or at

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