For me the World Cup is the pinnacle of football. It is where great players become legends, and where the dreams of an entire nation are achieved. World Cup’s are just special. Even when the quality of the matches isn’t the highest, you still tune in because you know that it won’t happen again for another four years, so you must appreciate it whilst you can.
As great as the World Cup is, you can’t help but think every time it comes around that some of the teams who are competing don’t really deserve to be there. However they have come out of a weak continental qualification system and find themselves in a position that could have went to a more deserving team. So the question that must be asked, is World Cup qualification fair?
For the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil there will be 13 European teams, 5.5 South American teams, 5 African teams, 4.5 Asian teams, 3.5 North American teams and 0.5 Oceanic teams (0.5 depend on inter conference play-off matches). If you compare this to the top 32 teams according to the FIFA World Rankings there are 20 European teams, 6 South American teams, 3 North American teams, 3 African teams and no Oceanic or Asian teams. I personally am not a fan of the World Rankings and don’t feel they truly show an accurate picture of the best teams in the world (Switzerland aren’t the 7th best team in the world for instance), however FIFA clearly believe that their calculation formula is correct. Based on those rankings as they currently stand, seven teams who deserve to be competing at the very top level will not be able to because they play in the most competitive set up (Europe). Is that fair? Don’t people want to see the most competitive and the best able teams play in the world’s greatest competition? The answer is yes, however that is not what will happen in Brazil 2014.
The FIFA World Rankings do however not represent the true best 32 teams in international football. The biggest example of this is that the highest ranked Asian team is Japan at 44, which would make them as good as Wales, a team that finished 5th in their World Cup qualifying group. The natural thought is that Japan are much better than Wales and therefore should really be ranked more highly, but in their two most recent games (both friendlies) they lost to both Serbia and Belarus, two European teams that didn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup. Maybe it is harsh on Japan to judge them on friendlies, but other top Asian teams like Australia (who got beat 6-0 by France, a team not guaranteed to make the World Cup) and South Korea (who were recently beaten at home by Croatia, another team not guaranteed to make the World Cup) have both performed as poorly. When you consider these facts, it makes the ranking seem more accurate than they first appeared.
The one big issue for the Asian teams, as well as teams not from Europe and South America, is that their competitive matches aren’t worth as much as those from the two big continents. This means that they are naturally at a disadvantage when it comes to the rankings system, and it doesn’t truly represent where they are. It also has the counter effect of South American teams being over represented at the top of the rankings because of their large number of qualification games (16 this time because of Brazil automatically qualifying but usually 18). It becomes clearer the issue smaller football continents have in catching up to the big ones when you look at how rankings are calculated for a match, points from a match*importance of match (competitive/friendly)*strength of opposing team*confederation strength. The first two don’t change (although importance of match hurts Brazil’s ranking due to them automatically qualifying), but the last two are why countries out with the big two struggle to make it to the top of the rankings. Not only do the matches within their own confederation get discounted but also the opponents that they play in competitive matches (the most lucrative way of making points) aren’t worth as much as those from UEFA or CONMEBOL because they are generally ranked at a lower level. Essentially if you don’t play in the big two confederations you are going to struggle to set yourself a high World Ranking under the system that FIFA currently runs.
Despite the fact that according to the World Rankings the World Cup won’t showcase the 32 best teams, but rather most of the best teams in the world. The word that FIFA will use and best describes the situation is parity. FIFA want every continent to have a number of teams competing in the World Cup, rather than it being dominated by the European and South American teams. Would it truly be a World Cup if the not every continent had a chance to have teams qualify? It is a fair point, and parity in these situations is a good thing for two different reasons. Firstly because it allows countries that would struggle in more competitive qualification campaigns a chance to qualify and secondly because it helps to spread the game to every corner of the world, by selling that World Cup dream.
With parity and the quality of the teams within a confederation being taken into consideration to decide how many places each confederation receives in the World Cup, it is interesting when you actually take a look at the numbers. Europe has 13/53 (24.5%), Asia has 4.5/43 (10.5%), Africa has 5/52 (9.6%), North America has 3.5/35 (10%), Oceania has 0.5/11 (4.5%) but the biggest issue is that South America has 5.5/10 (55%). What makes it worse is that the South American play-off team faces the Asian play-off team, almost certainly a guaranteed 6th place for CONMEBOL members (Uruguay [6th in world] against Jordan [70th in world]). The issue isn’t that South America doesn’t deserve to have more teams proportionally than Asia or Africa (for instance) in the World Cup, but rather they shouldn’t have so many teams in comparison to Europe (Europe would have 19 if they had the same numbers proportionally as South America). 60% of teams qualifying for the World Cup isn’t parity when the next closest doesn’t even reach a quarter.
It is too easy for certain teams to qualify and therefore they manage to qualify for every tournament despite if they are actually good enough. Nations such as the USA, Japan and Mexico qualify every tournament even if they don’t really deserve to play in the World Cup. The worst example of this is Mexico, who despite having a dreadful campaign will still qualify for the World Cup, because they go into a play-off against New Zealand, hardly what can be called as an even match up. The same can be said about the South American play-off game against their Asian counterpart (the 6th best team in South America is always going to be too good for the 5th best team in Asia). It is for these uneven reasons that Australia left the OFC and joined the AFC, because they knew that by doing so it was an almost certainty that they would make every single World Cup. This, in comparison to the European qualification where a couple of slip ups can cost a nation a place at the dance, and is even more prevalent in the African qualification where the greatest competition is found and the highest turnover of nations qualifying from tournament to tournament is found.
The question which was asked at the start of the piece was is the World Cup qualifying fair? The answer is a resounding no. The tournament doesn’t represent the best 32 teams in the world; it is too easy for certain nations to qualify and the qualifying system doesn’t show true parity. It is easy to point out the several issues with the qualifying system, but to be honest the teams that benefit from the unfair nature of qualification aren’t realistically going to challenge for the World Cup, and those who miss out also are unlikely to actually challenge for the trophy. Only a handful of nations are capable of winning the World Cup; however it isn’t about winning for many nations but rather making it to the dance, and that is where the qualification system is the most unfair.
There is no perfect answer about how many qualifications places each confederation has, but it is fair to say that the current system isn’t correct. In a perfect situation CONCACAF (N. America) and CONMEBOL (S. America) would merge together, and so would OFC (Oceania) and AFC (Asia). This would allow for more competitive competition for the America’s and would also solve the problem of the Oceanic confederation requiring a place, even though they are miles behind their counterparts in the other confederations. FIFA have set a precedent by allowing Australia to move confederations, it is however highly unlikely that they would make such a drastic change (you never know they do some crazy things after all).
Due to that, I think that a fairer and more realistic system would be to have 15 places for Europe, 4 for South America, 2.5 for North America, 0.5 for Oceania, 3.5 for Asia and 6.5 for Africa. I think by making this slight change, the qualification system becomes much fairer. UEFA is undoubtedly the confederation which has the largest numbers but also the most depth and it is because of that that they deserve more places. North America and Asia would both see their quota reduce by one, because currently the quality of the teams in their respective confederations isn’t very strong beyond the first three nations (USA, Mexico & Costa Rica and Japan, South Korea & Australia). Africa would see their numbers increase by 1.5, because there is stronger depth in the CAF confederation than in the AFC or CONCACAF. The biggest (or most notable) change is that South America has decreased to 4 (down from 6), this isn’t a quality issue because almost every South American team could compete at the World Cup, but rather to realign the lack of parity that South America receives. It would still leave South America with the highest percentage of entrants, but in terms of quality CONMEBOL is very strong. Oceania would stay the same because it is easily the weakest confederation and doesn’t really deserve to have a guaranteed place (which would almost always go to New Zealand).
The other alternative would be to increase the number of teams in the World Cup from 32 to 64. FIFA have been known in the past to increase the size of the tournament (last time in 1998 [from 24 to 32]), and it wouldn’t surprise me if FIFA did exactly this in the future. However I personally don’t believe it should happen, because it would lower the quality of the competition and also make it too long. After all the World Cup already lasts a long time (32 days for Brazil 2014) and requires a large amount of stadiums to hold, which would of course limit the countries that could hold the event even further.
When it comes down to qualifying for the World Cup, every nation which does qualify gets a special feeling, and every nation which fails to qualify feels a huge deal of disappointment. The World Cup is a special competition, and it is the greatest sporting competition in the world. The qualification system may not be entirely fair, but it isn’t too far off of being so, and when you are dealing with an organisation such as FIFA (an organisation that gave a summer competition to a country that is too hot in the summer to host said competition) not too far off isn’t too bad.
So leave a comment on what you think about the fairness of the World Cup qualification. Do you think FIFA have gotten it right? Are you more of a fan of my system? Or do you not like either? Also Like bm23reviews on Facebook and follow bm23reviews on Twitter both can be found at the top right hand side of the post. Thanks for reading.