Monday, November 7, 2011

Ranking the World Cup Qualifying Groups

Qualifying for the World Cup isn’t fair and it’s not supposed to be.  If the idea was to collect the best 32 teams in the world, the distribution of qualifying spots among continents would be much different.

But what so many people love, and FIFA recognizes this, is that the World Cup is supposed to celebrate world soccer not the best teams in the world.  As a result, World Cup qualifying is designed to almost guarantee that teams that wouldn’t otherwise qualify from less potent soccer regions are included in the competition.  

The side effect of this is that qualifying for the World Cup is far more difficult in some regions than others.  Here’s one man’s interpretation of the difficulty of each region, hardest to easiest:

1. South America
Number of spots: 5.5
Top competition: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay
Bottom Line: Absolutely brutal qualification process.  Each team plays each other twice home and away.  Top 5 teams are in.  The sixth team plays a two leg playoff with the fifth place Asian finisher. Qualifying begins over two and a half years before the finals.  Rivalries are fierce and away wins are hard to come by.

2.       Europe
Number of spots: 13
Top Competition: Croatia, Denmark, England, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, Serbia, Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden
Bottom Line: Europe receives by far the most qualifying spots but for good reason.  Each qualifying group typically has two quality teams, leaving little room for Cinderella teams to make the World Cup from Europe.

3.       Africa
Number of Spots: 5
Top Competition: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Cameroon
Bottom Line: 52 are eligible to qualify from Africa, only 5 make it.  Africa is becoming an increasingly competitive continent and the qualifying structure is no joke.  Teams are forced to win a group stage, then win a home-away playoff to qualify.

4.       CONCACAF
 Number of Spots: 3.5
Top Competition: Mexico, United States
Bottom Line:
Very similar to the Asian qualifying structure where top teams do not need to win anything in order to qualify.  In the final stage between the top six teams, a team can finish third and still qualify.  Competition falls off steeply after USA and Mexico and makes this largely a competition for the final 1.5 spots.

5.       Asia
Number of Spots: 4.5
Top Competition: Japan, South Korea, Australia
Bottom Line: The qualifying structure heavily protects the top teams.  A team like Japan that gets an automatic bye into the third round can finish runner up in the third and fourth rounds and still qualify for the World Cup.  Also, any qualifying structure that gives North Korea a bye into the third round cannot be considered terribly competitive.

6. Oceania
Number of spots: 0.5
Top Competition
Bottom Line: Why this region is not combined with Asia and/or CONCACAF is unclear to me.  The opportunity to play weaker competition for a two leg crap shoot against the 4th place CONCACAF team is a gift to all of these countries and a disservice to the quality of CONCACAF teams.

Anyone rank them differently?

1 comment:

  1. Agree with your observations here. I don't understand the reason for having 3.5 spots from CONCACAF, 4.5 from Asia & 0.5 from Oceania. Within the CONCACAF, 2 is just fine as is 3 from Asia/Oceania combined. I would rather see a team like Wales or Republic of Ireland play in the finals and offer competition to the top teams rather than the weaker teams from elsewhere making up the numbers, being totally overwhelmed by the occasion and trying to concede fewer goals rather than score any!