A world away from multimillion-dollar contract negotiations in the palatial headquarters of European clubs, Luis Suárez is currently in rural Venezuela ahead of Uruguay’s crucial World Cup qualifier tomorrow. With a game in hand, La Celeste sit seventh in the Conmebol standings on 13 points, three shy of the playoff spot occupied by Tuesday’s opponents, and five short of an automatic berth. With Colombia (2nd) and Chile (4th) enjoying home games against Peru and Bolivia tomorrow, and Ecuador (3rd) a good chance of nabbing points off an Argentine side cruising to first place, there’s huge pressure on Suárez and his compatriots to book their passage to Brazil next year.
On the other hand, the Australian national team is in Melbourne – skippered by a clubless, 35-year-old Lucas Neill – preparing to face those veritable behemoths of Asian football, Jordan. If the Roos can overcome the lofty challenge posed by the world’s 75th-ranked side, they’ll leapfrog Oman – whose FIFA ranking contains three digits – into one of Asia’s four automatic places for the 2014 World Cup. See off Iraq’s Lions of Mesopotamia – a Bradman-esque 98 in the world – the following Tuesday, and we’re on a Qantas jet to Rio de Janeiro.
How is it that Holger Osieck looks certain to appear in the globe’s blue ribbon sporting event, but there’s no room for Luis Suárez, or indeed a host of European teams far more deserving of a place. As it stands, Serbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Romania, Turkey, Norway, Poland and Ukraine will fail to qualify for Brazil (not to mention the five second-placed UEFA sides that will be knocked out in their two-legged playoffs). How is it that Denmark and Peru – whose rankings both surpass any Asian nation – or Copa America title holders and 2010 WC semi-finallists Uruguay will probably be staying home next June, while Oceania champs New Zealand can look forward to meeting the might of Panama in an earth shattering clash of the titans for a ticket to Rio.
32 teams will be privileged enough to take part in Brazil 2014, and going by current FIFA rankings, the number of berths awarded to each continent is out of whack. FIFA’s current top 32 features 18 sides from Europe, seven from South America, four from Africa, two from North America, one from Asia and none from Oceania (sorry, Kiwis).
FIFA’s classification is deeply flawed, of course. At the moment Brazil is ranked 22, lower than Pim Verbeek’s Australians prior to the 2010 World Cup. The system – which sensibly rewards results against stronger opponents – is prone to self-perpetuating outcomes. In other words, if all the South Americans are ranked highly and teams from that continent only play each other, then that would artificially inflate their rankings. Competitive games also carry more weight (hence why Brazil, who qualify automatically for 2014 as hosts, have slid down the scale despite being bookies favourites to lift the trophy in 12 months), which also favours the South Americans, who play a round robin against every other country from the confederation.
So if we can’t trust Sepp Blatter’s gradings (that’s the first and last time this blog will use the words ‘trust’ and ‘Blatter’ in the same sentence), what’s a better litmus test? Performance in previous World Cups. Sadly for Asia, their results in the big dance don’t paint a much rosier picture.
16 Asian teams have participated in the four World Cups since the first 32-team tournament in 1998, and only four have made it to the knockout stages. In the same period, 14 of the 19 South American sides to take part have have progressed from the group. Worse still, Asian outfits have routinely become World Cup whipping boys. In 1998, their four representatives conjured just one solitary win between them. Despite the admirable performance of hosts Japan and Korea in 2002, China and Saudi Arabia failed to net a goal or register a point throughout the Cup. At Germany 2006 three Asian teams finished bottom of their group (three North American sides propped up their groups, too), and no one could forget the travails of the 105th-ranked North Koreans in South Africa four years later, which was like watching Psy being thrown into the ring against Mike Tyson.
Asian teams’ lack of competitiveness suggests that FIFA gifts them far too many World Cup places – an understandable error, given their commitment to expanding the game in new regions (especially new regions will rapidly swelling coffers). In contrast, the invariable success of South American teams who emerge from their incredibly difficult qualifying process attests to the strength of their confederation, and the same can be said of European outfits. FIFA should determine a fairer way of deciding who gets to feature in football’s preeminent event.
Firstly, the obvious one. Europe currently receives 13 WC berths and deserves a couple more. Surely fairness, coupled with an obligation to uphold the standard of play at the World Cup, outweighs Blatter’s saccharine desire to ‘grow the game’. In any case, expanding the number of UEFA spots would give a chance for emerging Eastern European sides to press for an appearance, like Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia in 2010, and Albania and Montenegro this time around. There’s also a chance to clean up the convoluted current system, which requires the nine second-placed teams to fill eight playoff positions, but only after removing results against each group’s weakest performer, or some such. Giving UEFA 16 spots, for instance, would allow the 53 nations to divide into eight groups (five of seven, three of six) with two automatic berths each. Simple.
Secondly, a trickier one: South America. More South American teams deserve to go to the World Cup after you recall North Korea copping seven goals against Portugal (or Australia’s four against Germany, for that matter). Venezuela – currently ranked 37th, which would make them Asia’s second best side or North America’s third – have never played in a World Cup. Bolivia haven’t qualified since 1950, nor Peru since 1982. Paraguay will miss Brazil despite reaching the knockouts in three of their four consecutive appearances in the four previous Cups. Chile have only qualified twice since 1982 and progressed from the group both times. These nations deserve a look in, especially when traditional powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay soak up the majority of the automatic spots.
The problem is that Conmebol only comprises 10 teams, and FIFA can’t realistically give them any more than five spots. The solution is drastic but logical: merge the two American confederations, given strong South American sides miss out while minnows like Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica dine out on Concacaf’s surplus of automatic places. The border between the two confederations is already blurred, with Mexican clubs competing in the Copa Libertadores, North American participation in the Copa América, and South American sides regularly taking friendlies to the States.
In 2014, FIFA granted the two American bodies seven automatic places, plus a playoff spot each, not including Brazil’s guaranteed appearance as host. This wouldn’t need to change if you merged Conmebol and Concacaf into the one mega-confederation. The weak North American nations could play a preliminary round of qualifiers to gain access to the serious stuff, which features 16 teams (Conmebol’s 10 current members, USA and Mexico, plus four North American qualifiers). These 16 would be divided into two groups of eight vying for four automatic WC berths in each group. Establishing one American confederation makes cultural sense, ensures a fairer spread of World Cup spots, and has a number of positive runoff effects – think of the mutual benefits of Boca Juniors playing a Libertadores tie in New York or LA.
Asia clearly needs as overhaul, too. It would be sensible to absorb Oceania, for whom even half a qualifying spot is too much, considering it grants the lowly All Whites a roll-of-the-dice shot at qualification far stronger teams could only dream off. There are 38 countries ranked higher than NZ in Europe and South America fighting for just 17.5 spots, and I’m certain the 20 that miss out would jump at the chance to play some Caribbean featherweight in a playoff for a Cup spot.
The current Asian system – where stronger teams are gradually sprinkled in – is sound, but the very presence of Saudi Arabia and North Korea at FIFA’s big dance has embarrassingly exposed the fact that four spots is far too many. A final round robin involving six countries competing for two automatic spots (and a playoff birth against America’s ninth-placed nation) would add some serious sting to the qualification process – imagine Japan, Korea and Australia scrambling for just two direct berths, with tough sides like Iran, Uzbekistan and NZ snapping at their heels.
Although African sides at the World Cup tend to be rocks or diamonds, they generally deserve their number of berths given their surprisingly competitive FIFA rankings. CAF, however, should simplify their qualification process, which currently entails three rounds that fail to challenge strong nations before a decisive set of playoffs. It’s fairer or simpler to divide, say, the top 12 into two groups of six competing for two spots each. Simpler, fairer, and sets up more high-quality ties.
So if I was in Sepp Blatter’s palatial Zurich headquarters, this is how the World Cup spots would be broken down: Europe 16, America 8.5, Africa 4, Asia 2.5, with the remaining place reserved for the hosts. Specifically, the method of qualification would be more consistent across confederations – Europe (eight groups of six or seven teams competing for two places each), America (two groups of eight teams competing for four places each, plus one playoff berth), Africa (two groups of six teams competing for two places each), and Asia (one group of six teams competing for two places, plus one playoff berth) – in order to increase the intensity of the qualification process, ensure a fairer allocation of places across the globe, and improve the standard of play at football’s showpiece event.
Unfortunately I’m not in the position to give Blatter the Kevin Rudd treatment anytime soon, so my plans to redraw the footballing map might have to go on the back burner for the time being. And given Australia’s history with our old Uruguayan amigos and Luis Suárez’s willingness to use both his teeth and hands on the pitch, I won’t exactly be crying into my corn flakes if Australia clumsily seal their passage to Rio while Uruguay sit at home next June. It’s just a shame that Lucas Neill and Glen Moss will enjoy roles on football’s most coveted stage while some of the planet’s best wait in the wings.