Now that the group stages are over, the World Cup field will very quickly be hewn down to the truly elite teams. Of course, just making it to the World Cup is an accomplishment, but any team who thinks that way is probably gone by now.
Nevertheless, the process of making it to the World Cup is not the same for every team. For example, every European team starts out with, on paper, a 1 in 4 chance of making it to the World Cup (13 spots guaranteed for Europe; 53 UEFA member countries). The UEFA qualifying matches take place over the course of a about a year.
On the other hand, CAF, the African confederation has almost the exact same number of members (52 countries), but only gets 5 spots, meaning every team starts out with, theoretically, a 1 in 10 chance. As a consequence of having to further hew the field to determine who qualifies, the CAF World Cup qualifying process takes a little over two years.
This leads to the perennial debate over which confederations deserve more or fewer spots at the World Cup. There are all sorts of ways to determine who is over- or under-represented, so I shall propose my own…
A good indicator of whether or not a confederation is fairly represented at the World Cup is the number of teams advancing from the group stages. After all, the teams that would benefit from marginal tinkering with the number of spots wouldn’t be teams with a chance to bring home the trophy. More than likely, they would be teams for whom the most realistic ambition would be to make it through to the knockout stages and maybe the quarter-final.
Thus, my proposal: Given that, for the last two World Cups, FIFA has used the same formula for determining how many spots each continent gets, let’s compare the number of spots each confederation was allotted against the number of teams from that confederation that advanced from the group stage. Since there are 32 spots at the World Cup, and 16 teams advance from the group stage at each World Cups, looking at the advancing teams from the last two World Cups gives us not only a bigger sample size, but exactly 32 teams, to help make our comparison. Thus, we can see which confederations are not making the best use of the number of spots they receive:
|Confederation||# of spots allotted||# of teams advancing from group in 2010, 2014|
|CONMEBOL (South America)||4.5*||10|
|CONCACAF (rest of Americas)||3.5*||5|
*In case you’re unfamiliar the 1/2 spots represent places that are contested in a play-off between teams from two different confederations.
Not too surprisingly, Europe and Africa, who receive the most guaranteed spots, appear to be over-represented. Asia would also appear to be over-represented, whilst all the Americas are under-represented, and South America dramatically so. Oceania is the only confederation, according to this formula, which seems to be just about right.
Based on the above, my proposal for re-allocating qualifying spots will appear rather modest:
|Confederation||Number of spots|
|CONMEBOL (South America)||5.5|
|CONCACAF (rest of Americas)||4.5|
According to this formula, both South America and CONCACAF are guaranteed one more place, with the possibility of even one more, to be contested between the 5th best team from CONCACAF and the 6th best from CONMEBOL.
All the other confederations would have a chance to secure just as many spots in the World Cup as before, but only one could actually succeed. The final spot would be contested by N̶e̶w̶ ̶Z̶e̶a̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ the top team from Oceania, the 5th placed team from Africa, the 13th from Europe, and the 5th from Asia. This four-way scrum could either be settled through a home-and-away round-robin with the top team after the 6 matches earning the spot or — if that would take too long — two sets of ties, with the winners of each facing each other.
Can you imagine the pre-tournament excitement that a four-way playoff would engender? Here’s how my formula would have played out for this tournament:
All the same South American and CONCACAF teams would have qualified but there would have been an intriguing matchup between Panama and Venezuela for the extra spot.
As for the four way play-off for the final spot, Jordan and New Zealand would have been there for sure. It’s hard to say who the African and European participants would be since their final spots were contested by head-to-head ties.
This proposal could help to correct some of the underrepresentation at the World Cup, and it might not be too difficult a sell to the confederations who stand to lose a spot since each individual confederation will think that they theoretically have a chance at getting the same number.
Also, a few more qualifying matches means more advertising revenue.
†The number of guaranteed places only adds up to 31 because 1 spot is guaranteed to the host nation, regardless of their confederation