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    Articles related to CONCACAF 2006 WC qualifiers:

    Preview Feb 18, 2004
    Update Mar 4, 2004
    Wrap-up Apr 12, 2004
    Preview May 30, 2004 Wrap-up Jul 2, 2004 Preview Aug 9, 2004 Update Sep 20, 2004 Update Oct 26, 2004 Wrap-up Nov 30, 2004 Preview Feb 2, 2005 Update Feb 26, 2005 Update Apr 8, 2005 Update Jun 8, 2005 Update Aug 22, 2005 Update Sep 14, 2005 Wrap-up Oct 19, 2005 Preview Oct 29, 2005 Wrap-up Nov 19, 2005



    Preview: CONCACAF v Asia play-off

    by Peter Goldstein

        One of the best things about the World Cup is that it brings together far-flung countries with few other connections. On the day before Trinidad & Tobago qualified for the playoff, I googled “Bahrain and Trinidad & Tobago” and “Trinidad & Tobago and Bahrain,” and got only about 300 hits for both searches combined. Talk about worlds apart. On the one hand, Islam, multinational business, and Formula One racing; on the other, Christianity, carnival, and cricket. Nobody mentions Bahrain and T&T in the same breath, except a few international economists, a climatologist or two, a sprinkling of diplomats--and several hundred million football fans.

        You’d be surprised, though, to find out how much the countries have in common. They’re close in size: by latest estimates, Bahrain has roughly 700,000 people, Trinidad & Tobago 1.1 million. Both are island groups, in each case with one large island dominant. Although T&T has a substantial rainy season and Bahrain has none, both have consistently hot and humid climates. Both have a substantial oil industry. Both were attached to the UK, Trinidad & Tobago as a colony and Bahrain as a protectorate. They received their independence within 10 years of each other. English remains an important language in Bahrain, and is the official language of Trinidad & Tobago.

        When it comes to footballing history, the countries diverge a bit. Bahrain is a real newcomer at this level. Until recently they were a mid-table Gulf team without much distinction. In 1998, for example, they finished last in their first-round WCQ group, behind the UAE and Jordan. But in the 2002 qualifiers, they upset Kuwait in the first round, then finished a respectable third in their second-round group, behind Saudi Arabia and Iran. In 2004 came their great accomplishment, fourth place in the Asian Championship. That same year they had their best-ever Gulf Cup, finishing just behind Saudi Arabia. And now once again they find themselves just below the top level of Asian competition.

        Trinidad & Tobago, on the other hand, has some pedigree. From 1989 through 2001, they won 8 out of 11 Caribbean Cups. They came achingly close to qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, missing out on a last-day home loss to the USA. And all the way back in 1974, when only one CONCACAF team qualified, they finished second to host Haiti in the final group, eliminating no less than Mexico with a famous 4:0 victory.

        The teams come to the playoff on dissimilar tracks. A year ago, T&T were an embarrassment: players were publicly apologizing even after victories, and only a ridiculously easy draw got them into the final Hexagonal. Three games later, they had one draw, two losses, and not much hope--whereupon they replaced Bertille St. Clair with Dutch master Leo Beenhakker, and the team was transformed overnight. Three more games later they got the missing piece, the return of 37-year-old playmaker Russell Latapy. With Beenhakker making the decisions and Latapy pulling the strings, they won three of their last four games, including a final-round upset of Mexico, and zipped past Guatemala into fourth place.

        On the other hand, Bahrain has been no better than stagnant lately. After the great 2004 performances much was expected, and in that same year they easily topped Syria in their first-round qualifying group. But in the second round they were a major disappointment, finishing a very distant third to Japan and Iran, advancing despite a record of 1 win, 1 draw, and 4 losses. They might not be here at all were it not for the absurd FIFA decision to take away Uzbekistan’s win in the Asian playoff opener. Even then Bahrain only advanced on away goals. And here’s a stat for you: Bahrain has somehow managed to get one step from the World Cup without winning any of their last six games. If they pull the same two-draws-go-through-on-away-goals trick on T&T, they’ll be in the World Cup on an eight-game winless streak--a record I suspect will never be broken.

        Tactically the teams offer an intriguing contrast. T&T is a deliberate team, best at the slow buildup; Bahrain is a fast team that likes to counterattack. Goals should be very hard to come by; in their last 18 games, the teams have scored only 15 goals combined. T&T appears to have settled on a 4-5-1, which takes advantage of attacking midfielders Latapy, Dwight Yorke, and Carlos Edwards. Bahrain usually plays a 3-5-2, with midfielders Hussein Ali Baba and Mohammed Salmeen releasing danger men Talal Yusuf and Ala’a Hubail (if healthy) on the counter.

        In a two-game knockout just about anything can tip the balance, so we won’t pretend to guess where the game will be decided. But with the midfield crowded, and open space at a premium, set pieces could play a large part. T&T, with overall superior strength and height, probably has the advantage there. In open play, T&T will probably have to use a bit of muscle to counter Bahrain’s pace, and a lot should depend on whether strength or quickness wins the midfield 50-50 battles.

        On the basis of club quality, Trinidad & Tobago would appear to have the edge. Their players are mostly UK-based, spread out over the English and Scottish leagues. They also have players with considerable top-level experience: Dwight Yorke is the most familiar name, but keeper Shaka Hislop has logged several seasons in the EPL, defender Marvin Andrews is an SPL veteran, and Russell Latapy has seen championship seasons with Rangers and FC Porto. Bahrain’s players play exclusively in the Gulf, mostly in Qatar and Kuwait.

        One important factor will be the health of Bahrain’s young striker Ala’a Hubail. The sensation of the 2004 Asian Cup, he’s recovering from a serious knee injury. He returned for the first time in eight months with a couple of late-game appearances against Uzbekistan. If he’s fit, that’ll be a crucial weapon for the low-scoring Bahrainis.

        It’s always hard to pick between teams with no history of head-to-head competition. I have no idea who’ll win. But I know who should be the favorite: Trinidad & Tobago. How can I be so sure? Because they’re the fourth-best team in CONCACAF going against the fifth-best team in Asia--and by every measure you care to name, CONCACAF is stronger. This is a hobbyhorse of mine, so I apologize in advance for what’s to come. And I’m a CONCACAF fan, so consider the source. But hopefully the stats will bear me out.

        As you know, Asia has 4½ berths and CONCACAF 3½, which on the surface would suggest that Asia is stronger. But the 4½ for Asia is--to be polite about it--a swindle. In the 1998 World Cup, Asia had a sensible 3½ spots. (A bare 3, like CONCACAF, might have been more fitting, but I won’t press the point.) When FIFA backed itself into a corner and gave Asia two hosts for the 2002 tournament, they had to up the allocation, hence the 4½ for Asia last time around. But in 2006, with exactly zero Asian hosts, FIFA kept the number at 4½. The allocation for 2006 may look the same as that for 2002, but it’s actually an increase. Pure sleight-of-hand.

        The trick is particularly outrageous when you look at Asia’s record in 2002. Japan performed creditably, and South Korea more than that, but both teams had the home advantage, with all that brings. The third and fourth teams, Saudi Arabia and China, were humiliated, with a combined score of 0 wins, 0 draws, 6 losses, GF/GA 0:21. I salute Japan and South Korea, but an increase in berths can only be justified by top-to-bottom quality. When your third and fourth teams are completely non-competitive, you don’t deserve an extra slot.

        By no means am I saying CONCACAF should get more berths. I think 3½ is about right, and a bare 3 would be fair too. And I don’t begrudge Asia their 3 or 3½; every confederation should have a reasonable floor. But for Asia to have more berths than CONCACAF somehow suggests they’re stronger, and they’re not. In fact, they’re noticeably weaker.

        Let’s take the most obvious measure: head-to-head games between teams from the confederations. In World Cup play, the confederation representatives have met 6 times ((H) = home team):

    Date     Result                            Winner
    1986:    Mexico (H)      1:0 Iraq          CONCACAF
    1998:    Mexico          3:1 South Korea   CONCACAF
             Jamaica         2:1 Japan         CONCACAF
             Iran            2:1 USA           Asia
    2002:    Costa Rica      2:0 China         CONCACAF
             South Korea (H) 1:1 USA           draw
        Both confederations had home advantage once, so that cancels out. The balance: CONCACAF 4, Asia 1, draws 1.

        To take this further, let’s go to the only other place Asian and CONCACAF teams meet, the Confederations Cup:

    Date     Result                                 Winner
    1992:    Saudi Arabia (H) 3:0 USA               Asia
    1995:    Mexico           4:0 Saudi Arabia (H)  CONCACAF
    1997:    Mexico           5:0 Saudi Arabia (H)  CONCACAF
    1999:    Mexico (H)       5:1 Saudi Arabia      CONCACAF
             USA              2:0 Saudi Arabia      CONCACAF
    2001:    South Korea (H)  2:0 Mexico            Asia
             Japan (H)        3:0 Canada            Asia
    2005:    Mexico           2:1 Japan             CONCACAF
        Asia has had home advantage five times, CONCACAF only once, yet CONCACAF still leads here, 5 wins to 3.

        Combine these two sets of results, and you have Asia at home six times, CONCACAF at home only twice, yet CONCACAF significantly ahead, 8 wins to 4. In fact, look closely, and you’ll see that only once has an Asian team defeated a CONCACAF team at a neutral site, whereas CONCACAF teams have defeated Asian teams five times at neutral sites. And it’s not just Mexico. If we count only the neutral site games, we have this:

    Date     Result                        Winner
    1998:    Mexico     3:1 South Korea    CONCACAF  
             Jamaica    2:1 Japan          CONCACAF
             Iran       2:1 USA            Asia
    1999:    USA        2:0 Saudi Arabia   CONCACAF
    2002:    Costa Rica 2:0 China          CONCACAF
    2005:    Mexico     2:1 Japan          CONCACAF
        Four different CONCACAF sides (Mexico, Jamaica, USA, and Costa Rica) have defeated four different Asian sides (South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, China). That’s a decisive superiority, covering the full range of top teams.

        Let’s look now at the confederations’ recent World Cup history. We’ll start with 1986, the first year in which both confederations had at least two teams who still remain part of those confederations. (New Zealand, from 1982, is now in Oceania.) For our first measurement, let’s leave the home teams out of consideration, and count only the records from the group stage.

    1986:    Canada           0-0-3
             Iraq             0-0-3
             South Korea      0-1-2
    1990:    USA              0-0-3
             Costa Rica       2-0-1
             UAE              0-0-3
             South Korea      0-0-3
    1994:    Mexico           1-1-1
             Saudi Arabia     2-0-1
             South Korea      0-2-1
    1998:    Mexico           1-2-0
             USA              0-0-3
             Jamaica          1-0-2
             South Korea      0-1-2
             Saudi Arabia     0-1-2
             Iran             1-0-2
             Japan            0-0-3
    2002:    Mexico           2-1-0
             USA              1-1-1
             Costa Rica       1-1-1
             Saudi Arabia     0-0-3
             China            0-0-3
    The totals:
    CONCACAF:                9-6-15
    Asia:                    3-5-28 
        No contest. Look particularly at the win and loss figures. CONCACAF is clearly stronger.

        But, you say, we’ve been unfair to Asia by not counting the fine host performances by South Korea and Japan. So let’s include them--but then we also have to include Mexico from 1986 and USA from 1994. Here are the added numbers, still only group stage:

    1986:    Mexico           2-1-0
    1994:    USA              1-1-1                
    2002:    South Korea      2-1-0
             Japan            2-1-0
    The final group stage totals:
    CONCACAF:               12-8-16
    Asia:                    7-7-28
        Asia got a positive result in only one-third of their games, with four losses to every win. CONCACAF got a positive result in over half their games, with a win/loss ratio not far from even. Again, no contest.

        Well, shouldn’t we take into account South Korea’s great post-group-stage performance? OK, but statistically it wasn’t that great. In fact, since games won on PK’s are officially only draws, South Korea won only one game, drew one, and lost two (have to include the third-place game too). Anyway, let’s add on the rest of the post-group-stage games since 1986:

    1986:    Mexico           1-1-0
    1990:    Costa Rica       0-0-1 
    1994:    Mexico           0-1-0
             USA              0-0-1
             Saudi Arabia     0-0-1
    1998:    Mexico           0-0-1
    2002:    Mexico           0-0-1
             USA              1-0-1
             South Korea      1-1-2
             Japan            0-0-1
    Our grand totals: 
    CONCACAF:              14-10-21 
    Asia:                   8- 8-32
    Still a decisive advantage.

        The only possible way you can say Asia has outperformed CONCACAF in the World Cup is that they’ve put a team in the semifinals, and CONCACAF hasn’t. That’s true. But South Korea was host (any bets they would have made it to the semifinal otherwise?), and needed some doubtful refereeing to get there. And one team, one time, at home, hardly says anything about the strength of the confederation as a whole.

        So there you have it. By all available statistical measurements, CONCACAF is stronger than Asia, and by a significant margin. They have a big lead in head-to-head meetings. They have a big lead in World Cup performances. They’re just better.

        To be sure, in 20 years I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Asia on top. For one thing, they now have Australia. For another, they have much greater potential for expansion. Think of giant nations like China and India, large nations like Indonesia and Thailand, good-sized nations like North Korea and Uzbekistan. Think of the rich Persian Gulf states. Those are the kind of countries that can develop consistent World-Cup-level teams. CONCACAF just doesn’t have the right profile; Canada and Cuba are about the only countries with the population and/or resources for significant improvement. It may not be long before a CONCACAF/Asia playoff favors the Asians.

        But right now we have to go with what we’ve got. The evidence suggests the fourth-best team in CONCACAF is better than the fifth-best team in Asia. Of course, stats can only tell us so much. Bahrain may in fact be better than T&T. For all we know, a Bahrain victory might presage a new order, Asia ascendant. And in 2026, this series might look like the turning point. But here and now, Trinidad and Tobago is the logical pick--not that logic ever had anything to do with results!


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