Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Allocating World Cup slots: Is there a better way?

    In August (yes, August!), qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals will be underway and, to its credit, FIFA’s Executive Committee resolved the allocation of slots to those finals quickly.

    In fact, our supreme governing body acted late last year and (can’t believe I’m about to say this) got nearly everything right. Not only was each confederation’s allocation decided, the vexed question of playoffs was resolved too. CONMEBOL’s fifth team plays CONCACAF’s fourth and Oceania’s winner plays off in Asia. No mess; little fuss; no likelihood of these decisions being changed.

    FIFA’s decisions generated relatively little comment around the world – surprising given their importance.

    And maybe that’s because the Executive Committee got nearly everything right.

    Nevertheless, there is at least one mistake and it so great that it should be seen as a criminal offence.

    On the surface, it looks like little has changed. Look at the allocation of slots this way and it seems to be a carbon copy of Germany 2006:

UEFA 13 CAF 5 CONMEBOL 4.5 AFC 4.5 CONCACAF 3.5 OFC 0.5 Host nation 1
    The reality, of course, is that the host is now an African nation, not a European one, so CAF picks up a bonus spot at UEFA’s expense.

    Before I tackle the complete injustice that the Europeans have suffered, let’s look at the positives.

    Firstly, the silly politics surrounding intercontinental playoffs have been resolved in a proper manner. You may recall that last time only AFC and CONCACAF were initially given half slots so they were locked into playing off for a spot against each other. But later, FIFA’s Executive Committee reversed its decision to give Oceania a full slot; returned OFC to its traditional 0.5 allocation; and gave a playoff place back to South America. That gave us the absurdity of Australia playing Uruguay while Trinidad & Tobago played Bahrain.

    Outside of Australia, there was little focus on how illogical that playoff situation was – probably because many people outside Australia didn’t rate the Socceroos far above either Bahrain or Trinidad & Tobago. But the playoffs, and the subsequent World Cup finals, surely showed that the two best teams (of the four involved in intercontinental playoffs) were paired up against each other. I attended two of the Soca Warriors’ three World Cup matches in Germany and truly loved the team and its fans – they contributed greatly to the tournament. Nevertheless, I doubt that they could have won a playoff against Uruguay.

    The intercontinental playoffs also threw up logistical problems because each team had to fly half way around the world between two matches that were just three to four days apart. These problems would have been greatly lessened if the two teams from the Americas played off against each other and Oceania played off against Asia – a natural geographic fit.

    FIFA’s Executive Committee has now organised just that. The fifth team from CONMEBOL’s qualifiers will play off against the fourth team from CONCACAF’s. And the winner of Oceania will get its chance to qualify through Asia.

    Indeed the OFC winner will win a place in the final group phase of Asia’s qualification series. This is also a sensible move because it gives the Oceania winner a decent route to the finals rather than the traditional nonsense of beating up a few rugby-playing islands before two sudden-death games against a strong opponent. Another tick for FIFA.

    Better still, OFC’s original idea of playing a home-and-away hexagonal to decide which of its teams advances to a meeting with another confederation has been shelved. Oceania’s final group will include just four nations.

    OK, it’s self-indulgence time. Because there’s a chance you read about most of these ideas on this website. More than three years ago, I wrote a column called The wrong question which talked about the unfairness of OFC’s qualification arrangements and called for the Oceanic winner to participate in Asia’s final group stage. At the time, Australia had not made the move to the Asian Confederation but FIFA’s decision is still a wise one.

    In January of last year, I wrapped up the Oceania World Cup qualifiers and criticised OFC’s decision to include six teams in its final group stage – I argued that it should be reduced to four. And it has happened. (I also outlined a lot of the logistical problems with the intercontinental playoffs in 2005.)

    It’s nice to know that there are people in Zurich reading my columns and adopting some of my suggestions. I just wish they’d start sending me some royalties.

    But one problem still needs fixing and that’s the injustice of the overall allocation of World Cup slots. Confederations should be rewarded for a good performance at the World Cup finals and they should be penalised for doing badly.

    I don’t mind FIFA’s decision to separate the host nation from the overall allocation. It means that the host confederation always picks up a bonus slot. If the host nation in 2014 is a South American nation, by all means, give CONMEBOL the extra spot at Africa’s expense because the tournament should be a showpiece for the whole continent (just as 2010 should be a showpiece for all of Africa). There are 31 other places up for grabs and they are the slots that should be decided by performance.

    But where is Europe’s reward for such a dominant performance in 2006? Why isn’t Asia penalised for its flop? (Even though it’s my home confederation, fair is fair.)

    UEFA’s gross under-representation is a result of international football’s politics. CAF, AFC and CONCACAF are (or have been) protected by their numbers (of affiliated nations) and the development arguments that FIFA’s current leadership has promoted for so long.

    Unfortunately Europe continues to lose (undeservedly) and if the trend continues the overall quality of the tournament will really suffer. In 2002, 15 European teams went to Korea/Japan and the confederation’s performance – which was unfairly deemed to be poor – was used as justification for a reduction in slots for 2006. When do the bad results of other confederations become properly scrutinised?

    Now, whoever you are in Zurich that reads my columns, look at my solution to this problem. It’d be a brave step – taking another decision away from football politicians and replacing it with performance criteria – but such steps have been taken before. Bite the bullet again.

    Use a points system to determine each confederation’s allocation. Then confederations can gain or lose points through both intercontinental playoffs and the World Cup finals. It doesn’t need to be a complicated formula.

    Each confederation’s starting points should be based on the current allocation of places (not including the host nation). So UEFA starts with 13 points, CONCACAF starts with 3.5, etc.

    When a confederation loses an intercontinental playoff, it should lose 0.2 points for the next World Cup cycle while the winning confederation gains 0.2. Then the World Cup finals should also rank confederations against each other and the two best confederations would gain points (0.4 for best and 0.3 for next best) while the two worst would lose (0.4 for worst and 0.3 for next worst). The confederations’ new totals would then determine the allocation of slots for the next World Cup.

    So how do we rank confederations’ World Cup finals performances against each other?

    There needs to be only one criterion for determining this ranking: what percentage of a confederation’s teams finished bottom of their groups. If we applied that to 2006, here is the table:

1 CONMEBOL 0% (0 out of 4) 2 UEFA 7% (1 out of 14) 3 CAF 20% (1 out of 5) 4 AFC & OFC 60% (3 out of 5) 5 CONCACAF 75% (3 out of 4)
[As long as the OFC winner goes through AFC’s qualifiers, it’s sensible to join the two confederations for this measure.]

    Whenever the debate over allocation of slots rears its head, media tend to focus on how many teams (from each confederation) reach the Second Round. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Only the weakest links count because this is effectively an exercise in promotion and relegation.

    This result would (in my inspired system for allocating World Cup slots) give CONMEBAL an extra 0.4 points and UEFA an extra 0.3 while CONCACAF loses 0.4 and AFC/OFC loses 0.3.

So the 2010 allocation would have been as follows:

             Old    IP     WCF    New    2010   Change
UEFA         13      0     +0.3   13.3   13.5     +0.5
CAF           5      0      0      5.0    5        0
AFC & OFC     5      0     -0.3    4.7    4.5     -0.5
CONMEBOL      4.5   -0.2   +0.4    4.7    4.5      0
CONCACAF      3.5   +0.2   -0.4    3.3    3.5      0
Hosts         1      -      -      1.0    1        0
[Old = Number of points before 2006 World Cup; IP = Intercontinental Playoffs; WCF = World Cup Finals; New = Number of points after 2006 World Cup; 2010 = Allocation of slots for 2010; Change = Change in allocation of World Cup slots. As AFC/OFC had two teams in intercontinental playoffs (Australia and Bahrain) and one won and one lost, they cancel each other out on that measure.]

    You can see that the new totals may need to be rounded to the nearest half. But at the next World Cup, each confederation should carry its points, not its allocation (e.g. CONMEBOL’s performance in the 2010 World Cup would be added or subtracted from 4.7 not 4.5).

    So these performance criteria would only have produced one change – AFC/OFC losing half a slot to UEFA. Yet suddenly that would make the overall picture seem so much fairer. And as long as the OFC winner goes into AFC’s final group phase, there’s no reason why an AFC/OFC team couldn’t playoff against a team from another confederation.

    You might be asking why I selected those point values. It’s because this system guarantees gradual change. One World Cup flop after several good performances won’t penalise a confederation too badly but regular World Cup flops will. Losing a full slot would take a minimum of eight years. (And if a confederation is the worst performer twice in a row and it loses an intercontinental playoff or two along the way, should it really expect any better?)

    This idea has its limitations. For instance, it effectively assumes that the division of slots is correct to begin with. But anomalies should eventually be corrected. Underrepresented confederations should continue to gain places and vice versa. We could also end up with one or two confederations being reduced to a tiny allocation. To get around that, there could be a minimum allocation (perhaps 2.5). But bear in mind that if a confederation falls that far, its teams simply aren’t good enough.

    One of the advantages of this idea is that it removes some of the World Cup’s meaningless matches. If finishing 4th (and last) in your group penalises your confederation, a match that simply decides 3rd and 4th suddenly has a point of interest. Think back to Costa Rica v Poland and Côte d’Ivoire v Serbia & Montenegro at last year’s tournament. Both matches were played between teams that were already eliminated so little more than pride was at stake. But in a situation where the outcome of those games help to form the basis of allocation of slots for the next World Cup finals, there’ll be a real focus on their results.

    Nevertheless, the main advantage of bringing such a system in is that it allows confederations to gain or lose World Cup places on merit and football politics wouldn’t be a factor. Nothing will change before 2010. Europe might be aggrieved with the allocation for South Africa but everyone else’s self interest will preserve the status quo.

    But an announcement that a system of this sort will be brought in for 2014, with 2010 results counting towards it, would be a giant leap forward.

And if that happens, remember where you first read about it!



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