Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Qualifying systems: the Good, the Bad and the Oceanic

    My favorite event of the World Cup cycle is the draw. No, not the celebrated draw for the finals, with its global reach and we-are-the-world jaw-dropping vulgarity, but the utterly obscure draw for the qualifiers, witnessed by a few confederation officials and whatever spiders have managed to take up residence in the appropriate corners. But what an event! Not only do qualifier fans get to root for who plays whom (England-Germany si, Belgium-Holland no!), but more importantly, who plays whom how. How many rounds will there be? How many teams in each group? How many group stages? Any knockouts? Playoffs? Who gets to beat Australia this time?

    These are important questions. True, the teams will settle the matter on the field (by penalty kicks if nothing else), but the fan experience depends to a great extent on the qualifying structure. It determines how many times we'll see our favorite team play, whether we'll accept second place in the group or pray to win it all, and whether we'll have to worry how many goals we can get on the road against Zimbabwe. Moreover, the structure also subtly affects a team's odds for qualifying. How many games you play over how many months, how short or long the stages are, whether goal difference matters: all these factors weight the scales in small but distinct ways. Forget the stadia, the sponsorships, even the TV schedule: qualifying systems are the infrastructure of the World Cup.

    What should a qualifying system accomplish? Determine a winner or winners, obviously; but in the right way. As fans, we want fairness: the system should work so the better teams are likely to emerge on top, and it should force you to play well to win. We want excitement, too: a sense that every game matters, a fair helping of suspense, and the genuine possibility of surprises. These goals aren't always mutually compatible. We need a system long and varied enough to weed out the lesser teams (one game per team wouldn't work), but short enough so that each game is important and upsets are possible (a thirty-game series would be silly). We need to decide how to favor the established powers with byes and seedings, but how to avoid giving them too great an advantage.

    Although over the years there have been a very wide variety of qualifying systems, they all utilize one or both of two basic structures: the knockout series and the group stage. The knockout series is a 2-game home-and-away tie, the winner qualifying or advancing to the next round, the loser eliminated. In the old days, if the games were split, a playoff was necessary, but these days it's usually decided by total goals, then road goals, then penalty kicks. The group stage is a league system, points 3-1-0, with each team playing the others home and away; in Asia and Oceania, because of traveling costs, these are sometimes held at neutral sites, and you play your opponents only once. Again, playoffs were common, but nowadays teams equal on points are separated by goal difference and total goals. (If everything's still even, you go to a playoff, as happened to Costa Rica and Guatemala this cycle.) The winner of a group stage either qualifies or advances to the next round, but teams finishing farther down may qualify or advance as well.

    It's obvious that knockouts are a bit chancy. Two games isn't much to decide the issue, and any club fan can tell you how they've been robbed by a fluke road goal in a short tie. On the other hand, the knockout pits one team vs. the other directly, so you're not at risk just because you only got 2 goals against Malta and the other guys got 10. Plus, it's over in a hurry. Group stages are longer, with a larger number of games, so the result is more likely to reflect the teams' strength. But group stages can be too long, so that the tension slackens; moreover, when second or third place teams can qualify or advance, teams don't necessarily have to be at their best every time out, and the quality of play suffers. And if you've got minnows in the group, there's the goal difference problem. Every four years FIFA and the confederations face these issues, and deal with them differently.

    Let's first take a look at my current favorites, Africa. This past cycle Africa had 50 entries, and began by pairing them off in 25 knockout series. This is a sensible opening for a large and relatively poor confederation; the majority of the entries are minnows, and knockouts reduce travel costs and remove lesser teams from the mix quickly. What was extraordinary this cycle is that there were no byes at all: Nigeria had to play in the first round, just like Equatorial Guinea. The teams were seeded, so that stronger teams played weaker, and all the big powers made it into the second round. But what a risk!

    Still, you have to admire the setup: no one gets a free pass, and even the best teams have to show their stuff from the beginning. After the knockout round, the 25 winners were seeded into 5 groups of 5 teams each, with the winners of each group qualifying. That's all, folks. Win or out. No other confederation does that. Eight games per group, so they're not too long or too short: every game matters, and there's plenty of pressure. Liberia, who had looked so good at the beginning, fell at the final hurdle. So did Morocco and Egypt. Nigeria appeared to have thrown their chances away, then came roaring back to qualify. Tunisia and the Ivory Coast staged a thrilling duel. True, sometimes a team runs away with a group, but the first-place requirement keeps you honest. Cameroon appeared to have everything sewn up early, but a surprise loss to Angola gave them a fright. So give me the African qualifiers, where men are men, and don't even have to kill lions to prove it.

    At the other end of the spectrum is the current South American system, to my mind the single worst qualifying procedure ever devised. All ten teams play a gigantic group stage, with the top four teams qualifying and the fifth going to a playoff with Oceania. I'll admit it has a few advantages. Teams have to prove themselves over a long stretch, so there's no possibility of a fluke; everyone plays everyone, so rivalries stay current. But it's boring. It's so very very BORING. With an 18 game season, each game shrinks to near-insignificance. There's no shape to the campaign. With so many places available, there's almost no pressure. Lose the opener? Well, there are 17 more to go. A few unexpected draws here and there? It'll all right itself eventually. Look at what happened to Brazil this cycle.

    In fact, the dirty little secret of this system is that it's designed exactly for what happened. All those games and all those places mean that the big powers are invulnerable; no matter how hard they tried, Brazil still couldn't play themselves into the second half of the table. And, of course, the more games, the more money. FIFA has pressured the confederation to change the system for the next cycle: not for competitive reasons, naturally, but to protect the big European clubs, who resent losing their internationals so many times. But CONMEBOL is holding firm, and plans to go with the group stage for Germany 2006.

    You could argue that this mess isn't really their fault. The confederation has only ten teams, and with no minnows at all (not even Venezuela anymore), and five berths available, it's impossible to devise a system like Africa's. In the old days, when the region had only three berths, you could put together groups of 4, 3, and 3, and have a decent competition. Nowadays something has to give. But the grupo gigante is a dreadful solution. Much better would be two seeded groups of 5, with the top two teams from each group qualifying, and if another berth is available the third-place teams playing off. It's hardly ideal: you can still play poorly and qualify, and if Brazil and Argentina are the top seeds, they'll never meet. But if both teams are sure to go through every time, who cares? You might as well play friendlies. At least we'd be spared the endless round of dreary games, and with a shorter season, teams would feel some heat from the start.

    From CONMEBOL to CONCACAF, which has a long and horrifically complex structure that combines features of the African and South American systems. Like Africa, the region has lots of minnows, so we start with a set of knockouts. But unlike Africa, CONCACAF protects the big teams with byes. No Mexico-Martinique matchups here. This time only the Carribean teams played the early knockouts, and Jamaica, a qualifier last time, was exempt. The lesser Central American teams had a preliminary round too, but it was in two 3-team group stages (Mexico and Costa Rica with byes), with the winners moving on and the second-place teams joining the last round of knockouts. Canada entered at this point too, but the USA was exempt. The knockouts left 12 teams in a semifinal round, which were seeded into 3 groups of 4, with the top two teams in each group advancing. Finally (still with us?), the last 6 teams played in a big group stage, known as the Hexagonal, with the top three qualifying.

    This system is clearly insane. It seems designed to produce the maximum amount of games, and thus bring in the maximum amount of money. Plus, it reflects a near-pathological need to protect the big teams. Mexico and the USA get a free pass to the final twelve, and even then can finish second in one group and third in another and still qualify. Even the second-rank teams are protected: note those preliminary Central American rounds, where even if you finish second you get to move on. One could easily do without the semifinal round, moving the final 12 into 2 groups of 6, winners qualifying and second-place teams playing off for the final berth. Or one could go with 3 groups of 4, upping the ante. And yet the Hexagonal, which would seem to be as dreary as the grupo gigante, can be fantastic. It's a region where the top six teams are fairly evenly matched, so you get a ten-game free-for-all where just about everyone's in the race until the finish.

    The USA appeared to have a berth wrapped up, but faded badly and barely held on. Mexico appeared totally lost, but staged a fabulous comeback to qualify. Honduras was on the verge of a berth, but lost at home to last-place Trinidad and Tobago and missed out. The big rivalries, like Mexico-USA, can actually mean something in the Hexagonal, and a tighter two- or three-group system would dispense with some classic matchups. But the Hexagonal rewards mediocrity too, and it's hard to justify a group where half the teams qualify. Still, whatever the final round looks like, CONCACAF should get some backbone: put the big teams more at risk, cut down on the preliminary rounds.

    Europe doesn't have any preliminary rounds, and doesn't need them. With so many berths and relatively few minnows, the problem is how to include teams, not eliminate them. UEFA has come up with an uncharacteristically intelligent solution: 9 seeded groups, 5 or 6 teams per group, winners qualify and second-place teams go to knockouts. Given the circumstances, this is almost ideal. The season is relatively short, so the games all matter, and you have to win your group to be assured of qualifying. The playoffs have a nice head-to-head feel, and if knockouts are a bit of a lottery, it serves you right for not winning the group. The alternative-splitting the second-place teams into a second round of group stages-isn't bad, but it extends the season, cuts down on drama, and would allow qualification by second-place teams. One round of group stages is fine. Moreover, with so many good teams in the region, there's no need to protect rivalries, and over the years you meet a wide variety of worthy opponents. Well done, UEFA! (But cut down on the starches, Lennart, for goodness sake.)

    We move now to Asia, which faces the same problem as Africa: a large confederation and lots of minnows. This time they started with 10 seeded group stages, winners advancing to 2 seeded groups of 5, winners qualifying and second-place teams in knockouts. The system was a little skewed this year because Japan and South Korea got automatic berths, but the general outlines remained firm. Note that while Africa goes with early knockouts, Asia sticks with group stages. The average Asian nation (think Persian Gulf states) is richer than the average African nation, and can afford the greater travel costs. From a competition standpoint, the group stage protects the big teams a bit better: of the 10 teams seeded at the top of their groups, 9 advanced. (Bahrain toppled Kuwait in the only surprise.) The final round is nicely calculated: as in UEFA, you have to win to qualify, and the knockout playoffs are short and sharp. But here too the big teams get a little help, unlike the African system, where you win or you're out. Still, it's a reasonable solution; it'll be interesting to see whether it changes for Germany 2006, when there are no automatic Asian berths.

    We come finally to Oceania, the ugly duckling of FIFA. As a confederation, it's a bit thin: ten teams, most of whom are minnows, including several super-minnows. And the championship always comes down to Australia and New Zealand. But they deserve the right to organize a competition, and for France 1998 they got it right: byes to the top 4 teams (Fiji and Tahiti, since you asked), preliminary rounds to select 2 more for a total of 6, seeded in 2 groups of 3, the winners going to a knockout. A perfectly sensible system: give the super-minnows a chance to advance and play the big boys, then finish off with a knockout so goal difference doesn't matter. But when bureaucrats get tired of playing with their little executive watchamacallits, they get to thinking, and then watch out.

    Some genius decided that for Korea/Japan 2002, they would cut down on the preliminary rounds, and stage 2 single-round groups of 5 before the knockout. Makes sense, except someone forgot to remind the powers that be that THIS IS OCEANIA, FOLKS. You all know the result: American Samoa and Tonga wound up in the same group as Australia, and we were treated to the most frightful carnage in World Cup history. To get an idea of the scale of the disaster, think spectacular natural wonders: the width of the Grand Canyon, the height of Mount Everest, the arrogance of Joao Havelange. Then look at the numbers: Australia-Tonga 22:0; Australia-American Samoa 31:0; Australia GF/GA 66-0; American Samoa GF/GA 0-57. The other group was more mundane-maybe a Sepp instead of a Joao-but ugly enough, with seven of the ten games decided by 5 goals or more. Oceania became the laughingstock of the football world, and Australia, normally a popular underdog, became the class bully.

    Which brings us to what might be called The Australia Problem. Every four years FIFA pits the Oceania winner against teams from other confederations in a knockout or series of knockouts. This is FIFA's way of acknowledging Oceania's independent status while still denying them an automatic berth. But by now everyone can see that it's a loser. After polishing off New Zealand, Australia gets what is in effect a two-game qualifying season. No other team is treated that way. It's unfair to the Socceroos, who would like a legitimate chance to prove themselves, and it's unfair to Oceania, who looks sillier and sillier each time Australia loses. The solution is so very simple: put the Oceania winner in one of the final Asian groups. I can think of only one reason this hasn't happened yet: it in effect makes Oceania a sub-group of Asia, thus somehow diminishing their status. But come on, people, the game's the thing. Up there FIFA, let's get it right next time.

    So there you have it: the glories, idiocies, and endless fascinations of the qualifiers. If you're in the mood for a debate, you can't beat a good wrangle over the various confederation systems. And when you're watching the Final, remember that you can't have Argentina-Italy without Malawi-Cape Verde. OK, I'll be following Korea/Japan 2002 like everyone else, but I'm already triple psyched for the next draw. Hey, only two years to go!

Answers to last week's trivia questions:

    Name the European team that went through a double round-robin qualifying group without allowing a single goal, and still failed to qualify.

    Answer: Belgium, 1974. Grouped with Holland, Norway, and Iceland (the parka manufacturers must have loved it), they got two scoreless draws with the Dutch, but couldn't run up the score against the minnows, and finished second on goal difference, 24:2 to 12:0. The same thing almost happened to England in 1990, who actually managed to finish second on points to Sweden despite a 10:0 GF/GA. But luckily, two second place finishers qualified that year, and they slipped in just ahead of Denmark.

    Luxembourg has given up more goals in qualifiers than any other team. Who is second?

    Answer: Finland. Finland is also the largest European country continuously in existence since 1930 never to have qualified for the World Cup. (The others: Albania, Luxembourg, Malta, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City. Not very flattering to the Finns, but they still have Paavo Nurmi.)

    Name the team that got its first World Cup qualifying point this year, after 18 straight losses.

    Answer: Pakistan. The breakthrough came at home to Sri Lanka: down 0:2, they got goals from Ghohar Zaman in the 75th and 80th minute, and when the Sri Lankans answered in the 83rd, Zaman completed the historic hat trick in the 85th. Bravo!



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