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
Read earlier columns
Africa's big idea
The problem with being a sage is that there's always someone out there a lot
smarter than you. Last week I wrote a witty, concise, brilliantly reasoned
article showing that regional championships, and particularly the CONCACAF
Gold Cup, should be kept as far away from the World Cup as possible. Since
sending it off to Jan Alsos, I've been sitting by the phone, awaiting my
Pulitzer Prize in soccer journalism.
And then Africa comes along and makes me look like a Congolese chimpanzee.
This week Africa decided that in the future its Cup of Nations will double
as World Cup qualifiers. The idea is designed to allow the competition to
fit the new FIFA coordinated international fixtures calendar. For revenue
purposes, the cup will continue to be held every two years, and the off-year
tournaments (2004, 2008, etc.) will stand on their own. But alternate
tournaments (2006, 2010, etc.) will regularly act as the qualifiers for the
corresponding World Cup, beginning with Germany 2006. It's a simple, elegant
solution, and of course it had never occurred to me.
Let's take a closer look at the idea. Schedule-wise, it's a winner. It does
wonders for the cluttered international calendar: in the two-year period
preceding the World Cup, African national teams will play half the games,
and club/country conflicts will be significantly reduced. It's also a boon
to players, who for years have been tired out by excessive club and
international fixtures. It assures that the best players will all be
available for the tournament, and that no team will give the competition
short shrift in favor of World Cup preparations. So far, excellent.
Now the structure of the competition itself. At the moment, the final stage
of the African qualifiers occurs over a full one-year period, and a team's
performance naturally fluctuates with the ups and downs of morale and
conditioning. The new solution throws the weight of the competition toward a
very small period of time. Once you pass through the qualifying rounds and
get to the Nations Cup, your fate will be determined in a period of about
three weeks. No time for adjustments: win now or that's it. Luck will thus
play a larger role: if one of your key players happens to have an injury
that puts him out for a month, too bad. Moreover, if a team just happens to
get hot for a short time, they can qualify even though they'd be unable to
sustain the performance over a longer period. My guess is there'll be more
upsets and surprise qualifiers.
To some degree this will depend on the arrangement of the final tournament.
At the moment, the final stage of the Cup of Nations has 16 teams, organized
in 4 groups of 4, with the top two teams in each group going to the
quarterfinals, and knockouts from then on. Africa gets 5 World Cup bids, and
their idea is to give four of them to the four semifinalists, with the fifth
decided by a formula yet to be determined. If they keep the current format,
you'll have lots of teams who need only play three good games to be one win
away from qualifying. Asia experimented with short final tournaments in 1990
and 1994, but by that time they had narrowed the field down to six teams.
Oceania has done it that way too, but Australia and New Zealand are so far
ahead of the pack that it doesn't matter. A big, short tournament in Africa
is likely to produce some shocks, with plenty of jubilation and
recrimination to follow. Whether that's good or bad is your call.
The biggest drawback lies in the host country problem. At the moment, no
team has any special advantage in the African qualifiers. After a knockout
round, teams are seeded into 5 double round-robin groups, with the winners
qualifying. But the Cup of Nations has a host country. Will that host, as
now, be automatically granted entry into the final 16? That's a gigantic
advantage. Think about it: Mali, host for the 2002 Cup of Nations beginning
this week, has never come near qualifying for the World Cup. If the new
system were in effect now, Mali would start out only four games away from
qualifying, all the games with home advantage. Is the confederation really
willing to give any team such a huge jump on the competition? What's more,
if the host team is one of the traditional African powers, like Nigeria or
Tunisia, they'll be practically assured of qualification. A good team
playing at home will almost certainly make the quarterfinals, and then
you're only one game away. The stakes are huge. Just imagine the political
maneuverings (read: under-the-table dealings) that'll precede the big
In order to avoid this problem, you'd have to either 1) hold the tournament
at a neutral site; or 2) deny the host an automatic berth. The first
solution won't work. Asia used to play its last-stage qualifiers at a
neutral site, but they were down to six teams by then, and a small
tournament is much easier to organize on short notice. And even if you've
got the best organizers in the world, you'd have to find an African country
A) rich enough to stage the tournament but B) not good enough to qualify for
the final 16. It just doesn't exist. The second option is more practical,
but then you're faced with the possibility of a big tournament before empty
stadiums. If the host doesn't qualify, attendance will drop way down,
especially since some of the fans will have to travel great distances to get
to the games. And what country will go to the gigantic effort of staging the
tournament if they won't be rewarded with a berth?
A more intangible drawback is the effect on the psychology of the
tournament. Qualifying for the World Cup will be everyone's first goal, so
once you get to the semifinals, the results will be irrelevant. Well, not
entirely irrelevant, but teams won't mind losing so much if they've already
achieved their primary objective. The semis and final will likely take on
the air of exhibitions. There's some incentive to win the championship,
because the winner gets automatic qualification for the next Cup of Nations
-- but the next one will be in the off-year, and it won't matter so much.
And sure, there's pride, but the World Cup is so important (especially for
the traditional powers) that there's bound to be a letdown once you've
As a result, the tournament will lose some of its reason for being. It won't
really be a regional championship so much as a World Cup qualifying
tournament with a couple of extra games. To stretch a point, you might as
well not even bother to call it the Cup of Nations. Why not just go to the
European/Asian model, where you hold the tournament every four years between
So although the idea looks good, it's not perfect. Some tinkering with the
structure may be necessary in order to eliminate or reduce the host country
problem. The psychological drawback may be harder to overcome, but then
again pride might win out over practicality. I personally prefer the current
African qualifying structure, if only because you have to win your group
outright in order to qualify. But if the confederation gets the bugs worked
out, it may yet be a success. It'll certainly be worth watching.
On the other hand, I'm not sure it'll work for CONCACAF, at least not
without a dramatic change in the confederation's outlook. As I noted in a
previous article, CONCACAF goes to great extremes to protect the United
States and Mexico in World Cup qualifying. That's because these are by far
the most powerful countries in the region, politically and financially. A
shorter, sharper Gold Cup, where these teams would be in greater jeopardy,
might not be to CONCACAF's taste.
There would also be some organizational blips, perhaps minor. At the moment,
the confederation's sub-regional tournaments (the Copa Caribe and UNCAF, the
Caribbean and Central American championships respectively) serve as
qualifiers for the Gold Cup. They might have to be restructured or
rescheduled. The current final round of the World Cup qualifiers, the very
successful Hexagonal, would have to be scrapped. Much thought would have to
be given to the setup of the new tournament, although a fair and reasonable
structure shouldn't be impossible to find.
But the host country problem could be bigger than ever. Africa can run a
final tournament with 16 teams, because it has at least 16 teams that won't
be outclassed in competition with each other. CONCACAF has maybe 10. So the
final tournament might have to be smaller, and the host country's advantage
even larger. From 1974 through 1982, CONCACAF held a final-round 6-team
World Cup qualifying group in one of the participants' countries; the host
topped the group every time. And as in Africa, a sufficiently developed
neutral country would be hard to find.
On the other hand, in CONCACAF you could deny the host country an automatic
berth -- if the host country is the United States. Should the USA somehow
not make the final stages, you wouldn't have to worry about crowds. With
World Cup berths at stake, ethnic audiences would swell the stadiums in New
York, Miami, and Los Angeles. But of course if you hold it there every time,
the USA would get an unconscionable advantage.
On balance, it probably wouldn't work here. At the moment, I'd still favor
the Gold Cup once every four years, or in the odd-numbered years. But
there's plenty of grist for the mill, and let's hope the CONCACAF people at
least do some constructive thinking about these difficult issues. (It isn't
their strong point, but you never know.) Hey, now that I think about it,
this sage business isn't so bad after all. I may not get my Pulitzer -- but
at least my head's not on the block.
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