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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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 decision.

    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 qualified.

    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 World Cups?

    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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