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 2006 - Africa



    For the World Cup fan--and we're all World Cup fans--these are the best of times. The previous tournament has been over for a while, so in our memories it's right where we want it: the best parts (Sepp Blatter getting booed) are glorious legend; the worst parts (the mascots, oh God, the mascots) may still haunt us, but at least they no longer wake us up screaming in the middle of the night. And the new tournament is quietly stirring. We can't find our atlases, so we're not exactly sure where Sao Tome e Principe is, but we know they'll be giving their all at home against Libya in a few weeks. We read that Colombia, after two losses, is ready to fire their coach already. And in defiance of all logic, we know, at least for the moment, that every single nation on the planet can still win the World Cup--even Scotland.

    Yes, the qualifiers are here. In fact, the qualifiers are so totally here that they're here before they're here. They won't pull the balls out of the bowls in Frankfurt until December 5, but by that time over 50 games will have been played, and more than 20 teams will have advanced to the next stage. The world just can't wait to get started, and that's great, because the qualifiers are the best part of the show. You get plenty of football without too much fanfare, and more than two years to explore the never-ending variety of the game. You can worry about England's midfield, or whether Paraguay can replace their aging heroes; you can follow what Bora's up to in Honduras, or Zico in Japan, or if they'll ever figure out who the coach is in Nigeria. And there's always Australia--will this be the year? Best of all are the obscure nations, the ones you only hear about during the qualifiers. Give me the romance of Equatorial Guinea, of Kyrgyzstan, of Aruba; of Vanuatu and Tonga; Mauritania and Mali, Malta and the Maldives; Mauritius, Malawi, Macao, Montserrat, Mozambique. Football is the world game because it's the best game, and because there are people in every nation, every territory, every tiny volcanic island, who live and die with their hopes and heroes. The World Cup is only the World Cup because you start with 204 teams. The qualifiers are what make the tournament worthwhile.

    So you can't have the World Cup without qualifiers--and you can't have qualifiers without qualifying systems. Somehow you have to get down to 32, and you have to do it in a manner that gives each team a fair chance, and gives the fans the maximum possible excitement. You have to consider the strength of the teams, the health of the players, and the financial state of the confederations. You have to consider everything. So an analysis of qualifying systems is more than stats-obsessed geekdom (although it's that, too)--it's a look at the fundamental competitive bases of international football. Best of all, it allows us to show those stupid bureaucrats that we'd do a much better job if they'd put us in charge. So we're going to take a close look at the qualifying systems for Germany 2006--in this, the first of a series, we'll look at CAF, the Confédération Africaine de Football.

    Africa (51 entries, 5 places) has a straightforward system which nevertheless involves some fascinating competitive issues. With 5 places available, the final round will be 5 groups of 6, winner take all. Now pause for a moment--go back and read that last sentence over carefully. Are you surprised? You should be. It will be the first time in World Cup qualifying history that a double-round group of six teams will have only one team advancing to the next stage of the competition. There have been plenty of double-round 6-team groups where only one team qualified automatically (look at UEFA), but in every case the second place team stayed alive in the competition, usually moving to a playoff with other second-place teams. Africa's 6-team, only-1-team-rewarded system is unique.

    There's a reason this system has never been used before: it's a bad idea. With only one team advancing from a 6-team double-round group, at least half the teams will be eliminated early, and there'll be a lot of games that have absolutely no bearing on the outcome. Diehard supporters will continue to follow their teams, of course, but for most fans, and many players too, it'll be a waste of time. It's true that in 1974 and 1978, CONCACAF had a reasonably successful final-round 6-team group with only one team qualifying. But 1) it was a single round robin, with half the games; 2) the games were all played at a single site in a short period of time; 3) the entrants were the six best teams in the region, so all the teams had a legitimate shot at succeeding. The spread-out winner-take-all double round robin with teams down the depth chart is a recipe for terminal boredom.

    But Africa hasn't suddenly gone crazy--in fact, they've come up with a brilliant idea. Because the 6-team groups aren't only World Cup qualifiers; they're also African Nations Cup qualifiers. Only the top team in each group will go to the World Cup, but the top three teams in each group will advance to the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt. This innovation has drawn rave reviews, primarily because a single qualifying system for two tournaments cuts way down on the number of international games. From a fan's standpoint, though, the real dividend is that the groups should be superbly competitive all the way. Two or three teams in each group will have a chance at the top spot; almost all the teams will have a chance at the top three. Even if the group winner is decided early, there should be plenty of excitement in the lower reaches of the table.

    On the other hand, the groups will only be exciting if you care about the Nations Cup. African fans will of course have no problem, but if the World Cup is all that matters to you, you're back at the beginning, with a large number of irrelevant games. But kudos to Africa anyway for such an original solution--even more so because they had the courage to change their original plan. Their first idea was to do it the other way around: use the Nations Cup as the qualifier for the World Cup. The original system gave the top 5 finishers in the Nations Cup the 5 spots for the World Cup. But CAF realized, among other things, that this would give the host nation an unfair advantage--host nations at the Nations Cup qualify automatically, and almost always make it into the top 5. Even though the plan had been officially approved by the confederation, they eventually changed it to the fairer system we have now. So let's reward them: don't just follow who wins the groups--spare some time for the lower reaches as well.

    To be objective, though, there are some competitive drawbacks to the new system. For one thing, with such large groups, goal difference may play a disproportionate role in the final standings. The 26th-30th best teams in Africa aren't hopeless minnows, but they're not really competitive with the top teams. Look at last cycle, when there were only 5 teams in the final groups, and so the bottom teams were stronger than they will be this time: the 5 last-place teams won a combined total of 2 games. In fact, the great Senegal miracle at the World Cup might not have happened without qualifying group tail-enders Namibia. The Lions nailed the Namibians 9-0 in two games, while Morocco managed only a combined 3-0. Senegal finished with the same number of points as Morocco, but beat them on goal difference by 7, so Namibia almost made the difference by themselves. With 6-team groups this year, such an outcome is even more likely, and qualification may depend on the ability of the top team to run up the score against the wooden spooners.

    Interestingly, the winner-take-all final groups are an African tradition. When the World Cup had only 16 teams, final-round qualifiers were winner-take-all as a matter of course. But with the number of berths increasing, confederations have usually chosen groups where more than one team qualifies (like the CONCACAF Hexagonal), or a second team at least goes to a playoff (as in UEFA). Yet Africa has gone winner-take-all in 1994 (3 teams per group) 1998 (4 teams per group), 2002 (5 teams per group), and now 2006 (6 teams per group). In all this time, no other confederation--not one--has had a winner-take-all final-round group stage. South America last had a final-round winner-take-all in 1990, Oceania in 1990, CONCACAF in 1986, Europe in 1982, Asia in 1978. There's some material here for social analysis; although I really don't know anything about it, I'd guess that the winner-take-all attitude is embedded in African cultures somehow. If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know.

    I admit I'm a big fan of winner-take-all groups; they offer a satisfying sense of justice, and a team really has to earn their spot. But they have one major drawback, particularly in confederations like Africa: they reduce the number of top-class matchups. This year, the 5 qualifiers from 2002 (Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, South Africa) were quite logically seeded at the top of the 5 final groups. But that means they won't meet. Imagine, instead, if the final round were set as two 6-team groups, with the top two teams from each group advancing, and the third-place teams meeting in a playoff. You'd get groups like this:

               Senegal        Cameroon
               Nigeria        South Africa
               Tunisia        Morocco
               Egypt          Congo DR
               Zimbabwe       Cote D'Ivoire
               Ghana          Zambia
    Look at those great games, all of which would be vital in the standings. With the current system, though, a typical final-round group might look like this:

Senegal Egypt Mali Libya Swaziland Mozambique
    Not quite so appetizing. On the other hand, African fans do get to see the top teams meet every two years in the Nations Cup. And that too may reflect a cultural choice, especially for a confederation outside the Europe-South America axis of power. Let the big teams fight it out for the great honor of the local championship, but when it comes to selecting teams to represent the confederation, don't make them work against each other.

    So there's plenty to say about the final stage in Africa. But there's a preliminary stage, too. To get from 51 teams down to 30, there will be 21 knockout matchups. What makes these particularly interesting is the seeding system. If you do the math, you'll see that when the initial pairings were created, 9 teams had to get a free pass to the group stages. The first 5 were naturally the 5 qualifiers from 2002 (again, Senegal, Cameroon, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria). But the other 4 (Egypt, Congo DR, Cote D'Ivoire, and Morocco) were determined not by specific competitive results, but by their spots in the June 2003 FIFA world rankings. Moreover, the remaining 42 teams were seeded into their initial knockout matchups through the exact same rankings. To my knowledge, this is the first time FIFA rankings have been used as a determining factor in World Cup qualification seedings. Which raises the obvious question: does this make any sense?

    OK, OK, don't start your 200-page treatise yet. We all know the FIFA rankings are ridiculous. But in this one situation, they may not be a bad idea. The FIFA rankings most often run into trouble by overrating teams from weaker confederations, who get their high spot by playing lots of games or a few high-class games at the right time. For example, Mexico and the USA are usually ranked too high, and teams just coming off regional championships tend to get an undeserved boost. But if you're ranking lower-level teams from a single confederation, who usually play against each other--how many teams outside Africa has Botswana played lately?--the ratings, although not perfect, are likely to be reasonably accurate. They're also a convenient way to organize a very large number of teams: just let FIFA do the work for you.

    As noted, the rankings gave 4 teams a bye into the final group stage. The way in which the remaining 42 were treated is worth a look. They were put into four pots--let's call them A, B, C, and D--based on FIFA ranking. In pot A were the 10 most highly ranked teams, in pot B the next 11, in pot C the next 11, and in pot D the bottom 10. As you can guess, teams from pot A were drawn to play teams in pot D, and teams in pot B to play teams in pot C. So there was a clear seeding arrangement, in which the best of the remaining teams got matched against the worst.

    The relatively large size of the pots, however, led to a certain amount of luck in the draw. Sao Tome e Principe, the very bottom-ranked team in the draw, at 194, last in pot D, would under a strict system have been matched against the very top remaining team, Zimbabwe, ranked 61. But the draw paired them with the lowest ranked team in pot A, Libya, at 91. So both teams got lucky: by strict ranking, Libya would have had to play Tanzania, ranked 158.

    On the other side of the coin, Benin, ranked tied for the top in pot C, at 127, would under a strict system have been matched with the bottom team in pot B, Lesotho, ranked 125. Instead they drew Madagascar, one of the better teams in pot B, ranked 103. By the same token, Madagascar themselves got a bad draw, since otherwise they would played Sierra Leone, ranked 135. And so on, with good and bad luck in varying degrees. But that's the fun of draws, really, and given the relatively rough nature of the FIFA rankings, none of the pairings are likely to be that out of line.

[Update: In later articles on Asia and Europe we talked about the disadvantages of large draw pots. Africa, however, is fairly smoothly gradated from top to bottom, and even pots of 10 or 11 can be acceptable for knockout ties. As it turned out, in 21 knockout ties, only 3 lower-ranked teams advanced, and in only one of those matchups was the draw noticeably unlucky to the team that lost -- Madagascar to Benin.]

    By the way, there's no news yet as to how the final round draw will be structured once the preliminaries are over. You'll have 30 teams left, with the 5 qualifiers from 2002 already seeded at the top of the groups. If the confederation is consistent, they'll rank the remaining 25 teams purely by FIFA ranking, in 5 pots of 5. Pot A should have the top five teams, Pot B the next five, and so on, down to Pot E, which should have the five lowest-ranked teams remaining in the field. In this system, each final-round group would get one member from each of the pots, so each group would have a team from the top 5, from the second 5, etc., down to the bottom 5. As noted, the FIFA rankings aren't perfect, but this system should produce relatively balanced groups. I'm guessing they go with it. [Update: That's exactly what they did, and the groups came out fine.]

    One last note. You football freaks may know that the African confederation actually has 52 members, not 51. What happened to the other team? Well, it's Djibouti, a nation the area of Belize and the population of Luxembourg, located on the horn of Africa bordering Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. They're the very bottom ranked team in the confederation, even below Sao Tome e Principe--as near as I can tell, they've won only one full international in their history, all the way back in 1988, over South Yemen, a country that doesn't even exist anymore. Djibouti is one of the poorest countries on the continent, and they're missing the qualifiers because they can't afford to enter. Too bad, really; in the 2002 qualifiers, their first ever, they pulled one of the great surprises of the tournament, holding powerful Congo DR 1:1 at home in the opening leg of their knockout series. The return match? Probably best forgotten, but if you want to see what happened, go to rsssf.com/tables/2002q.html and scroll down. [Update: Central African Republic dropped out after the pairings were announced.]

    So that's Africa, a sensible system that has some inevitable drawbacks, but on the whole seems fair and balanced. In fact, that's what CAF usually comes up with. African football has a reputation of being chaotic in the front office, but when you get up to confederation level their decisions are fairly intelligent, more so than some confederations I could name. Alas, one of those is my home confederation, CONCACAF--but that's the next column.


 

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