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 - CONCACAF

    In our first column on qualifying systems for Germany 2006, we looked at Africa; now it's on to CONCACAF (34 entries, 3½ berths), which provides a striking difference in philosophy. When you get to the final rounds, Africa spreads the top teams out in winner-take-all groups; CONCACAF does the exact opposite, bunching them together in groups where at least half the teams advance. Africa, down to 30 teams, puts them in 5 groups of 6; CONCACAF, down to only 12 teams, first puts them in a semifinal round, with 3 groups of 4, the top two teams from each group advancing to a final round. The final round is then a Hexagonal, one group of 6, double round robin, with the top three teams qualifying and the fourth going to a playoff somewhere.

    This seems an unduly protracted system. Why have a semifinal round at all? Why not simply go from the preliminaries to a final round with 3 groups of 4, the winners qualifying and the second place teams playing off for the 4th spot?

    An obvious motivation is money. The semifinal-final system means more games, and thus more cash from the gate and TV rights. Each African team will play at most 12 games in qualifying; CONCACAF teams that go all the way will play a minimum of 16 games in the semifinal and final rounds alone. (We haven't even mentioned the preliminaries yet.) The semifinal-final system also has the important side effect of protecting the big teams, Mexico and the USA, which are so central to CONCACAF's worldwide profile. A 4-team group, with only six games per team, is just too risky; a bad run and even the best teams can miss out. In fact, had the 2002 qualifiers been decided by the 4-team semifinal groups, Mexico wouldn't have made it to the World Cup at all. They actually finished second to a rampant Trinidad & Tobago, which won their first four games (including one over Mexico), then eased into the winner's spot. Then there's Costa Rica, who performed so well in the Hexagonal and at Korea/Japan 2002--in the semifinal qualifying round, they got drawn with the USA, and would have been eliminated had this been the final stage. The USA themselves almost got knocked out in the semifinal round, needing a late victory on the final day at Barbados to slip past both Costa Rica and Guatemala.

    In a confederation so thin, it's no wonder the system is designed to protect the top teams. But let's be fair: the system also helps produce more competitive football. At the moment, CONCACAF has only 9 teams capable of competing at the highest confederation level: Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Canada, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago. (And T&T has been looking pretty shaky lately.) Assorted other teams, such as Cuba, Panama, Haiti, and Barbados, may occasionally spring a surprise, but over a group stage don't really belong on the field with the others. Take a look at the performances of the bottom teams in the semifinal round from the 2002 cycle (remember, 3 groups of 4):

Panama: 6 games, 0 wins, 1 draw, 5 losses, GF/GA 1-16
Barbados: 6 games, 1 win, 0 draws, 5 losses, GF/GA 3-20
St.Vincent: 6 games, 0 wins, 0 draws, 6 losses, GF/GA 2-25

    And these were presumably the 10th, 11th, and 12th best teams in the confederation! (By the way, St. Vincent’s full name is St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but St. Vincent keeps it simpler, and makes it sound less like a doo-wop group.) You just can't run qualifying groups like Africa's with a lineup like this. The semifinal-final system, although it may seem overly long and too skewed toward the top teams, at least allows for reasonably competitive groups. Imagine if the system used, say, 6 groups of 4 teams, with the winners going to the Hexagonal. Typical groups might be:

Mexico Costa Rica El Salvador Panama Surinam Dominican Republic Bermuda Bahamas
    Half the teams wouldn't stand the slightest chance of winning, and we'd see rout after rout, especially when goal difference could play a part in the final standings.

    Which brings us to the best argument in favor of the semifinal-final system. As we noted in the column on Africa, the main disadvantage of the winner-take-all system is that the top teams don't meet, meaning fewer attractive matchups. CONCACAF just gets all the good teams together in one group and lets them shoot it out. Eternal rivals Mexico and the USA get two games against each other every cycle, and they're the most anticipated matches of the whole 4-year period. And the other teams all get their shot at Mexico and the USA, not to mention Costa Rica, or whoever else is flying high. Best of all, every team in the Hexagonal can beat every other; certain teams are favorites, but there are no sure things. The system, now in its third straight cycle, has been a brilliant success.

    (It's worth noting here that CONCACAF lacks a strong confederation championship like Africa's. The Gold Cup is a third-tier event, and that's putting it kindly: teams don't always send their best players, and the confederation has to invite outsiders to get the stadiums even half-full. So CONCACAF needs strong World Cup matchups far more than Africa, and the Hexagonal is the perfect way to get them.)

    The semifinal-final system is fairly well established in CONCACAF; the real news this cycle comes in the preliminaries. In the past, the confederation has had a grotesquely complicated, very long series of early rounds, with two salient features: 1) byes for the top teams--last time out, Mexico, the USA, Costa Rica, and Jamaica all got seeded directly into the semifinal round; 2) regional organization, with Central American and Caribbean teams playing at the start in separate preliminary groups. Both these rules have gone by the boards, in a controversial new system that's much simpler, but has drawn considerable fire from a number of confederation members.

    The 2006 system creates a single preliminary round, with all 34 entrants competing. There’s a total of 12 groups: 10 of 3 teams, and 2 of 2 teams. The 12 teams from last cycle's semifinals are seeded at the top of the groups. The 3-team groups are double round robin, the 2-team groups are standard home-and-away knockout; the 12 group winners then advance to the semifinal round. One plus to the system is that it forces the big teams, who are coddled enough already, to get involved at the earliest stages. And according to the confederation itself, a major motivation for the change was to give the lesser teams at least 4 games, allowing the minnows a little more action, more chance to develop talent.

    It's a worthy goal. But the system has severe problems, most of which stem from the vast inequalities in the confederation. As we've seen, after the top teams, the quality of play drops dramatically, so several of the groups won't be close to competitive. Plus, at the very bottom of the confederation, there are a number of teams that can only be classified as super-minnows. Turks and Caicos, for example, went down 0-14 in their 2002 knockout series with St. Kitts & Nevis, who themselves went down 1-3 to St. Vincent--who, remember, lost all six games in their semifinal group, GF/GA 2-25. Then there's British Virgin Islands, who went down 1-14 to Bermuda, who lost on away goals to Antigua & Barbuda, who went down 2-5 to St.Vincent. Teams like this are in the lowest possible class, and it does no one any good to have them play two games against Mexico, or Costa Rica, or even Trinidad & Tobago. It goes without saying that the top teams are very unhappy with the system, which forces them to play four extra games that might very well be decided by basketball scores.

    Another major problem will be a lack of balance among the preliminary round groups. As noted, the 12 teams from last cycle's semifinals are seeded at the top of the 12 groups. On the surface, this makes sense, but we've already seen how vast the disparity is between the top of this range and the bottom. One group will be headed by Mexico, another by St. Vincent; one by Costa Rica, another by Barbados. To make it worse, the remaining 22 teams will all be put in the same pot in the draw, in effect seeded equally for the preliminary round. This disregards their vast differences in class: some teams, like Cuba and Haiti, can give the big boys a run for their money on occasion, others, like Montserrat and Bahamas, not to mention Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands, can't stay on the field at all. So luck will play a gigantic role in the draw. A team like Cuba might get drawn with the USA, where they would have virtually no chance of advancing to the semifinals; on the other hand, they might get drawn with Barbados, where they could very well be the favorite. A big team like Mexico might draw Haiti and Cuba, and be significantly stretched; or they might get Aruba and Anguilla, and be able to send the fifth string. There's just too much disparity in the confederation to make this work the way it's been designed. If you're going to have 12 groups, you have to make an effort to balance them somehow. If you can't do anything about the difference in quality between the group leaders, you can at least make sure the teams they face are roughly equal in strength.

    And believe it or not, it gets worse. Under the chosen system, the balance problem not only threatens the preliminary groups, but--if my guess about how the draw is to be structured is correct--the semifinal groups as well. The confederation has announced that at the December 5 draw, the teams will be divided into four pots: pot A will contain the qualifiers from 2002 (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica); pot B will contain the remaining teams from the 2002 Hexagonal (Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago); pot C will contain the remaining 6 teams from the 2002 semifinal round (El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Canada, Barbados, St. Vincent); pot D will contain the remaining 22 teams. We've already seen how lumping the bottom 22 will lead to significant imbalances. But note also the separation of the top 12 into pots A, B, and C. On the surface it seems logical--but what's the point? All 12 teams will head a group in the preliminary round; all will have equal status. There's no need for the A-B-C breakdown now. The only possible reason to separate them at this point in the draw is if you're going to do two draws: one to assign the teams to the preliminary groups, and one to assign semifinal spots to those groups.

    I assume what’s going to happen is something like this: to start the first draw, the preliminary round groups will be numbered 1-12, with groups 1-3 headed by pot A teams, groups 4-6 headed by pot B teams, groups 7-12 headed by pot C teams. The pot D teams will be drawn into those groups to complete the preliminary round draw. Then the second draw: the 12 preliminary groups will be drawn into the three semifinal groups, with each semifinal group getting one preliminary group headed by a pot A team, one headed by a pot B team, and two headed by a pot C team. So the December 5 draw will not only produce a preliminary round draw, with specific teams in specific groups, but also a semifinal round draw, looking something like this:

Grp A  Grp B   Grp C
  1      2       3   prelim grps headed by pot A teams
  4      6       5   prelim grps headed by pot B teams
  8     10      11   prelim grps headed by pot C teams
 12      7       9   prelim grps headed by pot C teams
    where “1” means the winner of preliminary round group 1, “2” means the winner of preliminary round group 2, etc. The goal will be to make sure each semifinal group has one team from pot A, one from pot B, and two from pot C. There are two major problems here. First, although the three A teams and the three B teams seem decently balanced (assuming T&T gets its act together), the C teams are not balanced at all. One semifinal group could get Guatemala and Canada, another could get Barbados and St. Vincent. Second, there's no guarantee that all the pot C teams, or even the pot B teams, will make it past the preliminary round. The semifinal round draw, if it's conducted now, can only assign the semifinal berth to the winners of the groups headed by the pot A, B, and C teams, not the actual pot A, B, and C teams themselves. What if a huge upset happens, like Haiti defeating Honduras, or Surinam knocking off El Salvador? Unless you have a chance to reseed before the semifinals, things can be thrown tremendously out of whack. You could easily wind up with a semifinal round like this:

 Mexico           USA                Costa Rica
 Jamaica          Haiti              Trinidad & Tobago
 Guatemala        St. Lucia          El Salvador
 Canada           Surinam            Panama
    Mexico’s group is ridiculously hard, the USA’s ridiculously easy, Costa Rica’s somewhere in the middle. With the World Cup at stake, this is not an acceptable result.

    Look it all over, and you’ll see the CONCACAF system has the makings of a major disaster. Part of it can be avoided by more intelligent draw structuring: 1) separating the pot D teams into two groups, so the preliminary round will be more balanced; and 2) waiting to do the semifinal draw until the final 12 teams are determined, so the semifinal round will be more balanced. It's just possible that the confederation may reconsider the draw structure: in their most recent press release, they only talked about the size and number of the groups, not pots A, B, C, and D. But the wide disparities in the confederation will cause problems with any system that tries to get everyone involved from the beginning. I've worked on this problem a lot (no, I don't have a life, thank you), and the best alternative I can come up with is this:

First Round:

    Take the bottom 16 teams and seed them by strength into 6 groups: 4 groups of 3 (double round robin) and 2 groups of 2 (knockout).

Second Round:

    The 6 winners of the first round groups join the remaining 18 teams (total 24) in 12 knockout matchups, again seeded by strength, with the 12 winners going to the semifinal round. The 12 ties might look something like this:

  Mexico - Nicaragua
  USA - Belize
  Costa Rica - Grenada
  Honduras - Netherlands Antilles
  Jamaica - Dominican Republic
  Trinidad & Tobago - Cayman Islands
  Guatemala - Bermuda
  El Salvador - Surinam
  Canada - St.Lucia
  Panama - St.Kitts & Nevis
  Barbados - Haiti
  St. Vincent - Cuba
    Several of these matchups will be competitive, and the mismatches are at least unlikely to produce ridiculous scores. The lesser teams will get some preliminary games without stepping completely out of their class; the big teams will have to play early, but won’t have to face the super-minnows (and will play only 2 games instead of 4). The teams in the middle, the Cubas, Haitis, and Surinams, who are too good to play in the preliminary rounds, get short shrift, because they won’t get a warmup before they play the better teams, but something has to give somewhere.

    About 18 months ago, in a column for this site, I called the 2002 CONCACAF qualifying system "insane," and urged the confederation to cut down on games, and get the big teams involved earlier. But looking at what's come up this cycle, I wonder whether the old system wasn't the best. To be honest, CONCACAF is just a larger version of Oceania. There are a few top teams, a few middle teams, and a very large number of minnows and super-minnows. To keep any credibility, you have to keep the top teams away from the bottom. You may need a long set of preliminaries (particularly in a confederation this size), but that's the way it goes. I like my proposed system, but I can't honestly say it's that much better than what's gone before.

    Oh, by the way: as with Africa, it appears as if one CONCACAF team won't be entering the qualifiers. The CONCACAF absentee is Antigua & Barbuda, which was suspended by FIFA back in May because "the current chaotic situation in the administration of football [was] preventing the national association from assuming its duties correctly." That's a kind way to refer to the fact that the federation apparently "mismanaged" a million US dollars in FIFA funds. Antigua & Barbuda isn't a super-minnow, so their absence will help some of the middling teams. And they still have a theoretical chance at participating; according to a recent article in the Caribbean Daily News, they're hoping FIFA will reconsider the suspension in November. If they do get back in (and what's a million dollars among friends?), CONCACAF will add them to the preliminary round, producing 11 groups of 3 and only 1 group of 2.

    Whew. Two confederations down, four to go. With Africa and CONCACAF we’ve been dealing with large confederations that need complex systems to whittle down the numbers. Next time, we’ll look at the small confederations, South America and Oceania, who face very different issues. As for a preview--well, you can bet the words “American Samoa” will be prominent…



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