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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Jack and Chuck Get the Message

    Is it possible that Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer, President and Secretary of CONCACAF, read Planet World Cup? I doubt it; they're too busy picking out plush carpet for their offices, or deciding between a Picasso or a Rembrandt for the north wall. But if they were PWC readers, they would have read this article, which showed what a nightmare the proposed CONCACAF qualification system was, and they would have followed its recommendations, and changed the system.

    And that's precisely what they did. With little more than a month to go, CONCACAF has scrapped its controversial qualification preliminaries and instituted a new system, better in almost every way. Not only that, they've kept the later qualification rounds, the ones that have worked so well in the past, the same. It's almost enough to give you hope for sane international football management…well, better not get carried away.

    If you want to see all the gory details, go back to the earlier article. But CONCACAF's problem was to figure a way to get from 34 teams down to 12, after which it could run the semifinal (3 groups of 4, top two teams advancing) and final (Hexagonal, 6 team group, top 3 qualifying, 4th place to a playoff) as they have in the past. The original preliminaries put all 34 teams into a single round, and would have resulted in major individual mismatches, as well as severe inequalities of treatment among the teams. The new system not only gets rid of the gross mismatches, but (assuming the seeding is intelligently done) makes sure every team gets a fair shake in the draw.

    One of the big problems with the original system was that the biggest teams (Mexico, USA, etc.) were included from the start, and could potentially get matched up against the superminnows. In the new system, the 12 semifinalists from the previous qualifying cycle get a bye for the first round, so there's no chance of an American Samoa-like blowout. The new first round matches the 20 remaining Caribbean teams in 10 knockout ties: short, sweet, and sensible. There is, however, a pretty large disparity between the top of that range (Cuba and Haiti) and the bottom (Turks and Caicos, Montserrat); I'm assuming that the confederation will come up with a reasonable seeding system that assures that the best teams won't get matched against each other. The FIFA rankings might be one option (Africa is doing it that way); another would be the team's record from the previous cycle. Either way, the first round should produce 10 reasonably competitive teams.

    As compared to the original system, there's one drawback here: the lesser teams will get at most two games to help develop their talent. The original system was explicitly designed to give the minnows and superminnows at least 4 games; that idea seems to have been sacrificed in favor of simplicity and speed. The alternative would have been a group stage preliminary, which would have assured more games for the bottom teams, but might have involved too many competitive dates. The lesser nations actually get a fair amount of games in the regular Caribbean Nations Cup, so it's not a disaster for them; still, the confederation should look into ways to get them as much competitive football as possible.

    There's another sort-of drawback, or maybe just an anomaly, to the new system. If you look at the above numbers carefully, you'll see that the 12 top teams get a bye, and the 20 remaining Caribbean teams play a preliminary round. That makes 32--but there are 34 entries in the tournament. Who are the other 2? Well, they're Nicaragua and Belize, and, amazingly enough, they too get byes, just like the USA and Mexico. There's no real reason for this--although Nicaragua and Belize are Central American, as opposed to Caribbean, they certainly belong among the minnows. In fact, it's unfair to the better Caribbean teams, because Nicaragua and Belize are well down the confederation pecking order. They probably belong with the bottom half of the Caribbean, alongside teams like Dominican Republic and Guyana. But two more teams had to get byes in order to produce an even 24 for the second round, so the confederation just went zonally rather than by merit. Cuba and Haiti are the teams that should have had the byes, but maybe it's not so bad for them, since they'll get two warmup games before they have to face tougher competition.

    So for the second round we have 24 teams: the 10 winners from the first round, the 12 semifinalists from the previous cycle, plus Nicaragua and Belize. The second round is another set of knockouts--precisely the method recommended in my previous column!--which gets you down to 12 for the semifinal round. This has two excellent features: first, it still gets the big teams involved at an earlier stage of the competition than ever (in the past they received byes into the final 12); second, as opposed to the original system, they don't have to play superminnows, and need only 2 instead of 4 games to advance. Mexico doesn't figure to lose to, say, the Netherlands Antilles, but at least the scores won't be outrageous. And since it's a short knockout series, the big teams know they have to be reasonably sharp.

    One potential problem still remains: in the round of 24, you'll need careful seeding to maintain a fair draw. Remember, the 12 semifinalists from the previous cycle cover a very wide talent range, from top-class Mexico, USA, and Costa Rica to very ordinary Panama, Barbados, and St. Vincent. If those 12 go into one pot, and the 10 knockout winners plus Nicaragua and Belize go into another, there will be considerable inequality in the draw. A team like Haiti could get matched against the USA, or against Barbados--a big big difference to the Haitians. So I hope there's a seeding system, based either on FIFA rankings or competitive results, which assures that the best of the first round survivors don't have to play the superpowers. Here's a set of possible matchups, reprinted from the earlier article:

  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
    I'd say at least five of these matchups could be competitive, and the rest might provide moments of interest, and a scare or two. Not bad, and from there we can move to the semifinal, and the fun can really start.

    A footnote on Antigua & Barbuda. In the previous column, we noted that they had been suspended by FIFA, and looked like they would miss the qualifiers. Last month FIFA reinstated them--but it looks like they're going to be left out anyway. CONCACAF appears to be counting on only 20 first-round Caribbean teams, not 21, and I assume the odd man out is Antigua & Barbuda. [Update: In fact, Antigua & Barbuda will participate, and the team dropping out is Puerto Rico.]

    It's easy to be critical of the CONCACAF administration: they've cozied up to Sepp Blatter, their club competition has little credibility, and the Gold Cup is a bit of a mess. But every so often they get it right, and this time they did, so they deserve credit. Well done, Jack; well done, Chuck. Just make sure you have someone reading Planet World Cup full time.



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