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 - South America



    From a couple of big confederations, Africa and CONCACAF, we move to a couple of small ones, South America and Oceania. I had originally intended a piece on both CONMEBOL and OFC, but (no surprise) there turned out to be so much stuff to say about South America that it made sense to treat each confederation in a separate article. So it's the big boys this time, and the poor relations next.

    When it comes to qualifying systems, South America (10 teams, 4 1/2 spots) has the hardest task. With nearly half the teams qualifying, and not a single minnow in sight, there's no scope for preliminary rounds, and any system will inevitably allow mid-table teams to qualify, however mediocre their play has been. As you probably know (since the competition's already started), for the third straight cycle, they're going with the grupo gigante, a double-round-robin group stage including all 10 teams in the confederation. The top 4 teams qualify, and the fifth goes to a playoff.

    I've written before about how much I dislike this system, but before we get to that again, let's look at the advantages. For one thing, with every team playing every other, there's no luck of the draw. In fact, there's no draw at all. You don't have to worry about getting paired with a team that for some reason always beats you, or getting placed in an unduly tough group. Everyone gets the same deal, and you just go out and play.

    Another plus is that with so many games, the better teams are almost certain to win out. In a short series, it's more likely that a good team can hit a bad patch and be eliminated. After 18 games, the wheat will be divided from the chaff, and presumably the confederation will be able to send its strongest representatives.

    But there's a downside to that as well. Part of the fun of qualifying -- part of the reason for qualifying -- is the possibility of upsets. You should have to go out and play your best every time, and you should have to earn your spot. With the all-in group, Brazil and Argentina, the two confederation standouts, barely have to show up. In fact, Brazil didn't show up at all last cycle, and still qualified with room to spare. True, the World Cup would have been much poorer without Brazil, but if there's any purpose at all to a qualifying system, it's to force teams to earn their place at the final tournament. If you only care about the finals, then you want only the best teams. But if you care about the qualifiers too, you have to accept a system where Brazil might actually have to stay home. I know I'd rather see a top team miss out than be granted a free pass. But with the all-in group, CONMEBOL never has to worry about the flagship teams. If the system allows a team to lose 6 games and still finish third, like Brazil for 2002, you can be sure we'll be seeing auriverdes and albicelestes at the World Cup in perpetuity. In comparison, in 1994, the last cycle before the current system, where only 3 1/2 places were available, Argentina was upset by Colombia in their group and needed to go to a playoff with Australia, which they won by only a single goal. I'm sure Marcelo Bielsa is very pleased with the all-in group.

    But if the system almost guarantees qualification for the strongest, there's an argument that it helps the weakest as well. Teams usually at the bottom, like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, get a long series of games in which to develop their talent. In fact, some have claimed that the system was responsible for Ecuador's success last time out. Then there's Venezuela, the traditional minnow, who by the end of the 2002 cycle had caught fire, winning 4 straight games and jumping considerably up in class. It didn't help Bolivia much, though; their record in the first half was about the same as in the second, and their record in 2002 was similar to that in 1998. I think longer series can help traditionally weak teams build a program, but you don't need 18 games to do it. With a 32-team World Cup, and so many berths available, there's no danger of returning to the older systems, where the qualifying season might be only 4 games long. Now that Venezuela is out of the minnow class, the all-in group is too much of a good thing.

    Still, one other advantage to the system is that the top teams get to play each other on a regular basis. We noted that in the African system, the top teams are kept apart, which means a dearth of high-level games (although the teams do get a chance to meet in the Nations' Cup). The best thing about the CONCACAF system, also noted before, is that the top teams are certain to meet. Here, with no draw at all, everyone plays everyone else, which means we get to see Argentina play Brazil twice. Plenty of excitement--but if both teams are going to qualify anyway, what's at stake? An annual friendly, such as England used to play against Scotland, is just as good. In fact, the greater advantage accrues to the other teams in the confederation, who are assured of playing both Brazil and Argentina regularly, thus providing big games with potential big-money gates.

    Money, of course, is the real reason for the system. As we've mentioned before in this series, more games, more money, very simple, what's the problem? Even though the big European clubs have made it clear they don't like the all-in group (their stars miss too many games), the confederation has stuck by its guns, and it's hard to believe that any higher principle is involved. They did make one concession this time around, spreading out the games over a longer period, 25 months instead of the 20 for 2002 and 19 for 1998. But it's still 18 games for each team.

    The ultra-long qualifying season has some interesting competitive consequences. The longer the qualifying season (and CONMEBOL's is the longest), the more likely it is that the players who finish the series won't be the same as those who start it. Older players that contribute in the early rounds may no longer be fit to play at the end. This would seem to help the rich get richer, as the traditionally strong nations are more likely to have a continuous flow of talent. On the other hand, the longer the season, the less likely injuries are to play a major role, since a player who might be out for a few months will miss a smaller percentage of the games. This would seem to help the weaker teams, who might be more dependent on the health of one or two stars. So maybe it more or less evens out.

    In prior columns we've explored the relationship between the confederation qualifying system and the continental championship. As a result of the qualifying system, the Copa America, the oldest regional championship in the world, has been changed from a biennial to quadrennial event, played in even-numbered non-World Cup years. That's a good thing, actually, since the rarer the tournament, the more important, and keeping it away from the World Cup year gives it its own integrity. We know how well that works with UEFA. But the European Championship is over and done before World Cup qualifying begins. Under the new system, the Copa America falls square in the middle of the qualifying season. Peru 2004, for example, will take place between games 7 and 8 of the qualifying group. The question is whether the teams will treat the Copa America as a place to hone the first eleven, or purely as a rest stop. We won't know until the summer of 2004, but I'm not optimistic. The teams will already have played two qualifiers in June, and there's no reason to drive them in a major tournament, especially when the future qualifying games will happen so far apart. And either way, the tournament may no longer be seen as a self-standing championship, but merely an adjunct to the World Cup qualifiers. That would be a genuine loss.

    But now we come to the real reason I dislike this system. Money's important, even if it shouldn't be, so I can live with a system designed to make money. Big teams matter to a confederation's status, so even though they shouldn't get a special deal, I can live with a system that protects them. And the World Cup is the most important event of all, so I can live with a system that downgrades the continental championship. But I can't live with a system that's boring. Repeat after me: boring boring boring. There is never, ever, any excuse for a boring boring boring system. And if ever there were a boring boring boring system, it's the grupo gigante.

    Think about it: 18 games over more than two years, with half the teams qualifying or advancing. How can it possibly keep your attention? How can you care about each individual game? Sure, you want to win every time your team plays, but until the very end, there's nothing specific at stake when you play. If only the top two teams qualified, the pressure would be on from the start. But with half the teams rewarded, you have no idea how important each game will be in the long run. So you drew at home to Peru. Will it matter? Who knows? Who cares? It's just another game in a long season--a season, one might add, that stretches out almost three times as long as even the longest traditional club season. As for neutrals, they have no reason to pay any attention at all until the final rounds. Yes, fanatics like me will watch and analyze every match (hey, I was worried because I couldn't get the Equatorial Guinea-Togo score until more than 24 hours after the game), but for the average fan, there's nothing to care about. Just wake him up when there's something worth watching.

    I follow the Mexican league, which offers an excellent system for comparison. The league has 20 teams, with separate Apertura and Clausura seasons, 19 games each. The championship for each season is determined by a playoff system. The system can get quite complicated, but roughly speaking, the top 8 teams, and sometimes the top 9 or 10 teams, make the playoffs. The numbers thus correspond almost exactly to the CONMEBOL setup: 19 games (vs. 18 for South America) and 40% of the teams advancing, with up to 50% possible (exactly the same as South America). And, just like South America, the league is fairly balanced, and most of the teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs when the season starts. So the fan experience in the Mexican league is very similar to the CONMEBOL qualifiers.

    What's it like? Well, I support Monterrey, the defending champion (ˇViva los Rayados!). In the current season, they got only one point in their first three games. Did I care? Yes, of course. But did I panic? No--there was still plenty of time to make the playoffs. Even after they drew their next two games I was only slightly worried. And in the succeeding weeks they upped their game, not spectacularly, but sufficiently. After 13 games, they had 4 wins, 4 losses, and 5 draws, and I was fairly confident they'd advance. But they stumbled in their next two games, with a loss and a draw, and suddenly found themselves nearly out of the running. They can still make it, but as of this writing they'll have to win their last 3 games to have a chance. That's it--you sort of mosey along for most of the season, then a couple of key games, and it's over. Now be honest: how thrilling does that sound? Now extend that sequence over more than five times the time period. Now remember that in the Mexican league, at least you've got the excitement of the playoffs, but in the all-in group, you've got nothing but the regular season. Get the picture? It's boring. Boring boring boring (and one more) boring. Each individual game is exciting, of course, but football is always exciting. You want a competition that's exciting, too. And South America fails that test about as badly as possible.

    But given the constraints on a small confederation with so many berths, is there an alternative? Yes. Put the teams in two five-team groups, with the top two from each group advancing and the third-place teams playing off for the 1/2 spot to go to the final playoff. You get a tight, 8-game season, with every game mattering. On the downside, now fully 60% of the teams advance to the next round. But now there's a real premium on finishing second in your group; if you finish third, you'll have to win not one but two knockout playoffs to qualify. And most importantly, you're spared that endless round of games. The two groups, seeded by performances in prior qualifiers, might look like this:

Brazil              Argentina
Colombia            Uruguay  
Ecuador             Paraguay 
Chile               Peru     
Bolivia             Venezuela
    Good, well-balanced groups, and with only 8 games, if the top teams slip, they might have to go to the playoffs, or even miss out entirely. Argentina and Brazil won't meet, but as noted, why should they bother? Plus, it'll save the Copa America. It'll never happen, of course: the money is too important, and the top teams are too important. But what's the point of being a fan if you can't dream?

    So that's South America. Next column, Oceania, home of the Amazing Incredible Disappearing Qualifying Berth. What's the deal with New Caledonia? What's the difference between Cook Islands and Solomon Islands? How many words can you make out of the letters in "Vanuatu"? All this and more…


 

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