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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Look back in anger

    I'm angry. Really, really angry. I suppose it shouldn't matter if CONCACAF decides to wreck its World Cup qualifiers; after all, it's their show, and if the member FA's prefer outrage to justice, who am I to complain? But CONCACAF is my home region, and for some unfathomable reason I care about CONCACAF football. And I'm a fan, damn it, and even if fans don't count in the calculations of the mighty, someone has to say something. So once more, with feeling: the third (and last, thank goodness) column on the 2006 qualifiers of the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football.

    As noted, CONCACAF's original plan had the potential for vast inequalities, both in the preliminary and semifinal rounds. When they changed the system, they eliminated the major problems with the preliminary round, but, again as noted, they still needed to restructure the draw in order to avoid further imbalances. Since they had made the intelligent decision to change the preliminary round, it was logical to conclude they would make a similarly intelligent decision when it came to the draw.

    Wrong. In fact, they made it worse. And the chickens came home to roost in Frankfurt on December 5, 2003, a day that will live in football infamy. Let's take a look--I warn you, it isn't pretty.

    The new first preliminary round consists of 10 knockout ties between the 20 Caribbean teams that didn't make the semifinal round back in 2002. The seeding for this round was set largely by FIFA ranking, putting the 10 highest in one pot, the 10 lowest in another, to be drawn into the 10 matchups. Simple and straightforward. But inexplicably, CONCACAF decided to tinker with the seeding, going geographical, putting the two North Zone teams (Bermuda and Bahamas) into the higher-seeded pot, despite the fact that by FIFA rankings, they belonged in the lower-seeded pot.

    A minor point, you say? True. But don't tell that to Cayman Islands. Caymans are a team that has improved over the years, but had the bad luck to be drawn with Cuba in both the 1998 and 2002 cycles, and went out early both times. This time around, though, things were looking up: by FIFA ranking, they belonged in the top half of the draw, and would be assured a lesser first-round opponent. But they got caught in the geographical warp, and because Bermuda and Bahamas got unfairly placed in the top half of the draw, Caymans got stuck in the bottom half. And when the draw was made, they got matched up with--you guessed it--Cuba. On merit, they deserved a genuine chance to get into the second round; now they might as well not show up.

    OK, OK, so shed a tear for Cayman Islands, and move on, right? But we're just getting started. The second preliminary round consists of 12 knockout ties between the 24 teams remaining in the competition: the 10 winners from the first preliminary round, and 14 teams that had byes. The bye teams included the 12 teams that made the semifinal round last cycle, plus Nicaragua and Belize. The choice of Nicaragua and Belize was again geographical, and again unjust. They got byes because they were from the Central American zone; by FIFA ranking, they belonged in the first preliminary round draw. Cuba and Haiti, the two best teams remaining, should have had the byes.

    Still, this wouldn't have mattered much had CONCACAF seeded the second round carefully. The problem, as noted in prior columns, was the confederation imbalance: the 12 semifinal teams from 2002 ranged from world powers like USA and Mexico down to minnows like Barbados and St. Vincent. Teams like Cuba and Haiti, assuming they got past their first round ties, should have been protected, matched up against the lesser lights of the 12, and teams like Nicaragua and Belize should have been drawn against the top teams. It would have been complicated, but the CONCACAF draw is always complicated, and a few more wrinkles would have been a small price to pay for a little justice.

    But CONCACAF didn't see it that way. Not only did they fail to seed the second round justly, they went out of their way to seed it unjustly. It's complicated, but follow this closely and you'll understand the outrage. The 12 semifinal teams from 2002 were divided into 3 pots: Pot A included the 3 teams that qualified for the World Cup last time (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica), Pot B included the 3 teams that made the final Hexagonal but didn't qualify (Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago), and Pot C included the 6 teams that made the semifinals but not the Hexagonal (Guatemala, Canada, El Salvador, Panama, Barbados, St. Vincent). The sensible move would have been to make sure that if Cuba and Haiti made it past the first round, they would be matched against Pot C teams in the second round. But amazingly, incredibly, impossibly, CONCACAF decreed that Nicaragua and Belize (who, remember, already had unjustified first-round byes) would get matched up against Pot C teams. All other teams were left at the mercy of the draw, to get Pot A, B, or C teams as the cards fell.

    In other words, the confederation took the two teams who were likely to be among the worst still left after the first round, and seeded them as if they were the best. Is there any possible justification for this, besides confederation politics? Is Central America so entrenched in the CONCACAF power structure? For those who don't know, Nicaragua is to Central America what Venezuela used to be to South America. Their sport is baseball; football-wise they're several leagues behind the rest of the region. And of course Belize is a tiny country, where football is basically semi-professional. Neither team has any business being granted special favors in the draw.

    And so the hammer came down in Frankfurt. Cuba, left to the luck of the draw, wound up with Costa Rica. Haiti fared only slightly better, drawing Jamaica. Meanwhile, Belize drew Canada, and Nicaragua, maybe even weaker than Belize, got the big prize, St. Vincent. And so two decent teams, teams worthy of the semifinal round, are almost out of the competition before it starts, while a bunch of baseball players may make it into the final 12. There are no words for this.

    But we're still not done. Not yet. In prior articles, we saw that the Pot A-Pot B-Pot C system threatened to create significant imbalances even as far as the semifinal round. The semifinal is 3 groups of 4, the top 2 teams in each group moving on to the Hexagonal. The A-B-C system was designed to give each 4-team group one Pot A team, one Pot B team, and two Pot C teams. But the Pot C teams range from Guatemala and Canada at one end to Barbados and St. Vincent at the other end; a blind, unseeded draw risked putting contenders in one group and minnows in another. The only legitimate solution was to wait until the preliminary rounds were over, and do a new draw for the final 12. That's exactly what they did in 2002.

    But not this time. Was it the lure of the spotlights, to do it all in Frankfurt with the world watching? Or was it just laziness? Or stupidity? Or something worse? Whatever the reason, they drew the potential semifinal groups all at once, and disaster struck. Assuming the 12 seeded teams win their second round matchups, here's what the semifinal groups will look like:

 USA              Costa Rica         Mexico
 Jamaica          Honduras           Trinidad & Tobago
 El Salvador      Guatemala          Barbados
 Panama           Canada             St. Vincent
    The first of these groups is nicely balanced. The USA, a power; Jamaica, a legitimate contender to qualify; El Salvador, a solid team capable of a few surprises; Panama, a relative minnow. Remember, for the group to pan out exactly this way, all four teams have to win their second preliminary round ties. For the top three, this should be straightforward, although if Haiti gets really inspired Jamaica will have to be in good form. Panama has a tricky second round draw, probably against St. Lucia, and could conceivably go down. But either way, the group will be fair.

    Now go to the second group. They're calling this the Group of Death, but Group of Prolonged Torture and Horrible Lingering Extinction is more like it. Not only did this group get the best of the Pot B teams, Honduras, but it got the two best of the Pot C teams, Guatemala and Canada. It's just a brutal, brutal draw. I feel worst for Guatemala, who was also drawn in the toughest semifinal group both in 1998 and 2002, and barely missed the Hexagonal last time out. They deserve better. And poor Canada, who'll have to travel to three of the toughest places in the region to play. As for Honduras, they've got Bora in the saddle, but even the old sorcerer himself must wonder how he's going to get through the competition. And is this Costa Rica's reward for a runaway first place in 2002?

    Now sidle over to the third group and compare. I mean, you have to laugh. No disrespect to Barbados and St. Vincent--it's not their fault. But which group would you rather be in? St. Vincent, the bottom seed in their group, may actually have an easier schedule than Costa Rica, the top seed in theirs. The team that gets the biggest break of all is Trinidad & Tobago. They've slipped somewhat lately, and are the weakest of the Pot B teams. But with nothing below them but minnows, they have a waltz into the Hexagonal, while Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Canada, all of whom might be better, are just trying to survive. The World Cup is on the line, folks. Is a little fairness too much to ask?

    Apparently. Call things by their right names: this is appalling, shameful, outrageous. An utter, utter disgrace. Do they care? I doubt it. But we all should. This is still our game, not theirs--don't ever forget that. Wherever you are around the globe, when you see the CONCACAF qualifying scores coming in, remember Frankfurt. Remember that this is a bogus system, and if in the end, when maybe Mexico, USA, and Costa Rica qualify, and all seems sweetness and light and justice, remember that it was paid for by the suffering of the fans in Caymans, Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, Canada, and who knows where else. And get angry.



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