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
Read earlier columns
Qualifying systems 2006 - Asia
In the column on
Oceania we talked a bit about the way in which the money squeeze was
affecting the qualifiers. Nowhere is this effect clearer than in Asia, where 6
teams--twice as many as the rest of the world combined, and fully 13% of the
confederation-- either failed to enter the competition or dropped out before
the first game. Myanmar was under suspension and already ineligible, but
Bhutan, Brunei, Philippines, Cambodia, Nepal, and Guam, all very much eligible,
chose not to compete. This is the World Cup, folks, and people don't drop out
unless they absolutely have to. The most embarrassing of the dropouts were the
last two. Nepal and Guam had been matched against each other in the preliminary
round (in what promised to be the all-time altitude differential series). Nepal
withdrew, giving Guam a free pass to the group stage of the competition--but
Guam decided it couldn't afford to compete in the group stage, and dropped out
themselves. This eventually led to one of the most wrong-headed decisions by
any confederation in the history of qualification--but we're getting ahead of
Back to money. Asia (37 entries, 4˝ spots) is a big and
diverse confederation, like Africa and CONCACAF, and inevitably their system
has to deal with wide disparities among the teams. This year, the money factor
is front and center. Asia started with a preliminary round, matching the 14
bottom teams (by FIFA ranking) in knockout ties, with the 7 winners to join
the 25 other teams to make a total of 32. A fairly normal proceeding: both
Africa and CONCACAF have started with knockouts for some time now. But Asia
has never--that's right, never--had a knockout preliminary round before. It's
always been a group stage. For example, in 2002, there was no preliminary round
at all: the 40 teams started immediately in 10 groups of 4. With 39 teams this
time around, Asia could easily have decided to go with 9 groups of 4 and 1
group of 3. But instead they used a preliminary round to get down to 32,
starting the first group stage with 8 groups of 4. For the superminnows, it's a
big plus money-wise: with a knockout round, they know they may only have to
play two games.
And yet, the extra round means that if you win in the
preliminaries, you wind up playing two more games than you would have before.
And a change in the group stage seems likely to increase the financial burden
even further. In the past, Asia has often run group stages in single or double
locations to cut traveling costs. Over half the group stages in the past two
cycles have been run this way. The obvious disadvantage to the system--and Asia
has been the only confederation to use it consistently--is that home teams
have a tremendous advantage. Of the 11 such groups in the past 2 cycles, only
once has a home team failed to finish on top (Kuwait, pipped by Bahrain in
2002). Whether AFC wanted to cut home advantage, we don't know, but this year,
for the first time, it looks as if all the groups will be true home-and-away
stages. All or part of 5 of the groups have already been scheduled, and all
are planned as home-and-away competitions. Moreover, the official FIFA document
outlining the Asian qualifiers refers to them as "league system, on a home and
This will certainly make the competitions fairer, but it should make things
more expensive for the lesser teams, who will now have to travel to three
sites, instead of only one or two. They'll also have to host three games, which
involve costs of another kind, especially for nations who aren't guaranteed the
revenue of large home crowds. Perhaps the increased cost won't be that great;
in the old one- or two-site system, the games were played over a few weeks,
and so the federations might have had housing costs for that period as well.
On the other hand--and anyone who knows the answer, please tell me--it's
possible the confederation or host nation paid for housing costs under the old
system, in which case the new system is a significantly greater financial
burden on lesser teams.
It certainly was too much for Guam, who backed out
even though they had a walkover into the group stage. Here's the quote from
Mike Bordallo, head of the Guam federation: "Under the grouping, we would
have to play three home and away matches. It would have cost at least
$150,000. We could've been drawn with countries as far west as Saudi Arabia.
We'd be paying the cost of hosting matches and also transportation of our
athletes to the other country. We weren't ready financially." Enough said.
And the prospect of all that travel may have been a factor in the other five
dropouts as well; even if they won their opening series, they might not have
been able to afford the group stage. When it comes to qualifying systems, Asia
is traditionally the most secretive of the confederations--they were by several
months the last to announce their system--and so it's hard to get a sense of
what they had in mind. But you're doing something wrong when more than
10% of your members don't even bother to compete.
Before we move on, though, an encouraging piece of
trivia. Six countries may have decided they couldn't field a team, but one in
particular did: Afghanistan. That's a good sign for any number of reasons, and
we'll pass over the results of their preliminary series with Turkmenistan,
since it was a miracle they participated at all. But how about this: although
Afghanistan became a FIFA member in 1948, this is the VERY FIRST TIME they
have entered World Cup qualifying. No joke. Up until a few months ago,
Afghanistan was the only nation in the world continuously in existence since
1930 (with the exception of Monaco and Vatican City) never to have entered a
World Cup. Why not? I don't know. But welcome to them, and let's hope they
have peace, stability, and many more years of international football.
Let's look a little closer at the group stage now. Even
with the new preliminary round, Asia will have 32 teams playing in at least one
group stage, more than any other confederation except Europe. But, as you might
imagine, a large-scale group stage in Asia poses competitive problems. Asia
isn't quite as unbalanced as CONCACAF, but you can't go far down the depth
chart without getting into trouble. In the 2002 cycle, the 10 last-place teams
in the opening group stage won a grand total of ONE game combined (Hong Kong
over Malaysia). Moreover, fully 31 of 111 qualifying games, nearly 28%, were
decided by an amazing 5 goals or more. This time around, there are 8 groups
instead of 10, so instead of going down to team 40, we only go down to team
32--and yet, in 2002, the 10 third-place teams, teams 21-30, won only two
games against second and first place teams, and those third-place teams still
lost 13 games by 5 goals or more. Asia isn't deep enough to make groups like
that fully competitive. Look for the top teams to try to run up the score for
goal difference: last time out, in Group 6, Iraq drew twice with chief rival
Kazakhstan, but topped the group by posting bigger tallies against Nepal and
The confederation imbalance also places too much
importance on the luck of the draw. The Asian draw put the 32 teams into four
pots, by FIFA ranking, and each group got one member from each of the pots.
Probably the most logical way to do it, but the difference in teams 1-8 in Asia
is pretty high, ranging from South Korea to Uzbekistan. The same is true of
teams 9-16: Qatar and Iraq, at the top of the range, are legitimate outsiders,
but Indonesia, at the bottom, has little chance. And so the luck of the draw
made some groups significantly tougher than others. South Korea drew Lebanon,
and should have no problem; Japan drew Oman, which could be a struggle. Saudi
Arabia will waltz past Indonesia; Iran will have its hands full with Qatar.
Bahrain, one of the lesser top seeds, got a lucky draw, with Syria; Uzbekistan
was very unlucky to get Iraq. And you can look at it the other way around, too.
Of the second-pot teams, Qatar was quite unlucky to get Iran, when they could
have got UAE or Uzbekistan; Iraq was lucky to get Uzbekistan, when they could
have got Saudi Arabia. And so on. One's chances of making the second round
shouldn't be so dependent on the draw.
There are three ways to prevent this sort of thing.
First, you can keep the same number and size of groups, but hone the seedings
even further, say putting the teams in pots of 4, rather than 8. This ensures
that teams of relatively equal rank will get opponents of relatively equal
rank. Second, you can have fewer, but larger groups, which hones the seedings
automatically. In Asia, though, you can't really have groups larger than 4,
because there are so many minnows and poor nations. So there's the third
solution, cutting down drastically on the number of teams you allow into the
group stage, as in CONCACAF. But Asia has always been strongly committed to
the group stage, so if they want to keep the same structure, it looks like
only the first solution will work. But we'll have to wait four years to see
if they have any changes in mind.
[I made a dumb error here--thanks to reader James Allnutt of Australia for pointing it out. Although
the preliminary knockouts were seeded by FIFA ranking, the group stage was not in fact seeded by FIFA ranking, but by
performance in the 2002 World Cup cycle. So at the top were South Korea, Japan, China, and Saudi Arabia (teams actually
in the 2002 WC, ranked by performance), followed by Iran (who made the AFC/UEFA playoff), followed by UAE (who
made the AFC playoff). These were followed by the teams that were eliminated in the AFC second group phase, ranked by
number of points in that phase. These were followed finally by the teams eliminated in the AFC first group phase, ranked by
number of points in that phase. James’ analysis shows that this system was unfair to Tajikistan, because their first phase group
was severely curtailed when Myanmar withdrew, and so they had fewer games in which to pick up points. They were placed
in the lowest-ranked pot (teams 25-32), but had they played all their scheduled qualifiers, they would most likely have made
the third-highest (teams 17-24), and maybe even the second-highest (teams 9-16). On a related matter, James also points out
that my hypothetical 4-team groups (see below) are impossible, because the actual seeding system would force Iran and
Bahrain into separate groups, as well as Iraq and Thailand. So switch Iran and Iraq, and you’ve got a possible setup.
Just as interesting is the discrepancy between what the seedings would have
been by FIFA ranking and what they actually were by 2002 WC performance.
If Asia had used the October 2003 rankings for the group stage, which were the ones they used for the preliminary round,
Uzbekistan and UAE, who were placed in the top pot, would have been in the third pot! Jordan, who was placed in the third
pot, would have been in the first! Iraq, Kuwait, and Thailand, who were placed in the second pot, would have been in the
first, and China and Bahrain, who were placed in the first pot, would have been in the second. We can’t really claim an
injustice was done (except to Tajikistan, as above), because the rankings were put together on the basis of actual
performance in a prior competition. But the differences are remarkable, as compared to say, Europe, where the FIFA
rankings tracked the Euro rankings relatively closely.]
Let's move on. As noted, the first group stage has 8
groups of 4. The 8 winners will go to a final round with 2 groups of 4. The top
2 teams in each group will qualify directly, with the third-place teams playing
off for the right to meet the CONCACAF representative. What's striking here is
the size of those final-round groups. Back when the World Cup had only 16
teams, the 4-team qualifying group was a staple in Europe and South America.
But with more slots to fill, qualifying groups gradually expanded, and the
4-team group, so familiar in the final tournament itself, started to disappear
from the qualifiers. How unusual is a final-round 4-team group? Africa last had
one in 1998; CONCACAF in 1994; South America in 1994; Europe in 1990;
Asia/Oceania, all the way back in 1986.
I've always been a fan of the 4-team group. It's a real
no-nonsense competition: 6 games, every moment counts, you can't afford to drop
a point anywhere. Asia's final groups should be particularly entertaining.
Here's a possible lineup:
South Korea Japan
Iran Saudi Arabia
Looks great. Yes, fully 75% of the teams will advance in some fashion, but
with a balanced field like this, it should be a real free-for-all. With only 6
games to play, any of these teams can finish in the top half, and qualify
directly, and any of them can be forced to go to the playoff. Remember, too,
that if you finish third in the group, you have to win two playoffs (the second
against the CONCACAF representative) to qualify. Everyone will want to
finish first or second, and, as noted, every game will count big.
So Asia's finish promises to be a real winner. But before you congratulate the
confederation on its wisdom and foresight, let's go back to the preliminary
round, now seemingly safely completed. First of all, the competition structure
was announced on extremely short notice: the 14 teams in the preliminary round
had little more than a month to put together a schedule, and two of them,
Turkmenistan (Asian Cup qualifier) and Laos (Southeast Asian Games), had prior
commitments for the time period. This was simply inexcusable. Yes, they're
small nations, and no, they're not likely to have much of an impact on the
competition, but the whole point of qualifiers is to give the lesser teams a
But even worse was to come. As we saw, the original
plan was to have the bottom 14 teams compete in 7 knockout ties, with the 7
winners joining the remaining 25 teams in a 32-team group stage, 8 groups of 4.
When Nepal dropped out, leaving Guam a free pass, things were still OK--Guam
was just automatically slotted into the group stage. But then Guam dropped out,
and Asia faced a problem. They had 7 slots available in the group stage, but
only 6 preliminary series left. The sensible move would have been to leave one
blank spot in the group stage, going with 7 groups of 4, and 1 group of 3. But
for whatever reason, they decided to keep 8 groups of 4. The 6 winners would
fill 6 of the spots, and the "lucky loser"--the loser that had the best overall
performance--would take the 7th spot. The 6 losers would be ranked by points
acquired, then, if necessary, goal difference and goals scored, with the top
team moving on.
On the surface, this is merely a variant of the "best
second place team" approach that Europe has used in the past. It has its
problems: some groups are easier than others, and you wind up getting measured
against teams which you haven't played. It's hardly watertight, and has been
known to produce an injustice or two. But if the numbers back you into a
corner, it's a passable if unconvincing way to choose a team, if handled
"If handled properly"--the key words. Because Asia
didn't handle it properly. Not even close. First of all, Guam's dropout came
in the middle of the competition. Turkmenistan and Afghanistan had already
finished their series, so neither team had the chance to take the new rules
into account when planning strategy. (Of course, it probably wouldn't have
mattered, since Afghanistan was outclassed.) But far, far worse: the new rules
almost begged for flat-out collusion. Look closely at the way in which the
"lucky loser" was determined. Points first. That means that any team that
managed to split its two games (3 points) would have an advantage over a team
which managed two draws (2 points), which would have an advantage over a team
with a draw and a loss (1 point), which would have an advantage over a team
with two losses (0 points). Not all the teams were playing on the same day,
so teams whose games were played later could look at prior results, and
"arrange things" so as to benefit both teams. When November 29 rolled around,
the teams playing that day knew that Chinese Taipei had defeated Macao at home
3:0, and Tajikistan had defeated Bangladesh 2:0 away. With decisive results
coming through, teams who could assure themselves a draw might have an
advantage. And one of the November 29 scorelines happened to be:
Laos-Sri Lanka 0:0
Now, I have no idea whether there was any collusion
involved. I've been unable to find even one news story about the game.
Certainly nothing obvious occurred, or presumably we would have found out. But
wouldn't you know it, this 0:0 draw turned out to be decisive. All the other
first legs had decisive results, and in the return legs, in every case, the
teams that had won the first game also won the second. So all the other losers
had 0 points, and the return match, Sri Lanka-Laos, turned out to be completely
irrelevant. Whichever team won the game, or even if the teams drew, both had at
least 1 point, and both were in. For the record, Sri Lanka won 3:0, and Laos
got the lucky loser spot. But the integrity of the competition was
In fact, Asia was lucky it wasn't much much worse.
Several other teams could have decided to collude in the second legs,
deliberately arranging a draw, or even a decisive result. Think of it:
Kyrgyzstan had defeated Pakistan 2:0 in the first leg. The teams thus had
every reason to arrange a second-leg result with a 1:0 win to Pakistan. That
would have given the tie to Kyrgyzstan, and set up Pakistan in excellent shape
for the lucky loser spot. Other combinations were possible with other ties. The
whole competition would have been completely discredited. As it turned out, the
teams apparently played it honestly, whether out of natural integrity or the
fear of actually getting the spot and having to compete in the group stage. But
we'll never know about Laos and Sri Lanka. And there's no excuse whatsoever for
a competition conducted under these terms. Outrage, pure and simple.
From craziness to sanity: next column, the last of the
series, we'll consider Europe. Good old Europe, the most reliable of the
confederations, with the most depth, the best organization, the most sensible
leadership. But…isn't something wrong when Luxembourg and Lichtenstein wind up
in the same group? And look at Italy's group: a bit of a walk, right? And
what's the deal with Kazakhstan? There are still things to be said--and we'll
say them next time.
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
of many of the most influential players in history.
An A-Z collection
of strange and different stories in World Cup history.
A big collection
of various statistics and records.
since it was introduced in 1966.
knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information
on who keeps this site available.