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 - 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 ourselves.

    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 away basis."

    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 Macao.

    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
     China                       Iraq
     Bahrain                     Thailand
    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 fair shake.

    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 properly.

    "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 exploded.

    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.



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