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 - Europe

    It's appropriate that we should finish off our survey of World Cup qualifying systems with Europe. That's where World Cup qualifiers began, all the way back in 1933, when Sweden beat Estonia 6:2 in a qualifying match for Italy 1934. It would be nice to say that we've come full circle, and that Estonia will be matched up with Sweden again this time around, but sadly it isn't so. (But here's a weird anomaly: in its 6 qualifying cycles, Estonia has been grouped with either Sweden or Portugal every time.)

    When it comes to qualifying systems, Europe (51 entries, 13 spots) is the epitome of stability: seemingly since time began, they've put everyone in group stages from the start. Up until 1982, the groups were either 4-team or 3-team, and winner-take-all; with the expansion of the final tournament to 24 and then 32 teams (not to mention the addition of post-USSR post-Yugoslavia post-Czechoslovakia post-who-are-these-guys Andorra-San Marino-Faeroes teams), the groups got larger, and second-place teams qualified either directly or through a playoff. This time around they're going with 8 total groups: 3 groups of 7 and 5 groups of 6. The 8 winners will qualify directly, and so will the 2 best second-place teams. That leaves 3 berths, to be contested by the other 6 second-place teams in knockout playoffs.

    We're so used to this kind of system from Europe that we don't often look at the details, or the principles that underlie the choice. First, notice how large the groups are: 7 teams and 6 teams, and 3 of them are 7-team groups. Up until now, there had been only one 7-team group in the history of qualifying: back in 1994, also in Europe. The 7-team group is hardly optimal: with only 2 teams staying alive in the competition, there are way too many unnecessary games. Last cycle, with only one fewer entry, UEFA was happy to spread it out more, not 8 groups but 9, making 5 groups of 6 and 4 groups of 5. You'd think that this time around they could also have gone with 9 groups, 6 groups of 6 and 3 groups of 5.

    Except it wouldn't have worked. Europe's choices are always constrained by the number of berths available, which tend to fluctuate in small ways. In 2002 they had 13 1/2 berths, but in 2006 they have only 13. So last time they could go comfortably with 9 total groups: 9 winners, 4 more qualifiers from knockouts with the 8 second-place teams, and the last second-place team to a knockout playoff with Asia--but this time a 9-group solution won't work, at least if you want to make sure 1) all second-place teams stay alive in the competition and 2) the second-place teams qualify through knockout playoffs. Try the numbers out for yourself: if you assume knockout playoffs, the only option for a 9-group system is to have the 9 winners qualify, the 8 best second-place teams go into 4 knockouts, and the 9th second-place team left out altogether. And if you try to cut the size of the groups by increasing the number of groups further--say 9 groups of 5 and 1 group of 6--even more second-place teams have to be left out.

    There's nothing stopping Europe from leaving out the worst second-place teams--but it wouldn't be a very good idea. As we noted in the column on Asia, the "best second place" system is a last resort, since group imbalances can give certain teams an unfair advantage. While teams might accept best second-place teams qualifying directly (as in 1998, and this year as well), they'd be pretty unhappy with worst second-place teams missing out altogether. Still, it's worth mentioning that that's exactly the system Europe used back in 1990, where the two best second-place finishers of groups 1, 2, and 4 made it, and the remaining second-place team (Denmark, as it happened) got left out. Times have changed, though, and second-place teams are used to making the playoffs. And, as noted, it's not a great idea.

    The other option with a 9-group system would have been to replace the knockout playoffs with a second group stage. The best second-place winner could qualify automatically, and the 8 remaining teams could be drawn into 2 groups of 4, with the top 2 teams in each group qualifying as well. But it's no surprise Europe didn't go that way. There are already more qualifiers than ever before, and to add another group stage would just strain club-country relationships even further.

    So an 8-group system it is, with some outsize 7-team groups in the mix. But speaking of club vs. country, there's big news: the seedings, for the first time, took into account the demands of European club competitions. The top 8 teams in the confederation were seeded into the top spots in the 8 groups. But UEFA announced beforehand that the big four, England, Spain, Italy, and France (Germany were the hosts), would automatically go into 6-team groups, not 7-team groups. These are the four nations with the most clubs in European competitions, and the 6-team group means two fewer international games. It's a reasonable accommodation, but let's not lose sight of how extraordinary this is. It's the very first time that club demands have affected World Cup seedings. Schedules, sure -- but not the draw. Not who plays where and how often. Simply put, this is a revolution. No way of knowing how far it'll go in the future, but obviously the momentum is all with the clubs. That's where the money is, and of course money talks louder than anything else.

Keep a close watch.

    By the way, speaking of 6-team vs. 7-team groups, I've been searching the Web for an official statement of exactly how the second-placed teams will be ranked against each other. Oddly enough, I can't find one. I assume it's going to be points first, then goal difference and goals scored, with the results against 7th-placed teams not counting, since not all groups have 7 teams. The advantage will go to teams from groups with particularly weak lower halves -- of the 6-team groups, group 4 looks appetizing, with Cyprus and the Faroes bringing up the rear, and group 7, with Lithuania and San Marino, is another good possibility. At the other end of the spectrum, I'd bet seriously against group 8, which may have Malta, but then has Hungary and Iceland. The 7-team groups are a little harder to handicap, since the results against one of the teams won't count, but any group like group 3, which has Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and Estonia, is a nice place to be.

    Which brings us to the momentous question: just how the heck did Lichtenstein and Luxembourg get in the same group? Well, if you look at the setup, you'll see that the three very-bottom ranked teams, Luxembourg, Andorra, and Kazakhstan, had to wind up in the 7-team groups. With an 8-group system, the draw put the teams into 7 ranked pots, labeled A-G. Pot A got teams 1-8, pot B 9-16, pot C 17-24, pot D 25-32, pot E 33-40, pot F 41-48. That left the 3 bottom teams in pot G. The pot F teams, those ranked 41-48 in the confederation, stretched from passable teams like Albania and Armenia at the top to superminnows like Lichtenstein and San Marino at the bottom. So with the bottom three slated for the 7-team groups, two superminnows could get drawn together. Andorra got Armenia, and Kazakhstan got Albania, so that was fine, but Luxembourg and Lichtenstein struck it lucky, and there they are.

    Which brings up an issue we looked at with regard to Asia: the larger the draw pots, the greater the chance for inequalities in the groups. If you have pots with only 4 teams, say, the range from top to bottom won't be that great. But once you go up to 8, you're risking significant draw inequalities. Europe is the only place that can get away with this, because it's a pretty balanced confederation from top to bottom. Still, large pots can produce occasional significant disparities. The Czechs got hammered, with the Netherlands and Romania; Italy got a near walkover, with Slovenia and Scotland. And Portugal got the brass ring: every other member of their group was in the bottom half of its pot!

    And Portugal's group might be even easier than that. Why? Because Russia, a pot B team, should by FIFA ranking have been a pot C team. And the Czechs' group is even harder, because Romania, a pot C team, should by FIFA ranking have been a pot B team. Which brings us to the ranking question: every other confederation with a seeded draw used the FIFA rankings in some way; Europe chose to go with their own rankings, based on actual results in recent World Cup and European Championship qualifiers. Good move or bad?

    On the bad side, really good teams occasionally falter in big competitions, and thus get ranked lower than they should. The classic example is the Netherlands, who by genuine strength should easily have been one of the top 8 teams. When that kind of effect turns up, someone -- usually the Czechs -- has to deal with a team much too good for its ranking. On the good side, the UEFA rankings reward teams for actual results in real-live European competitions, whereas the FIFA rankings include friendlies and outside-the-confederation games. We've noted before that the FIFA rankings are at their best with teams that play most of their games inside the confederation. So with the exception of anomalies like the Netherlands, the UEFA rankings might be more accurate. Plus, the UEFA rankings are based on meaningful results, so you know that you have to do well in order to get a good ranking next time around.

    How would the FIFA rankings have been different from the UEFA rankings? No team would have been placed more than one pot away. The Netherlands would obviously have been in the first pot, and Denmark too, with both Portugal and Sweden dropping back to the second. (Which makes Portugal's draw even more out of line.) Romania would have moved up to the 2nd pot, Russia down to the 3rd. Norway, Finland, and Israel would have advanced to the 3rd, Scotland, Austria, and Switzerland dropped to the 4th. Albania would have gone up to the 5th, Northern Ireland down to the 6th. Finally, Andorra and Kazakhstan would have been up in the 6th, San Marino and Lichtenstein down in the 7th. (Because they had no Euro results, Kazakhstan was automatically bottom-seeded.) So in practice, the difference wasn't that great. In fact, the top 32 teams in the FIFA ranking were also the top 32 teams in the UEFA ranking! So here's one vote for the UEFA rankings, which at least make you earn your spot in intra-confederation games.

    But all this number-crunching leaves out the single most important issue in the UEFA qualifiers: should all the teams be involved in the group stage in the first place? Africa, CONCACAF, Oceania, and now Asia put their minnows in a preliminary round (CONMEBOL has no minnows). Europe is the last holdout. For quite some time now, it's been argued that matches against the San Marinos and Andorras are a waste for both sides, and that the confederation would be better served by a preliminary competition among the lower level teams.

    What would such a competition look like? You'd have to determine 1) how many teams, and 2) knockout or group stage. Number 1) would depend directly on number 2). Why? Well, let's assume you want to produce a final group stage with groups of equal size. In the current cycle, with an 8-group system, you might want 8 groups of 6, for a total of 48 teams. Since there are 51 total entries, if you went with knockout ties, you'd need 6 teams in the prelims, to produce 3 winners to go along with the other 45 teams. It might look like this:

    Malta-San Marino
    But if you went with a group stage, you'd probably need to go either with:

1) 9 teams in 3 groups of 3, the top two teams in each group (a total of 6) advancing to join the other 42; or

2) 4 teams in one group, to produce 1 winner to go with the other 47.

Option 1) would be pretty interesting: how about groups of:

    Moldova        Azerbaijan          Faroe Islands
    Malta          Liechtenstein       Kazakhstan
    Luxembourg     Andorra             San Marino
and everyone in with a shout?

    In the current cycle, though, such a system wouldn't really solve the problem, since it would eliminate only 3 teams. Let's get more ambitious, and drop the big group stage all the way down to 8 groups of 5, for a total of 40 teams. Knockout prelims would then require a whopping 22 teams, to produce 11 winners to go along with the other 29 teams. It might look like this:

    Hungary-San Marino
    Northern Ireland-Moldova
    Now you're going pretty far up the depth chart; lots of teams there are respectable. So maybe a group stage: the best arrangement is 15 teams in 3 groups of 4 and 1 group of 3, to produce 4 winners to go along with the other 36 teams. Maybe groups of:

    Estonia   N.Ireland    Lithuania       Macedonia
    Moldova   Azerbaijan   Armenia         Albania
    Faroes    Malta        Liechtenstein   Luxembourg
    Andorra   Kazakhstan   San Marino
    Obviously, it can get fantastically complicated; still, the numbers could be worked out somehow. But would it be worth it?

    There are a number of things to be said in favor of the current system, where everyone gets the same chance from the start. First, the minnows and superminnows are assured of regular games against teams all across the European spectrum, from great powers like Italy to middling contenders like Poland to steady lower-level teams like Hungary. Although no one expects Moldova to develop into a world power, games against the better squads can't help but provide useful experience for the players. It's great for their fans, too, who get to see genuine stars come to their own home little stadium. And, of course, there's always the possibility of the epic upset, or the gritty draw -- every World Cup cycle brings a surprise or two. Last time out Malta held the Czechs 0:0 at home, and Lithuania did the same to Italy; Macedonia took a point off Turkey on the road. Such games retain a place in minnow folklore; it wasn't a World Cup game, but I'm sure the Faroes have never forgotten their 1:0 win over Austria (neither have the Austrians, of course).

    A preliminary round would not only deprive the lesser teams of games against the better squads, it would deprive them of games period. If the preliminary round is a knockout, they might get only 2 games; if a group stage, a few more, but most likely fewer than the 10 which is the minimum under the 2006 arrangement. Again, we can't expect the minnows suddenly to jump up in class, but limiting them to fewer games is the best way to deprive them of any chance at all. And if you tried a group stage, the winners might face the opposite problem: too many games over the course of the competition, and more club-country battles. The all-in-one-stage system avoids both extremes.

    There's also the question of status. By allowing everyone into the group stage, the confederation says, in effect, that all its members are of equal value. There are no second-class citizens here: Liechtenstein isn't going to win many games, but they can hold their head up as high as Italy. It's a nice symbolic touch.

    Of course, the big teams don't see it that way. The current system is a headache for the upper echelon. It's very hard to get motivated against Luxembourg, and a loss or draw is simply humiliating. And although at times the minnow games can give experience to the second-stringers, you need your top guys anyway because every draw is a killer.

    A preliminary round would offer advantages to the lesser teams as well. It can't be much fun for San Marino to get slaughtered time after time. Put them in a competition with their peers, and not only will they win more games, they'll have that huge motivation to advance to the group stage. They'll play more games that matter, and to make the final round will be a benchmark for future achievements.

    What would the change mean for the quality of the competition? Certainly, you'd have fewer mismatches, and thus fewer routs, which is good. Plus, with smaller groups in the final round, each game would be more important, and that's good too. And since some of the minnows would make it out of the preliminary round, you'd still have the chance for remarkable upsets. The preliminary round itself would be close and unpredictable, and particularly fascinating for geeks like me. (You mean you wouldn't get up for Liechtenstein-Malta?) It's hard to see a downside here.

    Nevertheless, it's a tough choice. I'm not terribly happy with 7-team groups, but the numbers won't always make you go with 7. I don't like routs much, but there are few true superminnows in the confederation: the 8 last-place teams in 2002 may have won just 2 games, but only 17 out of 230 matches, roughly 7.4%, were decided by 5 goals or more (compared to 28% in the 2002 Asian group stage). Plus, in the UEFA system, there's slightly less incentive to run up the score against the minnows, because the first tiebreaker is match result, not goal difference. As a neutral, I think a preliminary round would provide some fascinating matchups, but my heart is usually with the underdog, and I'd hate to see the Andorras of the world get shut out from big-time competition altogether.

    How about a compromise? Keep the current system for the Euro championship qualifiers, but add a preliminary round in the World Cup qualifiers. (The all-in system tends to work better in the Euro qualifiers, because the numbers more often allow for smaller groups.) Such a compromise would protect interests all around. The little teams would have their own preliminary competition but still be assured of games against the big boys; the powers would be relieved of a few games; neutrals would get a wider variety of competitions.

    I like the idea. And on that gentle, peaceful note, we end our survey of qualifying systems 2006. With the draw all set, we get rolling on February 12: UAE-Thailand, a great match between the two contenders in Asian group 5. By my calculations, I'll have to spend at least $500 to get the proper satellite equipment to see it on tape-delay. Hey, I can go without food for a month, no problem. Where's that telephone number?



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