Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time to Re-Construct the World Cup Qualifiers

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil leaves us with many questions surrounding representativeness across the globe. Traditionally, the number of berths awarded to each confederation has been determined via political maneuvering even though the larger public naively believes that the number of berths are determined by performance. Sure, performance is usually drummed up as a rationale to justify increase in berths for a confederation but there is no known FIFA formula for determining this increase. Thus, political compromises have often been used to make the determination. That compromise has been reached by merely increasing the number of teams in the finals or in a recent move, denying the defending champion an automatic place in the final.

The difficulty in reaching an agreement on who deserves additional berth and who does not is based on the fact that there is no established formula for making the decision. Importantly, UEFA initially held fast to its domination of number of berths in the final by flaming that berths should be determined by performance and UEFA was far better than teams from other confederations based on World Cup results. Its only competitor was South America (CONMEBOL) that had far fewer ember nations. However, UEFA continues to maintain dominance in berths in spite of the fact that other confederations have rapidly closed the performance gap between Europe and the rest. The table below shows historical efficiency scores of the Rest of the World against Europe/South America.

Efficiency scores of 0.30 or above are considered competitive because a draw (denoting equivalence of strength) leads to a score of 0.33 calculated on 1 point divided by a possible 3 points from a win. We also note that three games against a confederation is required for what we consider an adequate sample. Games less than three are denoted with asterisk. The choice of three games comes from the fact that FIFA uses three games in each World Cup group as an adequate sample to determine the teams that advance to the elimination stage of the World Cup.

The table is subdivided into two parts. The top part of the table compares the Rest of the World (CONCACAF/CAF/ASIA/OCEANIA) against UEFA teams in two ways. First, it compares results against all UEFA teams since the 1970 World Cup and then compares results against UEFA teams taking away results against four perennial UEFA powers (Germany, Italy, Holland, and France). Note that perennial teams are determined by consistent finishes in the top four at the World Cup since 1970. The lower part of the table is a comparison against CONMEBOL (South American) teams. The power teams in this case are two -- Brazil and Argentina.

The results demonstrate that UEFA's usual argument that Europe maintain the bulk of the teams at the final is increasingly becoming tenuous. Since 1986, the rest of the World have produced increasingly good results against UEFA teams at the World Cup save for two competitions in 1990 and 2006. Importantly, even when you include the TOP 4 UEFA teams in the equation, the results have been reasonable in three competitions in 1994, 2002, and 2010. Results against CONMEBOL teams show less success. However, it is important to note that games against CONMEBOL teams have been too few until 2010 to definitively speak on performance. What is disturbing is that in 2010 and 2014, number of games have been adequate but results dismal.

Nevertheless, UEFA now cites number of teams from other confederations that fail to go beyond the first round as a sign of UEFA's superiority over other confederations. However, that ignores mathematical proportion which shows that the larger the number of teams you have in the competition in the first place provides the larger possibility that your teams go beyond the opening round as is the case with UEFA. Take the most recent World Cup, while in raw numbers Europe had six teams move to the second round compared to Africa's two teams, the actual percentage of success was only 0.46 to 0.40 respectively for both continents. On the other hand, CONCACAF showed 0.75 success, far surpassing UEFA!

One disappointment is that in FIFA's biggest competition attended by 32 countries, not all of FIFA's 6  confederations are guaranteed of being there! This certainly seems unfair when mathematically, each confederation would have had at least five teams each! Using team performance to adjust requirement that all confederations are represented should at least assure each confederation one place at the finals.

A consideration is that there are six teams that perennially finish in the top 4 at the World Cups. These are Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Holland and France. But is it fair that other UEFA teams should get in under the coat tails of those few teams UEFA teams that finish in the top four? The best case scenario, may be, is to strip UEFA of some berths and award them to other confederations since the World Cup is increasingly competitive among all teams. This surely will be resisted by UEFA. However, if this becomes tough to agree on then UEFA should be open to prove itself deserving of those berths by competing increasingly for the berths. Thus, it appears to me that FIFA should think of ways to politically balance the qualifiers based on a few principles listed below:

1. That each confederation should have at least one automatic berth to the final.
2. That UEFA maintain the possibility of getting the same number of teams in the final.
3. That other confederations receive an opportunity to increase their number of berths in the final based on size of FIFA membership.

The Re-allocation of Berths

Principle 1: Allow Oceania to have an automatic berth.

Principle  2 and 3: UEFA retains possibility of providing 13 teams to the final phase of the tournament. However, five of those teams should qualify via playoffs against teams from other confederations. This will meet UEFA's insistence of having the best teams at the finals. If UEFA's teams are that good then they should prove it in contests against teams from other confederations. UEFA's opponents in these playoff games will rotate in each World Cup against teams from CAF, CONCACAF, ASIA, and CONMEBOL. Number of teams from each of those confederations involved in play-off games will be CAF (2), CONCACAF (2), ASIA (2), and CONMEBOL (1). This will give others, particularly CAF which has the largest number of FIFA member countries, opportunities to increase the number of teams at the final phase of the competition.

Automatic Berths at the Final Phase

UEFA = 8
CAF = 5
ASIA = 4
Host country =1

TOTAL automatic berths = 26

Playoff Berths (An example but will rotate as described above)

1. 1 CAF v 1 UEFA
5. 1 ASIA v 1 UEFA
6. 1 ASIA v 1 UEFA

TOTAL playoff berths = 6

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