Thursday, March 30, 2017

Absent Power Teams: Why Africa Deserved Significant Increase in World Cup Allocations?

One underlying issue of an expanded World Cup is whether confederations like Africa (CAF) and Asia  (AFC) should get more teams into the World Cup finals and whether they deserve additional slots. Of course, a supportive position  argues that the basis for additional slots comes from the fact that the two confederations have large memberships and World Cup allocations should reflect the number of members in a confederation. That argument is rooted in representation and it is compelling.

However, there also exists a different argument that is rooted on performance. It is one that states that only the best teams should be at the World Cup finals.

In the past, World Cup qualification has been based on both ideas of representation and performance. Representation assures that each confederation (except Oceania) is represented by a certain number of teams at the World Cup finals. FIFA makes the decision on number of slots to allocate to each confederation. In doing so, it is mindful that diversity in confederations is assured in order to demonstrate that the event is "global" in nature. Recently, FIFA announced that Africa's allocation would climb to at least 9 places for the 2026 World Cup. On the other hand, Performance is assured through a qualification, rather than invitation, process where teams are tested on current form and quality. FIFA and the Confederations design the process for qualification games within each confederation and at inter-confederation level as well.

In this piece, we examine the idea of representation. Notably, while current performance or team quality is determined through a qualification process, a confederation's legacy performance is used (in part) to inform FIFA in allocating spots for representation. It is important not to confuse current performance with legacy performance. The former is used to assess the current quality of a team and its suitability to play in the World Cup. The latter is used as one of several indices (the others being membership size and politics) to determine number of representatives from each confederation.

We focus solely on the issue of legacy performance. We discuss that type of performance with a twist. The twist is based on the fact that certain teams have done well repeatedly at World Cups and they qualify for the finals regularly, whether the World Cup consists of 16 or 24 teams. These are the super teams. Thus, it makes sense in our performance calculations, in a 48-team World Cup, to exempt results obtained by those teams because their performance has been relatively stable overtime. The teams are Brazil, Argentina (CONMEBOL), Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and Holland (UEFA). Additionally, our calculations are at the confederation level since representation decisions are made at that level.

Our Method
First, we examine only those World Cups that have featured 32 participating teams i.e the World Cups of 1998 and later. Why? We assume that 1998-2014 World Cups provide recent data for examination and ample information on non-super teams.

We assume that ample comparison data should include at least 10 contests between confederations to avoid results that may be termed an outlier. This figure is arbitrary but yet reasonable because in certain World Cups some confederations may not meet each other and our data covers five World Cups and to reach the 10 game threshold assumes two meetings per World Cup year. However, as we shall find, this threshold is not met in five comparison cases (i.e.. CAF v CONMEBOL, CAF v CONCACAF, CONMEBOL v AFC, CONMEBOL v CONCACAF, and AFC v CONCACAF).  This is clearly due to the fact that apart from UEFA teams, no other confederation has the number of teams  or games against other confederations to satisfy the threshold. Nevertheless, we report the results but with caution.

We use existing efficiency scores to gain insight on the likelihood of a win when one confederation confronts another. A 0.50 efficiency score indicates at least a 50% chance of a win which is quite impressive. The score is based on percentage of points secured from a possible maximum number of points. 

So What Do We Find?
So what are results when super teams are exempted? Does UEFA still dominate its opponents? Does CONMEBOL still dominate its opponents? Surprisingly, the answer is yes in certain confederation contests. Table 1 reports results of all contests.

As we can see in Table 2, UEFA has at least a 50% chance of a victory when confronting teams from  Asia and Concacaf; CONMEBOL does the same when confronting teams from Africa (0.71), Asia (0.83), and Concacaf (0.71); and Concacaf has the same when confronting teams from Asia (0.72) and Africa (0.52). Surprisingly, UEFA (without the power teams) has 0.40 efficiency against African teams. Africa's highest efficiency is 0.42 against Asian teams which is the same efficiency score that Asian teams have when confronting African teams. The lowest efficiency score for Africa occurs when confronting teams from South America (0.14).

Clearly, UEFA has shown the likelihood to win games regularly against teams from CONCACAF and AFC than against any other confederation. However, a deeper exploration of actual games shows that UEFA's advantage in those games does not preclude a significant number of ties against teams from those confederations.

While South America has not played enough games against non-UEFA teams, its results against those teams have been significantly impressive with very high efficiency scores against African, Asian, and CONCACAF teams. These represent three of the top four efficiency scores, all over 0.70. The fourth is CONCACAF's efficiency over Asian teams.

Besides the high efficiency scores discussed above, the other contests indicate that non-super teams are not much better than their opponents from other confederations. Thus, the argument for a much larger allocation to UEFA based on legacy performance does not indicate a wider gap in allocation to UEFA in comparison to others, for instance. For instance, UEFA's 16 allocations compared to CAF's 9 is exceptionally wide. CAF's allocation represents just 56% of UEFA's whereas UEFA's teams have only generated 0.40 efficiency against CAF's teams and even at that legacy performance should be one of several factors in deciding representation. Thus, while CAF's 9 team allocation is an improvement, it remains comparatively lower than what should be reasonably expected.

But how about CONMEBOL? It seems that the proportion of teams going to the World Cup finals from that confederation is already the highest of any confederation demonstrating the strength of its performance, which has been supported by data shown here. That proportion is already 60% of its teams.

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