On Wednesday, Jordan will travel to Uruguay and Mexico head to New Zealand for perhaps the two most pointless games in the history of World Cup qualification.
As was largely expected, the first legs of the play-offs for Brazil 2014 had resulted in two thrashings, Uruguay’s 5-0 win in Amman, and Mexico’s 5-1 victory at home over New Zealand.
The results highlighted the gulf that exists between the confederations, and why, for the weaker nations, the qualifying system remains flawed.
In the past, Fifa would predetermine which continents clashed at the start of the qualifying campaign. Mostly, the system created mismatches, with the South and North American teams invariably benefiting.
Occasionally, such as Iran’s famous victory over Australia in 1997, on the away goals rule, Asian and Oceania teams would get a genuine shot.
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it seemed Fifa had again agreed upon a fairer pairing; New Zealand, from Oceania (OFC), played Bahrain, of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), while the stronger South American (Conmebol) and Central and North American (Concacaf) teams, in that case Uruguay and Costa Rica, faced each other. Uruguay and New Zealand qualified after two very close ties.
But if it is not broke, Fifa will break it. For 2014, for the first time, a draw was introduced and the result was that AFC’s fifth-placed team would meet Conmebol’s fifth-placed team, while Concacaf’s fourth-placed team was set to face OFC’s first-placed team.
Why the change? Surely it would have made more sense to stick to the predetermined order of the last qualifying campaign.
Mexico v Uruguay and Jordan v New Zealand would have provided two genuinely intriguing — and better matched — ties. Instead we got Tuesday’s two blowouts, and now this week’s dead rubbers.
Of course, there are caveats. Some might argue that Jordan should be grateful for a chance they did not really deserve. After all, they finished third in a group of five in Asian qualifying, losing heavily to Japan (6-0) and Australia (4-0) along the way. And yet should not the same logic apply to Uruguay and Mexico?
Both delivered two poor qualifying campaigns, and yet were rewarded with what amounts to a bye into the World Cup.
Having given the Asian and Oceania representatives that one extra chance, deserved or otherwise, it is cruel to expect them to jump through hoops, bearing in mind Jordan had to overcome Uzbekistan over two legs in September before meeting the Copa America holders.
Who knows, Fifa might believe that the World Cup would be better served by skewing the qualifying process towards the bigger nations — after all, who does not want to see Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez on the biggest stage in Brazil?
In that case it would be far more forthcoming to not give the “smaller” teams false hope in the first place. The counter-argument is that elsewhere, take Portugal v Sweden, and even Ukraine v France, for example. Relatively strong football nations have paid the price for mediocrity by also having to qualify for next year’s finals via play-offs. So why not Mexico or Uruguay?
Finally, some might say that Uruguay and Mexico’s poor form was unexpected, and that the AFC and Oceania nations could reasonably have expected to meet the likes of Ecuador or Honduras.
Again, history contradicts any notion of fairness.
In the 1986 intercontinental play-off Scotland beat Australia. In 1990 Israel, playing in Oceania, lost to Colombia. For USA 1994, Australia were made to play two inter-federation rounds. After overcoming Canada, they then met Argentina, and a returning Diego Maradona, a tie they lost.
In 1998, the American confederations were even exempt from the play-offs. In 2002, Uruguay beat Australia, and Republic of Ireland beat Iran. Only for the 2006 tournament in Germany was the trend bucked, Australia beating Uruguay. That apart, South American and Concacaf nations have consistently knocked out the Asian and Oceania countries.
And yet Fifa only have to look to the 2010 World Cup qualifiers for an example of when they got it right. New Zealand even departed the group stage as the only unbeaten team in the tournament.
How different they now feel as they approach the return leg against Mexico. Meanwhile, Jordan are facing more hardship in Montevideo.
Much has been made of the fact that Brazil 2014 will be missing one of Portugal or Sweden, or as the narrative demands, Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Again, why not one of Mexico or Uruguay, too, both will surely be back at future World Cups.
But will Jordan get this close again? Unlikely. At least not until Fifa levels the playing field.
The United States in 1950; North Korea in 1966; Tunisia 1978; and, yes, New Zealand in 2010, have all left their mark on the World Cup.
It is not just about the best in the world, it is about the best from around the world.
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