x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Arguments that Concacaf should lose World Cup places are misguided

Numbers show North American teams do more on average with their World Cup berths than their Asian and African counterparts

Andre Ayew, No 10, of Ghana shoots and scores past John Brooks and Fabian Johnson of the United States during their 2014 Fifa World Cup Group G match at Estadio das Dunas on June 16, 2014, in Natal, Brazil. Robert Cianflone / Getty Images
Andre Ayew, No 10, of Ghana shoots and scores past John Brooks and Fabian Johnson of the United States during their 2014 Fifa World Cup Group G match at Estadio das Dunas on June 16, 2014, in Natal, Brazil. Robert Cianflone / Getty Images

Even in a format as compressed as the World Cup group stage, one round of matches is too soon to make any definitive judgements.

North America can rightly feel proud of the performance their region has put forth thus far. Even with Honduras unsurprisingly looking overmatched against France, opening victories for Costa Rica, the United States and Mexico represent a good return on Concacaf’s four World Cup places.

That perception could change, of course, as most of those sides still have their most difficult matches ahead of them. Costa Rica provided the tournament’s first upset by beating fancied Uruguay 3-1, but now they take on European heavyweights Italy and England. Having dramatically dispatched bogey side Ghana 2-1, the US steps up in competition with matches against Portugal and Germany.

Mexico are well-place to make the last 16 after beating Cameroon 1-0 and holding hosts Brazil to a 0-0 draw. Honduras, meanwhile, have the chance to make amends for their display against France with more manageable fixtures against Ecuador and Switzerland.

However, there seems to be a persistent current of sentiment, particularly among European pundits, that Concacaf is over-represented by having three-and-a-half World Cup bids. The “correct” number of places for Concacaf and who should receive those bids instead varies, but the overall message is that other regions are more deserving of places at international football’s biggest table.

These arguments tend to take one of two forms. There are qualitative arguments – for example, claims that the standard of football in Concacaf is of insufficient quality to merit that many bids – and quantitative arguments – that the performances of Concacaf teams at World Cups do not merit having as many as four places in the tournament.

Qualitative arguments are difficult to judge as definitions of quality can vary wildly from person to person. Are the likes of Ecuador or Bosnia-Herzegovina better than the United States or South Korea simply because they play in regions considered to be more difficult? How do pundits justify such an assertion?

Perhaps the only objective measure is performance in World Cups. One obvious metric, even allowing for the vagaries of the draw, is number of teams in the knockout rounds. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, Concacaf has advanced six teams out of the group stage – Mexico four times, the United States twice – compared to four by both Asia (Japan twice, South Korea twice) and Africa (Ghana twice, Nigeria once and Senegal once). Africa has two quarter-finalists (Senegal and Ghana) compared to one each for Concacaf (United States) and Asia (South Korea), and South Korea hold pride of place outside of Europe and South America with their 2002 run to the semi-finals.

That does not quite provide the entire picture, though, as making it out of the group stage is a tall order. Consider that for all its success in the latter stages of the World Cup, European teams make the last 16 at a rate barely better than 60 per cent. Perhaps looking at average points per place – the return each region receives for its World Cup berths – can provide a more comprehensive look. Total up the number of points earned by each team from each region in each tournament from 1998 onwards and divide that by the number of World Cup berths. Bad draws will bite every now and then, but that should average out across several tournaments.

First, it is important to identify the outlier. Oceania has had two teams reach the World Cup in this time frame, Australia (four points, round of 16) in 2006 and New Zealand (three points) in 2010. The region is averaging 3.5 points per place during the last two World Cups. Does anyone want to argue Oceania deserves more places, especially with Australia now playing in Asia?

Here is the breakdown of each region’s points in each World Cup group stage (averages rounded to the nearest hundredth):

1998

Asia: Saudi Arabia 1 point, South Korea 1, Iran 3, Japan 0. Total points: 5. Points per place: 1.25.

Africa: Morocco 4, Cameroon 2, South Africa 2, Nigeria 6, Tunisia 1. Total: 15. PPP: 3.

Concacaf: Mexico 5, United States 0, Jamaica 3. Total: 8. PPP: 2.67.

South America: Brazil 6, Chile 3, Paraguay 5, Colombia 3, Argentina 9. Total: 26. PPP: 5.2.

Europe: Norway 5, Scotland 1, Austria 2, Italy 7, France 9, Denmark 4, Spain 4, Bulgaria 1, Netherlands 5, Belgium 3, Germany 7, Yugoslavia 7, Romania 7, England 6, Croatia 6. Total: 74. PPP: 4.93.

2002

Asia: China 0, South Korea 7, Saudi Arabia 0, Japan 7. Total: 14. PPP: 3.5.

Africa: Senegal 5, South Africa 4, Cameroon 4, Nigeria 1, Tunisia 1. Total: 15. PPP: 3.

Concacaf: Costa Rica 4, United States 4, Mexico 7. Total: 15. PPP: 5.

South America: Uruguay 2, Paraguay 4, Brazil 9, Argentina 4, Ecuador 3. Total: 22. PPP: 4.4.

Europe: Denmark 7, France 1, Spain 9, Slovenia 0, Turkey 4, Portugal 3, Poland 3, Germany 7, Ireland 5, Sweden 5, England 5, Italy 4, Croatia 3, Belgium 5, Russia 3. Total: 64. PPP: 4.27.

2006

Asia: Iran 1, Japan 1, South Korea 4, Saudi Arabia 1. Total: 7. PPP: 1.75.

Africa: Ivory Coast 3, Angola 2, Ghana 6, Togo 0, Tunisia 1. Total: 12. PPP: 2.4.

Concacaf: Costa Rica 0, Trinidad and Tobago 1, Mexico 4, United States 1. Total: 6. PPP: 1.5.

South America: Ecuador 6, Paraguay 3, Argentina 7, Brazil 9. Total: 25. PPP: 6.25.

Europe: Germany 9, Poland 3, England 7, Sweden 5, Netherlands 7, Serbia and Montenegro 0, Portugal 9, Italy 7, Czech Republic 3, Croatia 2, Switzerland 7, France 5, Spain 9, Ukraine 6. Total: 79. PPP: 5.64.

Oceania: Australia 4. Total: 4. PPP: 4.

2010

Asia: South Korea 4, Australia 4, Japan 6, North Korea 0. Total: 14. PPP: 3.5.

Africa: South Africa 4, Nigeria 1, Algeria 1, Ghana 4, Cameroon 0, Ivory Coast 4. Total: 14. PPP: 2.33.

Concacaf: Mexico 4, United States 5, Honduras 1. Total: 10. PPP: 3.33.

South America: Uruguay 7, Argentina 9, Paraguay 5, Brazil 7, Chile 6. Total: 34. PPP: 6.8.

Europe: France 1, Greece 3, England 5, Slovenia 4, Germany 6, Serbia 3, Netherlands 9, Denmark 3, Slovakia 4, Italy 2, Portugal 5, Spain 6, Switzerland 4. Total: 55. PPP: 4.23.

Oceania: New Zealand 3. Total: 3. PPP: 3.

Totals

Asia: 16 World Cup berths, 40 points. PPP: 2.5. Round of 16: 4. Quarter-finals: 1. Semi-finals: 1.

Africa: 21 berths, 56 points. PPP: 2.67. Round of 16: 4. Quarter-finals: 2.

Concacaf: 13 berths, 39 points. PPP: 3. Round of 16: 6. Quarter-finals: 1.

South America: 19 berths, 107 points. PPP: 5.63. Round of 16: 14. Quarter-finals: 9. Semi-finals: 3. Finals: 2. Champions: 1.

Europe: 57 berths, 272 points. PPP: 4.77. Round of 16: 35. Quarter-finals: 19. Semi-finals: 12. Finals: 6. Champions: 3.

Oceania: 2 berths, 7 points. PPP: 3.5. Round of 16: 1.

As the numbers suggest, Concacaf teams do more on average with their World Cup places than their counterparts in Asia or Africa. Does that mean Concacaf should upgraded to four full bids, as the region’s leadership has requested in the past? Not at all. Three-and-a-half places is just about right for a region with two established powers and two to three other sides who reliably make the last round of qualifying but whose World Cup fortunes vary from cycle to cycle. Until the rest of Asia catches up to Japan or the rest of Africa lives up to Ghana’s example, there is no performance-based evidence to suggest taking a World Cup place away from Concacaf is warranted.

Of course, performance may only be part of the equation. It is worth remembering that, for all that is stresses the need to keep politics and sport separate, Fifa remains a political animal. Anyone hoping for a radical redistribution of World Cup places would do well to remember these numbers – Africa has 56 Fifa member nations, Asia 47, Concacaf 41, Uefa 54, South America 10 and Oceania 11. Also bear in mind that countries often vote in blocs, so angering a small handful of Asian or African countries could have disastrous effects on certain people’s grand designs come election time.

Barring something drastic, such as a confederation splitting into smaller parts or ceasing to exist altogether, the most fans can expect from Fifa is tinkering around the edges with play-off places. Three guaranteed berths for Concacaf, four for Asia and five for Africa is just about right given the existing balance of power, and the playoff places likely will continue to shift between Concacaf, Asia, Oceania and South America.

Those who suggest Concacaf is over-represented at the World Cup are letting their bias or their ignorance get the better of them. Qualifying out of Concacaf is more difficult than many realise, and the teams who earn those World Cup bids do more on average with their places than those from other regions perceived to be at their level. If regions outside Europe and South America are to gain or lose places at the World Cup, let it be because of their performance on the pitch rather than lazy generalisations or political machinations.

pfreelend@thenational.ae

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