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World Cup Qualifying

November 24, 2007

The draw for 2010 World Cup qualifying is tomorrow. Woohoo! It’ll be great to know the structure of the next cycle, and have countries to start learning about. One thing I did notice, however, assuming Michael Lewis’ article on MLSnet.com is correct: CONCACAF no longer has the most byzantine qualification procedure.

The last cycle saw the US play almost 20 games to get to Germany. It started with a home-and-away series with Grenada, then moved on to the semifinal group stage with a round-robin pool against Panama, Jamaica, and El Salvador (6 games). Throw in the final hexagonal against Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and Panama. and you’ve got 18 matches. Then consider that there was a round before we got involved, and you’ve got a 4-stage qualification process that seems to drag on too long. The process for getting to South Africa 2010 is seemingly identical.

Then, along comes Asia. They’ve pioneered a five-stage qualification process that looks like this:

  1. Excepting the seeded teams (Australia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan, Kuwait and Indonesia), the 36 involved teams will play a home-and-away series to leave 18 winners. The 11 with the highest FIFA ranking will be given byes to the third round.
  2. The group winners who are not given “skip a round” passes will then play another home-and-away series. The winners advance to the third stage.
  3. The third stage will include the original seeded teams, the best winners from the first round, and the survivors from the second. This is supposed to add up to 20 teams, which will be grouped into five groups of four teams, which will play a double-round-robin tournament. The top two teams from each group will advance to the fourth stage, for a total of 10 teams.
  4. The 10 finalists will be divided into two groups of five teams, which will again play a double-round-robin league. The top two finishers in each group will qualify for South Africa, having played 18 games. The two third-place finishers from each group continue…
  5. The two third-place finishers from each group will play a home-and-away series themselves to determine who will advance to a playoff against the best team from Oceania.

Exhausted yet? Contrast that with the qualification process from South America, which as always is eminently simple:

  1. All 10 teams compete in a league format, each team playing every other home and away. The top 4 teams from that league qualify for the World Cup.
  2. The fifth placed team enters a playoff against the the fourth best team from CONCACAF (i.e. North America)

I’d like to think that there’s a better way to structure this qualifying tournament to make things simpler, but it doesn’t appear that that’s likely to happen.

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