So, FIFA elections around the corner, huh? Of course, we couldn’t care less about such an insanely corrupt organization (unless it collapsed, that might be interesting), but there’s a lot about it and its candidates in the media, and quite a few are concerned with the matter of World Cup berths.
That’s an issue here because many feel that CONMEBOL (the South American football confederation) gets way too much love from FIFA, and has a disproportionate number of World Cup berths considering the relatively small number of football federations it has as members. Which is true, statistically. But there’s the other side of the argument: competition. If you want to keep the level of the tournament at its highest possible, you need those berths to be in line with the overall quality that each confederation brings to the tournament. So it’s not so simple as the one with more countries gets more berths.
The Demographic Path
In the last few decades FIFA has taken a very UN-like attitude in most aspects, including refereeing. That’s why you see referees from Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup semi-final. Not that there’s anything wrong with the nationality, the problem is that you cannot expect a referee that has so little exposure to high-level competition to perform well in such an important instance. It’s unfair for him, for the players and for the fans.
This is in stark contrast with the selections made by another important sport body: the International Rugby Board. In IRC World Cups, referees are almost exclusively from traditional Rugby nations, such as Wales or South Africa, where they are used to high-level competition. You won’t see a Canadian referee there. For the IRB, quality assurance is paramount, politics is in second place (or third, after revenues).
But like I said, for FIFA it is important to give every nation an opportunity, even before they are ready. So let’s go over the current facts, comparing the confederations:
- UEFA (Europe): 54 members, 750 million people, 13 berths
- CONMEBOL (South America): 10 members, 400 million people, 4.5 berths
- CAF (Africa): 56 members, 1.1 billion people, 5 berths
- AFC (Asia and Australia): 47 members, 4.2 billion people, 4.5 berths
- CONCACAF (North America): 41 members, 570 million people, 3.5 berths
- OFC (Oceania excl. Australia): 14 members, 11 million people, 0.5 berths
Counting by countries, CONMEBOL is completely out of proportion at 2.2 countries/berth, meaning that almost half of the teams would qualify for a World Cup (6 did in 2014 including hosts Brazil). UEFA follows with 4.2 members/berth, the next three are all around 10 members per berth and OFC got a really bad deal at 28 members/berth. The Oceanics (?) should really complain about that.
Or maybe not, because considering population it’s OFC that gets the best deal at 22 million people/berth, against UEFA’s 58. The American confederations follow with 89 for the South and 162 for the North, then Africa with 220. Asia is so far behind it’s ridiculous: one berth for every 930 million people. Yes, I know half of that live in China and India, which are not that powerful football-wise, but come on!
Either way, South America and Europe are getting a wink from FIFA, no question. Or are they?
The Competitive Path
The other way to look at it focuses on the show. If you want the competition level of the World Cup to be its highest possible, you need to allow the better-performing confederations get more berths, it’s simple. If the 20th team in one confederation is better than the 2nd one in another one, that first team should make it to the World Cup, no matter how unfair it might seem. After all, fans care about good football, not cultural diversity.
But how do you manage this? Do you pit every team against each other to get the best 32? Wouldn’t that be a World Cup already? And there aren’t enough days in four years to play that qualifying competition anyway, so that’s not really feasible.
What you can do is use simple maths to adjust the number of berths based on the previous competition performance, using an indicator such as the number of teams that make it past the group stage. Since there are 32 teams and 16 qualify for the play-off stages, 50% qualification would suggest an appropriate number of berths. Now let’s suppose that we were to make that a rule: every confederation gets 2 berths per team qualified to play-off stages in the previous World Cup. Let’s call it the Two Berths per 16th-Finalist rule.
So what happened in the last World Cup?
- UEFA: 6 out of 13 (46%)
- CONMEBOL: 5 out of 6 (87%)
- CAF: 2 out of 5 (40%)
- AFC: 0 out of 4 (0%)
- CONCACAF: 3 out of 4 (75%)
UEFA seems close to ideal (12), and Africa is not too far (4) but the other three are nowhere near the target. Asian teams had a really bad year, and were all eliminated in the group stage; while the Americans did splendidly, with only two of their ten teams overall failing to qualify past the group stage. What’s particularly interesting is that if we were to apply the Two Berths per 16th-Finalist rule, CONMEBOL would have all its members qualify automatically for the next World Cup, since they’re only ten.
But there’s also one problem with that system, even if it’s self-adjusting by nature: its feedback loop is four years delayed. What if after a great tournament, which will give one confederation a few more berths, there’s a sudden drop in overall quality in its members? In the next tournament most of its teams will perform awfully. Sure, for the next one a few berths will be removed again, but the damage is already done: teams that shouldn’t have qualified did qualify and had a negative impact in the level of the tournament. Still unfair, if slightly less so than the current static system.
So we know that the current static system is obsolete, and we know that using the Two Berths by 16th-Finalist rule religiously is extreme (and would leave Asia out). But how about limiting the adjustment? Establish an absolute minimum and a differential maximum and let it fluctuate naturally.
So let’s say the minimum is 0.5 (current for OFC) and the maximum variance 1 (when off by more than 1), then considering the last World Cup performances, we’d get:
- UEFA 12.5 (-0.5)
- CONMEBOL 5.5 (+1)
- CONCACAF 4.5 (+1)
- CAF 4.5 (-0.5)
- AFC 3.5 (-1)
- OFC 0.5 (minimum)
And we’d also gets tons of inter-confederations qualification matches. Great! I think that could work, don’t you?
Or maybe just use a decent ranking system (IRB again) and increase the number of international matches, then you can just qualify the top 32 and ignore confederations altogether. Just a thought.