Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Far-From-Modest Proposal; Really, I've Lost My Mind Here

Aside from rooting for the United States, a subplot of the World Cup for we in the US is the fate of Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, the other nations in the field from CONCACAF, the North American confederation. UEFA, the European confederation- and FIFA is located in Europe- and its constituent fans have been seething for six months running that this year's tournament just isn't complete without the presence of Sweden, whom Portugal had to beat in a playoff in order to make the field, and that other continents are just plain weaker than they are, so why should Europe feel satisfied with a mere 13 slots? Why not take a spot away from, oh, say, CONCACAF, and give it to UEFA? And why didn't Turkey get to qualify either?

Never mind that two of the other European playoffs were Greece vs. Romania and Iceland vs. Croatia, and the meeting of Sweden and Portugal was merely luck of the draw. And never mind that Turkey came in fourth in their six-team qualifying group. (The Netherlands won the group and qualified, Romania came in second to go to the playoff with Greece, and after them were Hungary, Turkey, Estonia and Andorra.) They are European and therefore automatically better than everybody else and Europe shouldn't have to be bothered with little frivolous details like proving it every once in a while.

So the onus has been on CONCACAF to perform. Luckily for them, so far that hasn't been too much of a problem. While Honduras lost today 3-0 to France, Mexico has beaten Cameroon 1-0, and Costa Rica shocked everybody by defeating Uruguay 3-1, with the United States opening against Ghana tomorrow. (Later on, Mexico will be playing Croatia, Costa Rica will be playing England and Italy, Honduras will play Switzerland, and the United States will play Portugal and Germany. So there will be plenty of chances for UEFA to back up their talk as we progress.)

But I've been thinking. If they want CONCACAF to earn their keep, I'm cool with that... as long as they earn theirs too.

You know what I like seeing? The intercontinental qualifiers at the tail end. It's a nice way of making the continents prove just how much space in the World Cup they actually deserve. But why did we only have two this time out... and why did neither of them happen to involve UEFA? Why not put EVERY spot, save for the host spot, up for grabs?

Here's how I envision this, and how it would work in practice using the results of 2014 qualifying.

*You set aside the host spot... so Brazil is still in.
*62 spots are fought for within the continents, and those are what's allocated to everyone.
*The teams, once determined, are ranked according to their FIFA ranking (since, according to regulations, we have to use it for anything we want to rank). The top 31 are seeded; the bottom 31 are unseeded.
*We have a blind draw and pair them off, with the provision that a continent can't play itself. Each pair plays a two-legged tie, and the 31 winners go to the World Cup.

As for the allocations, let's go with, say:
UEFA (Europe) (2014 allotment: 13 spots): 27 spots, meaning the top three teams from each of their nine qualifying groups. In 2014 qualifying, these 27 would have been: Belgium, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Netherlands, Romania, Hungary, Switzerland, Iceland, Slovenia, Russia, Portugal, Israel, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Greece, Slovakia, England, Ukraine, Montenegro, Spain, France and Finland.
COMNEBOL (South America) (4.5 spots, minus Brazil): 7 spots. I'd give more, but they have to have someone get knocked out in qualifying. So this would be Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru. (Bolivia and Paraguay, nothing that can be done for you. Don't bring up the rear next time.)
AFC (Asia) (4.5 spots): 9 spots. These would have been Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq. Well, Iraq would have had a playoff with Lebanon, but Iraq had a better goal differential, so I'll give it to them.
CONCACAF (North America) (3.5 spots): 6 spots, so the entire Hexagonal: United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Jamaica.
CAF (Africa) (5 spots): 11 spots. So that would be the entire contents of their final-round playoffs: Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia... and one spot left, which I'll hand to the best runner-up from their previous-round group stage, which I have as South Africa on having more goals scored than Zambia.
OFC (Oceania) (0.5 spots): 2 spots. I figure we go this big and are playing off anyway, they can have a second spot to play with; for 2014, it would have been New Caledonia.

The November 2013 rankings came eight days after the close of qualifying. So we'll use them. The 31 'seeded' teams for this would be: Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Portugal, Uruguay, Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, England, United States, Chile, Croatia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ukraine, France, Mexico, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Russia, Ecuador, Ghana, Denmark, Algeria, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Costa Rica, Romania.

The unseeded teams, therefore: Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Slovakia, Montenegro, Finland, Venezuela, Peru, Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Jordan, Oman, Iraq, Honduras, Panama,
Jamaica, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia, South Africa, New Zealand, New Caledonia.

Let us pair them off via, and note the four playoffs that don't involve Europe with asterisks...

Italy vs. Tunisia
Croatia vs. Ethiopia
Ghana vs. Austria
Algeria vs. Iceland
Sweden vs. Iran
Ecuador vs. Hungary
Serbia vs. Nigeria
Spain vs. South Africa
England vs. Burkina Faso
United States vs. South Korea *
Colombia vs. Jordan *
Czech Republic vs. Venezuela
Switzerland vs. Uzbekistan
Argentina vs. Panama *
Mexico vs. Iraq *
France vs. Qatar
Belgium vs. Japan
Cote d'Ivoire vs. Finland
Greece vs. Cameroon
Netherlands vs. Egypt
Germany vs. Peru
Uruguay vs. Montenegro
Slovenia vs. Senegal
Denmark vs. Australia
Romania vs. New Caledonia
Ukraine vs. Oman
Russia vs. Honduras
Bosnia/Herzegovina vs. Jamaica
Costa Rica vs. Israel
Chile vs. Slovakia
Portugal vs. New Zealand

Well, I can't say I'm happy with the US drawing South Korea in this scenario, but there you go. Proof I didn't game it or anything. All the winners of those pairs go to Brazil; all the losers go home. The end.

Germany would be able to waltz into the World Cup as usual. All they'd have to do is dispatch Peru, and in they go. Argentina would be able to go in just as soon as they sweep aside Panama. England could claim their spot just as soon as they knock out Burkina Faso. (Of course, if they can't... well, they should have. Too bad, so sad, try again in four years.)

The lower-profile continents want their quadrennial shot at Europe and South America. Europe wants more World Cup slots. Well, here you go. Everybody gets a shot at what they want. Theoretically, if Europe sweeps the playoff round, they could reduce the rest of the world to a measly four non-host spots and they're probably crowing about how, see, we told you so. On the other hand, they could themselves be theoretically be wiped out completely, without any presence in the World Cup at all, should they prove to have written checks with their mouths that their butts can't cash. Either way, your continental allotment, to a gigantic degree, is decided on the pitch and not in a conference room in Switzerland. The OFC would have no real reason to complain anymore, either: sure, they have to fight for all their spots in playoffs as before, but now everyone else does too. And they get to send an extra team and not have to wait around for New Zealand to claim the half-spot again, so they come out ahead in the deal.

Does the World Cup get deprived of a big-name team? It always does. The soccer world keeps spinning. Qualifying isn't supposed to be easy. Spain/South Africa's fairly marquee, the US and South Korea, Belgium/Japan. And someone along the way will likely get stunned and marched out by an underdog, but then, that's part of the fun (unless you're the victim).

Also? This will make FIFA gobs and gobs of money via ticket sales to these playoff games. If we're losing too many earlier qualifiers and the money attached to those, heck, make them four-legged ties instead of two. Lengthen the earlier rounds so there's a more thorough process to pick the playoff participants (and some continents will need to revamp, let's be clear about that).

Tell me why this isn't the best idea in the world. Seriously, tell me. I'm probably missing something here.

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