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The discussion’s inevitable, but World Cup playoff routs don’t change the allocation debate

Nov 13, 2013, 6:44 PM EDT

Edinson Cavani of Uruguay fights for the ball with Adnan Adous of Jordan during their World Cup qualifying playoff first leg soccer match at Amman International stadium AP

The mistake here is assuming the World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s 32 best teams. It’s more complicated than that. The desire to give those spots to the most competitive teams has to be balanced against making the competition truly representative. There’s no point of having a ‘World’ Cup if you stack the tournament with European teams.

We’re already at that point. Thirteen spots for UEFA is ridiculous. Sure, a team like Slovenia (in 2010) was probably among the top 32 teams in the world, but within their own region, they’d showed no real ability to compete with the top teams. Not viable competitively and not crucial to the representation of their confederation, Slovenia’s inclusion at the World Cup was superfluous. Giving that spot to a nation in Asia, Africa, or Central America ould have done more to grow the game.

It’s important not to lose sight of that when analyzing today’s routs, particularly since we’re likely to hear a number of people use the results to argue against a more inclusive World Cup. Just at that divide, they’ll note, hinting places like Asia (and by inference, any other region under-represented at World Cups) shouldn’t get more of Europe’s share.

But did we need a game in Amman to tell us the defending South American champions are years ahead of a team that’s never qualified for World Cup? Or a soccer power like Mexico is on another level than New Zealand? No. We knew that before kickoff. Nothing’s changed as a result of today’s blowouts.

If anything, today’s games reminded us of how strange these playoffs are. If you want Asia to get more teams in the World Cup, just give them another spot. Same with Africa and CONCACAF. If we agree places at the World Cup can help grow the game — bringing attention to a sport that may be struggling to gain a greater foothold in some nations — take some spots away from Europe and just give them to the “developing” regions. Don’t force the likes of Jordan and New Zealand to have to knock off relative powers like Uruguay and Mexico to earn their spots. And in the process, make the Uruguays and Mexicos of the world to prove their worth in qualifying. Remove their net.

If it’s not politically viable to take spots from Europe, then cue Michel Platini’s 40-team World Cup. Or perhaps decide we care too much about growing the game, not enough about making the World Cup the most competitive tournament it can be, even if that attitude would have never allowed the competition to grow to the point it’s at now. Where would teams from Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean be in a world where World Cup spots were only tied to competitiveness?

Yet when somebody complains about the scoreline to today’s playoffs, that will be the subtext. Neither Jordan nor New Zealand are up to snuff, further evidence that redistributing World Cup spots or expanding the tournament is a bad idea.

But World Cup spots aren’t about results alone. If there’s any complaint to be had about today’s playoffs, it’s that they were played at all. We don’t need to see if Mexico and Uruguay are better than still-developing soccer cultures. We need to do more to help those soccer cultures develop.

  1. talgrath - Nov 13, 2013 at 7:04 PM

    Definitely have to agree here, if the World Cup was just about seeing the best competition in the world, FIFA would just grab the top 32 teams in the rankings (even if they are extremely flawed) and be done with it. It’s important to remember that Asia and Africa are growing markets for soccer, expanding there helps to ensure the game remains relevant. Beyond that, it’s not like any of these lesser European teams, like Slovenia, have a real shot at winning the World Cup, not much more of a shot than Jordan would; so why does it really matter? Were you going to watch the World Cup any less because it features a team like Costa Rica instead of say, Portugal or Sweden (one of which will be eliminated)?

  2. joeyt360 - Nov 13, 2013 at 7:37 PM

    I am going to get run out on a rail for saying it, but I suspect the weakest team at the World Cup will be from Europe (namely the Greece-Romania winner).

  3. snooppp68 - Nov 13, 2013 at 7:43 PM

    @talgrath, You mean the Costa Rican team that lost 1-0 to the U.S. in an “X-Games” blizzard debacle, then spanked the U.S. 3-1 in the return game? That Costa Rica???????

    • talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:07 PM

      The Costa Rica that finished second in CONCACAF? Yes, that one. I was trying to point out similar levels of team talent. My point was that increasing the number of European slots at the cost of other regions doesn’t make much sense as we are (mostly) getting the best teams to be found in Europe anyway. If you expand the European slots, then you get more teams like Croatia or Slovenia, talented groups, but decidedly mid-level or lower-mid-level teams, much like Costa Rica.

  4. dfstell - Nov 13, 2013 at 8:03 PM

    I agree. If you want to want “the best”, the Euros are usually a better tournament since you’re only missing a few of the most dangerous teams in the world and there are no gimmie matches in the group stages (where someone like Ireland is the weakest team).

    I’d be all in favor of making it bigger and inviting more countries. If the goal was really to find the BEST national teams, we wouldn’t use a tournament format anyway, but some sort of season-long, balanced-schedule, single-table thing (which will never happen and I don’t want to happen….but THAT is how you’d find out who the best is).

  5. mortonas - Nov 13, 2013 at 9:49 PM

    Yes, totally agree. It would be much better without these playoffs. Bye bye to France, Portugal, Mexico and Uruguay. Hello Jordan, Uzbekistan and New Zealand. There should be no place for the likes of Ronaldo, Ribery and Suarez at this World Cup. FIFA just don’t know what the fans want.

  6. rphillish - Nov 14, 2013 at 5:05 AM

    I think you need find a balance. You want good representation from around the world (this is the World Cup after all), but you also want top competitive soccer. For the most part I think the current system gives you just that. You could probably find arguments for some changes like merging Oceania and Asia, but on the whole the current model works.

    As for these knockout rounds, I don’t think the idea was to have such strong teams be in those games when the system was proposed. When CONCACAF won that fourth spot I don’t think anyone ever expected a powerhouse like Mexico to be in that spot. Sure Mexico is way ahead of NZ, but Honduras or Panama aren’t, and those are the teams that we would’ve expected to see fighting for 4th. Though I agree with the general point; if FIFA wants Oceania represented in the Cup then just give them the spot, and don’t dangle one in front of their faces.

    One last thing, it wont be an issue this year, but in recent Cups there has been talk about whether the host nation should get their automatic qualification. I have to say that is some BS. Of course the hosts get to play. I mean, that’s just respect.

  7. phineasfoggiest - Nov 14, 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Soccer is already a sport of the masses in pretty much all of Africa and S. America, so giving them extra world cup places isn’t going to make it any more popular. It might help in somewhere like India, but awarding Asia another five places still wouldn’t result in the Indian team qualifying for the World Cup, they would still not be very good.

    There is one country the sport continues to need to grow, for whom qualification is already gift-wrapped for them every four years – the US.

  8. greenhagen - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    I don’t really have a problem with the current allocation. But if we’re going to nitpick…

    I think the “World Cup Finals” should be about getting the 32 (or 40) most competitive teams in a single competition over a short timeframe. The global aspect is already accomplished in the qualification stage of the World Cup. Couldn’t FIFA get rid of the entire regional allocation system and open the qualification to a global group stage?

    What grows the game more in non-competitive countries: playing a qualification round for an allocated spot that even if you win you stand no chance of winning the tournament, or bringing the best teams from around the world (even if some stars don’t make every trip) to your country?

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