(Opinion) CONCACAF gonna CONCACAF: Everything Wrong With the new Qualifying Process

When it comes to FIFA, the governing body of international football, things are never boring. From dealing with corruption charges to ensuring that the many global competitions are well-ran, and everything in between, they always have a lot on their plate when it comes to running the World’s game. Within FIFA, there are many smaller governing bodies, as continental organizations are set up to run everything within their respective continents, aiding FIFA in ensuring everything runs smoothly. This is where all the fun happens, as there are never dull moments within these confederations.

From CONMEBOL, where teams have legendary home-field advantages, with teams playing at obscene altitudes and doing everything to get under other teams skins, to CAF, where teams routinely overcrowd stadiums, with situations like this one happening last year during their AFCON qualifiers, there is no shortage of entertaining federations in global football. 

But one remains nearly peerless above them all, and that is CONCACAF. From having teams not sanctioned by FIFA, to a marquee tournament (the Gold Cup) that still had partial invite-only status for certain teams until qualifying was installed this year, and refereeing that can be best summed up by the fact that the Gold Cup Final this year did not have a single yellow card (if you do not believe me check here ), CONCACAF seems to combine all the aspects of all the federations around the world into one giant messy, loveable pot that represents North, Central American and Caribbean football. 

So when CONCACAF came out last week and announced their path to the 2022 World Cup, many were not surprised to see how farcical the process would be, as they somehow made it possible to screw over nearly 75% of their members, installing a qualifying campaign that rewards a handful of teams, but not doing much to improve the rest of the members, leaving many decent teams to fight over ultimately what will end up being a super slim chance at the World Cup in 2022. 

Before we get any further, let’s break down the format:

The top six teams in CONCACAF (determined by the FIFA rankings in about a year’s time) are grouped together in a Hexagonal phase, which is a 6 team group, where each team plays home and away against each team, for a total of 10 matches. The top 3 teams qualify directly to the World Cup, whereas the 4th place team enters a playoff. 

For the playoff, the remaining 29 teams (remember that they have zero chance at directly qualifying if not in the top-six of the FIFA rankings at the beginning of the Hex) will be bunched into a group stage involving 8 groups of 3 or 4 teams, with the winner of each group advancing to the quarter-finals of a bracket, and from there on in it’s two-legged series all the way through till the end. The winner of the tournament earns the chance to play the aforementioned 4th place team in another two-legged set, with the winner of that playing a team from either Asia, Oceania or South America, depending on a draw, in what is yet another two-legged set, with the winner heading to the 2022 World Cup. 

Are you confused yet? Yeah, it’s a bit much. Here is the official breakdown of the process from CONCACAF: https://www.concacaf.com/en/world-cup-qualifying-men/article/concacaf-announces-format-for-the-2022-fifa-world-cup-confederation-qualifiers?utm_content=sf215557239&utm_medium=spredfast&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=CONCACAF&sf215557239=1

And if you want some more fun, read the replies on this post:

What’s Wrong With the Process?

Where to even start? Let’s go with some basics:

It screws over a bunch of teams, including some pretty good ones, for no reason.

Canada will be in tough to make the Hex next year

This is a huge sticking point, especially for teams like Canada, Curacao, Panama, Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago, who would all currently miss out on the Hex, if it were to start today. It begs a simple question: Why? Why should a federation that usually struggles at World Cup play, bar Mexico and the US (when they don’t miss out) seclude their top six teams based on arbitrary rankings that do not necessarily reflect who the best 6 teams are at the time? It’s certainly mind-boggling, as for a federation the size of CONCACAF, with 35 members, reducing themselves to an elite group of 6, and leaving the rest to fight out for table scraps from the get-go frankly just seems redundant.

It may make sense that CONCACAF wants to emulate CONMEBOL, who has a similar process where 10 teams end up in a group from the start, with each team playing each other home and away over the 3 years, with the top 4 teams plus a playoff team making the World Cup. It’s a great process and one that makes South America consistently a threat in World Cup competition. So why can’t CONCACAF try to emulate that? Well to start CONMEBOL has 25 fewer members, making things a little easier for them to execute this “Super Group”…

The beauty of World Cup qualifying is how it allows everyone a chance to dream. While there are some teams that seem to make it year-after-year, there are always surprises, like usual powerhouses Netherlands and Italy missing out in 2018, or war-torn Syria coming super close to making it all the way to the big tournament last year, falling just short in the Asian playoff. So while it’s tough as a fan of bigger teams have to go through qualifying, as it requires a lot of effort to have to go through teams of all sizes and ranks in a gruelling campaign that takes a couple of years, it makes everything all worth it, as ultimately the teams that survive through their respective campaigns should be rewarded with subsequent berths in the World’s tournament. 

Why should a team like Canada, who looks likely to be outside that top six ranking next year, have to go through a grinding process of 29 teams, whittling themselves down from a group stage and then 3 tough two-legged ties, just to have to beat the 4th place team of the Hex in another two-legged tie, and then have to beat another team from another continent in yet another two-legged tie just to get to the World Cup? That means to qualify, Canada would have to win around 16 games, with any slip-up resulting in the end of their campaign to reach the pinnacle of World football. 

Contrast that to Mexico, perennial giants of CONCACAF, who are pretty much guaranteed to get into the Hex at this point. To get to the World Cup, they will only have to win around 5 times to get through (based on what Panama, the lowest Hex team needed last time to qualify), with any slip-ups still allowing them to go through the playoff, provided they do not fall as far as 5th or 6th. 

But Mexico and Canada are bad comparisons for this exercise. For a better one, look no further than El Salvador, who would currently be the 6th team in the Hex based on FIFA rankings. What happened last qualifying campaign for El Salvador? They finished last in a group including Canada for the chance to even get into the Hex. What have they done since then? They flunked out of the Gold Cup in the Group Stage, with Curacao making it out ahead of them after El Salvador suffered an embarrassing beatdown from Honduras. The fact that they would automatically qualify over Canada and Curacao in this context makes absolutely no sense, as they are only buoyed by their achievements from many years ago, with the FIFA Rankings serving as a life raft in the middle of the CONCACAF sea for them to cling on to.

It makes CONCACAF less competitive at the World Cup:

Canada was hoping to do better this campaign than the last, but now that’s all up in smoke

This point is a bit more contentious, as teams like Mexico and the US are unaffected by the change, but it’s mostly for those teams ranked 3-6 in the Hex, because if anyone somehow makes it to the World Cup out of the grinder of a playoff system for teams 7-35, they will be better off for it at this point. 

Firstly, the Hex will not be comprised of 6 deserving countries, with the rankings skewed towards teams that were more successful in the past, a la El Salvador. Secondly, the teams at the top of the Hex (Mexico, USA) will not benefit from playing weakened opposition that might not make it that far if the old qualifying system was imposed (for teams that look weakened like Honduras and El Salvador, who both failed to make the knockout stages of the Gold Cup). Lastly, the quality and the intensity of the Hex will suffer, as the big appeal of it before was that it provided a final stage of qualifying after a couple of intense rounds, meaning each team came in at the top of the game. Now? The first few matches will be lethargic, as teams go from Nations League and Friendlies to having to fight for their World Cup lives right away, but in a system like the Hex, that allows them 2 or so games of leeway to get comfortable, as teams take the time to adjust to the standard. 

Teams that have to go through tougher qualifying campaigns usually do better at World Cups, as playing tough games that mean a lot from the get-go usually does wonders for a team in terms of growing together and improving as a squad. Look no further than Iran, a team that was nearly made it out of a group in 2018 with Spain and Portugal, two very tough global superpowers, which was an incredible achievement. In Asia, there are 2 rounds of group stages, making it really tough for all teams who aspire to qualify. But, since its a level playing field, everyone benefits, so a team like Iran, that gelled well as a group by making it through the whole process without much fault, were rewarded at the World Cup, where they were unlucky not to tie with Spain, as well as nearly beat Portugal, despite not having much in terms of star power on their team. 

The only positive, which president Victor Montagliani overstressed, is that it makes the team that comes out of the 29 team playoff extremely battle-tested and better off to make the World Cup, which is not wrong. So why not just add the teams from the Hex to this process? Why should 29 teams, all teams that could potentially provide upsets in any given match, have a next to impossible chance at a World Cup berth all thanks to an arbitrary coefficient system? It makes no sense. 

There was no warning, leaving some teams screwed, as well as making friendlies a big buzz word:

Teams that are not sanctioned by FIFA, like French Guyana, further complicates matters for CONCACAF

The whole process is also skewed by the late announcement of the format, which will end up changing the course that many national teams were headed on. Rest assured that all the teams around that fringe area of the top six (cough*Canada*cough) will now want to schedule a swath of friendlies, filling in all spaces and gaps in the schedule that they will have, to boost the rankings in any way possible. With Nations League matches coming up, which will be competitive matches that can boost teams FIFA rankings, there will hopefully be some movement from top teams up and down the table, making them reflect more accurately the state of CONCACAF’s best teams in a years time, which is good (and was probably a huge guiding point for CONCACAF). 

But, as is typical with CONCACAF, for each leap forward, it must be met with an equally frustrating slip and fall, as there are always oversights with the process. In this case, it is for teams like Trinidad & Tobago, who may end up getting the biggest middle finger in this whole process. Firstly, they qualified to the Gold Cup this year by virtue of automatic qualification as a result of making the hex last World Cup cycle, which is great and all, but their FIFA ranking has fallen off hard as a result, as they skipped out on a whole swath of competitive matches this past year, as they have spent their last two years playing friendlies against good opposition, losing most of them and just sinking their ranking as a result. Now, they got screwed over again, as in their next grouping of competitive matches they have to play Martinique twice, who happens to not be sanctioned by FIFA, meaning that playing them essentially has zero bearings on the rankings. With T&T way off the top six in CONCACAF, they will have to resign themselves to the Gaunlet of a playoff, for no reason other than bad luck and having played a lot of friendlies over the last year to fill gaps. 

Closer to home, Canada will walk a similar tightrope, as they have had a reluctance to play any sort of extra games this last year. While Canada should have been playing those extra games, as their lack of cohesion defensively in game-situatiosn showed at times this past Gold Cup, they chose to use more time to bond and prepare as a group, which means they were unable to artificially boost their rankings. Add that to the fact that they had Martinique in their Gold Cup group, meaning they only technically won once all tournament, against Cuba, which hindered the ability to boost their FIFA ranking, likely making them regret their approach leading up to and during the tournament.  

Which is frustrating. Why should teams be rewarded for artificially boosting their rankings? If they are good enough, they will qualify naturally, so no need to decide an arbitrary system. Study the case of Poland at World Cup 2018. Due to their propensity to play friendlies at every avenue possible, they entered the World Cup as a top 5 team, pushing them to be a pot 1 country (which in theory means a weaker group, as groups are comprised of teams drawn from each pot). While they ultimately qualified legitimately, they definitely did not belong as a pot 1 team, shown when they were drawn into the group of life (Colombia, Senegal, Japan), and finished dead-last, with a pot 4 team, Japan, making it out, and pot 3 team, Senegal, coming pretty close themselves, tying with Japan. Poland probably regretted playing all the friendlies against weaker opposition, because for all the help it gave them with rankings, it did not do anything to prepare them for the competitive nature of the World Cup. 

So even if a team like say Canada ended up boosting their rankings enough thanks to their Nations League campaign, coupled with a bunch of friendlies, will it even be worth it? It will be great for the country, don’t get me wrong, but it does nothing for them, as they should be having to get out of the first few rounds to merit qualifying for the Hex, instead of trying to game the system as they will now be encouraged to, leaving them under-prepared if they do reach the Hex.

What could be some alternatives?

Canada may come to rue their performance in the Gold Cup

Sadly, this process for 2022 is here to stay, so unless the announcement was a really poorly planned April Fools Joke, we must satisfy ourselves in a world of hypotheticals and imaginary scenarios. Here are some we thought up:

Scenario A: Stay the Course

Staying the course isn’t such a bad option, but it isn’t perfect either. The first 3 rounds are questionable, as it just weeds out 19 or so teams out of 25, leaving 6 teams to join the top six from last time out in a group stage, with those 12 teams split into groups of 4. From there on the format is great, as each team gets at least 6 games, with teams that make it to the Hex (top two in each group), get 16 total, giving them a lot of competitive matches.

Scenario B: More groups!

Firstly, when considering new processes, one must consider the sweet spot of games each team should reasonably be expected to play to qualify. In most confederations, that number is 16-20, so we tried to consider that in these formats. 

Format B1: 35 teams gets whittled down to 24, thanks to some home-and-away two-legged series (no problem doing them as long as not too many teams have to do it). From then on, there are 6 groups of 4, with each group winner getting to the Hex, which from there on remains the same. (Total Expected Games: 16-20) 

Format B2: From the get-go, 5 groups of 6 and one group of 5, with each group winner making the Hex. From there on, no changes. (Total Expected Games: 20)

Format B3: Forget the Hex! Similar to B2, 5 groups of 6 and one group of 5, with top-two in each group advancing to the final phase. The final phase(12 teams) split into two groups of 6, with the winner of each group qualifying, and the two-second place teams playing a playoff for the last spot, with the loser going to a playoff. Alternate Option: Instead of two groups of 6, there are 3 groups of 4. Each group winner goes to the World Cup, and to decide the playoff representative, the 3 second-place finishers go into a group where they play 4 games. (Total Expected Games: 20, 16 for alternate option)

Looking Forward:

While all these formats outlined have their own flaws, it will always hard to make a qualifying tournament that gives everyone a fair shout, based on the uneven amount of members that are eligible to qualify for the World Cup from CONCACAF. But, at least every team gets a fair shot, and that’s the biggest thing that this new format takes away from. For every reason why this new process is a bad idea, the main flaw will always is the unfairness, which sets this process apart from other supposedly bad formats. It’s okay to kick teams out early, sending them home to lick their wounds and wait for the next cycle, provided they got a fair shot. Why should 29 teams have to grind for half a spot in the World Cup? That’s the main wart this system provides, and hopefully it’s the last time we ever hear anything like this for qualifying in the future. 

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