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Including the World in the World Cup

2011 March 6
by Victor Matheson

Chuck Blazer, an American and North America’s representive to the FIFA executive committee has blasted the committee’s decision to not award North America’s soccer confederation, CONCACAF, an additional slot at the next World Cup. Blazer aruges that based on the performance of CONCACAF teams in 2010 in South Africa, the confederation should have 4 instead of 3.5 slots at the next World Cup in Brazil.

While I am sympathetic to his argument, if the goal of the World Cup is to have the best teams competing, then the correct determination of the number of slots per confederation should not be the average performance of teams but instead the marginal performance of the best team excluded from each confederation.

Imagine a continent composed of the Netherlands, Spain, and the Faroe Islands that receives two slots at the World Cup. By an average performance measure, the confederation should receive an extra berth as the continent had the two finalists in the big event, but including the Faroe Islands, the marginal team, and excluding another qualifier from another continent, will clearly reduce overall quality in the World Cup.

A similar thing may be happening in CONCACAF. Mexico and the U.S. are perrenial powerhouses that nearly automatically qualify and frequently advance to the round of 16 (although admittedly, it is there that they typically hit their ceiling.) Including another team from CONCACAF does not mean including another U.S. or Mexico but rather another Costa Rica, Honduras, Trinidad, or Jamaica, hardly soccer giants on the world stage. 

Indeed, if one places in confidence in the accuracy of the FIFA World Rankings, the top six currently ranked teams not in the World Cup in 2010 were all from Europe – Croatia (9), Norway (11), Russia (12), Montenegro (25), Sweden (29), and the Czech Republic (30). The top non-European team excluded was Egypt (33) followed by Nigeria (40), Burkino Faso (41), Iran (44) and finally the first CONCACAF member, Costa Rica, at 48. If anything, the average quality of the Cup would have risen by the inclusion of more Europeans, hardly a position Blazer would endorse.

In any case, this is a good example of thinking like an economist: think at the margins, not at the average. In addition it highlights the problems from using a limited number of data points. Africa’s poor performance in the 2010 World Cup is probably best explained by the rash of upsets in qualifing that excluded many top teams from the finals rather than lack of playing skills in the region.

7 Responses
  1. Liam Lenten permalink
    March 6, 2011

    I agree, Vic, and on this basis, perhaps New Zealand being the only defeated team in the 2010 World Cup augers well for Oceania’s claims for a full spot:)

  2. Greg Pinelli permalink
    March 6, 2011

    Of course, I don’t agree with the World Rankings..they remind me of the official Golf World Rankings…useless as a guide in practical application. My suggestion is to hire the NCAA Tournament ranking group and teach them a few things about soccer…they’d do a better job than FIFA…

    Should more Euro teams be in? Absolutely..the best soccer by FAR is played in Europe..best leagues..best players..best coaches. The FIFA system is pathetic..the idea that the defending champion and runner up have to qualify is absurd…but then..FIFA is a bsurd..a pretentious group of sports grifters and scamsters.

  3. Christopher permalink
    March 8, 2011

    Don’t agree with Blazer concerning CONCACAF, but don’t agree that Europe should have more either. The Netherlands, Spain, Faroe Island example is a straw man because of course its not a continent and not even a whole European group. A better comparison for a group that small is what used to happen in Oceania with Australia, New Zealand, and Samoa where the winner had to playoff with someone to get to the WC. Its one reason, the main reason, the Aussie’s joined the Asian confederation.

    I do think its fair to take a look at each regions success rate in its past two or three WC’s to allow that to determine adding or subtracting and teams. The US and Mexico both got to the 16 in 2010 and 2002, but not in 2006. Africa’s showing on home turf so to speak, suggests that them getting 6 was about two more than they deserved. Conversely, I think South America should always get 5 of their 10 confederations in given how much success they have in the first round with a chance to have a 6th play in.

    By the way, Nigeria was in the 2010 World Cup

  4. Tom permalink
    March 8, 2011

    They should have more half spots- and a subsequent larger play-off round. CONCACAF could get 2 guarranteed spots and 3 half spots, all the 2nd place teams in Europe’s 9 groups could get half spots, South America could get 4 full and 4 half spots, etc…

    At the end of regional qualifying for the last world cup, 4 teams played for the final 2 spots in home v home intercontinental series. I think it’d be exiciting if 16 teams played for the last 8 spots. The pairs could picked by random draw.

    As an added benefit, this would more accurately get the best teams in the world cup. Our region, CONCACAF would end up with 2 to 5 teams, depending on how good the play-off teams performed. This would be the fairest way of determining how many places the region deserves.

  5. March 9, 2011

    I believe that only the best teams are good enough to participate in the world cup championship. That’s why I don’t see the point in the argument. Sport should remain pure no matter what.

  6. Michael Davis permalink
    March 9, 2011

    The African qualifying procedure is not particularly well designed to get their five best teams into the World Cup, especially compared to CONCACAF. So in addition to their poor performance in the World Cup, it could also make the African marginal team look better than the CONCACAF marginal team. It is comparing the 2nd or 3rd (not the 6th) best African team versus the 4th best CONCACAF team.

    However, I do agree with the general point of this post.

  7. Victor Matheson permalink
    March 14, 2011

    Good point, Mike. A more in depth analysis would have to appropriately consider the chance for upsets. And if an upset in Europe means a #32 team instead of a #30 team while an upset in CONCACAF means a #80 team instead of a #28 team, who should get the extra bid? Europe where even an upset means a good team getting in or CONCACAF where if things go to form a better team will get in but in case an upset a real minnow qualifies?

    I think Tom’s suggestion makes a lot of sense. Currently in Europe, teams are broken into 9 groups. The 9 group winners qualify and the 8 best runners up play against one another for 4 more spots. If instead these 8 European teams played off against 8 teams from CONCACAF, CAF, CONEBOL, AFC, and Oceania this would provide for more spots based on team quality instead of political clout within FIFA (and without adding more games to an already crowded schedule.) Europe could end up with between 9 and 17 teams instead of the current guarantee of 13.

    In order for this to work each confederation would need to accept fewer guaranteed bids in exchange for more potential bids and then let the chips fall where they may.

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