Four teams from the Americas are still alive in the World Cup, and for a second World Cup in a row, teams from the Western Hemisphere have made up at least half the quarterfinalists at the World Cup.
CONCACAF pride was at an all-time high at this World Cup, as three of the four teams qualified for the Round of 16 through tough groups, with Costa Rica knocking out Italy and England, Mexico drawing hosts Brazil and being within an Arjen Robben dive of the quarterfinals, and the USA surviving the “Group of Death” with Portugal and Ghana.
South American teams, meanwhile, have enjoyed the tournament being on the home continent for the first time since 1978. Because of Brazil qualifying automatically as hosts and Uruguay qualifying through a playoff, South America got an all-time high of six spots. Only Ecuador failed to advance, and that was with 4 points in group stage.
Will South America get 6 slots again in 2018? Will CONCACAF get 4?
We shall see, but the two regions could combine and use the strengths of each region to demand far more berths in future World Cups. In 2016, the United States will host a special centennial edition of the Copa America, featuring all 10 teams from South America and 6 teams from CONCACAF in a Euro Championship format, with 4 groups of 4 teams, and 8 teams advancing to elimination play. If you want a massive event featuring chants of “I Believe”, you won’t have to wait for four years. With 8 teams from this year’s Round of 16 participating in that tournament, and games on U.S. soil and able to be telecast in primetime, expect an event to rival its European counterparts.
The two regions might be looking at a more permanent arrangement if that tournament is successful. They should, because it could mean permanently carving out a bigger share of the World Cup pie.
FIFA has not announced the format for qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but it would be a shock if South America got as many as 6 of its 10 members slots again, because of politics.
Last year, Sepp Blatter talked about better balance in qualifying (in an attempt to appease complaints from Asia and Africa and another political move to garner votes). CONCACAF is hoping to lock in four spots but there is no guarantee that it will be more than the 3 spots with another to a playoff that was in place this cycle.
What do the regions deserve? Well, that depends on what we mean by deserve. On pure merit in the tournament, UEFA and CONMEBOL might be under-represented. I’ve seen others look at how many teams are at the top, though, in the tournament, as a measure of merit. Here’s a slightly different look, where teams from each region are sorted by the relative FIFA ranking in May before the World Cup begins, and then compared by the final tournament rank (1-32) since 1998. [NOTE: teams were ranked 1-8 based on points and goal differential to date.]
For example, the top two teams in CONMEBOL in the FIFA rankings (usually Brazil and Argentina) have an average finish of 5.6 in the World Cup. From this, we see that the top 10 teams in Europe are jumbled up top (within this group, the FIFA ranking doesn’t do a very good job of separating), along with all of the CONMEBOL teams, the top two from CONCACAF (Mexico and United States) then followed by teams 11 & 12 from UEFA.
After that, there’s not much divide the lower ranked European teams, the final teams from CONCACAF, and the teams from Africa and Asia. Africa, partially due to its qualifying format which does not put its qualifiers in direct competition, has tended not to have much rhyme or reason (compared to the FIFA rankings) in who did well at the World Cup. As a percentage, though, it’s hard to see either Africa or Asia getting less than the 9 spots they got this year, because they are still sending only roughly 10% of their countries. On performance, it’s hard to see them demanding more.
Europe? Only 1 out of the 10 teams who were ranked 13th or lower among the UEFA World Cup teams by FIFA ranking have advanced to the knockout stage. Politically, it would be tough to press for more spots, and I’m not sure it is merited when the best teams still qualify (Only Netherlands in 2002 has failed to qualify among the top six nations in Europe since the field expanded).
The region, though, that has a legitimate gripe for more spots, or to lock in the spots finally given, based on performance at the World Cup is South America. Only one team (Uruguay in 2002) has finished in the bottom 8 of the final tournament rankings, out of 25 teams. 76% of the South American teams since 1998 have reached the Round of 16.
CONCACAF, while it may not have the super powers of Europe, also isn’t far behind in terms of the quality teams that can advance. With the results of this World Cup, 9 of 17 CONCACAF teams (53%) have advanced, compared to 59% for Europe since 1998. Add them together, and a joint Americas group has had 67% advance, still outpacing European qualifiers.
South America has the powers, and the depth, and is not likely to command more spots because other continents will say they are getting too high a percentage. CONCACAF is emerging, and has the number of countries. Combine them, and they should be able to command at least 10 spots in a direct comparison to UEFA.
CONCACAF and CONMEBOL teams have averaged 4.9 points in group stage of the last five World Cups. UEFA teams have averaged 4.8.
UEFA sends 25% of its members to the World Cup Finals (13 of 53). A similar ratio for the 45 total CONMEBOL and CONCACAF members would result in 11 spots. (Hey, if they get to count San Marino, Andorra, and Malta, the Americas get to count Aruba and the Bahamas).
A joint Americas Region would command no fewer than 10 spots, two more than they’ve had in every World Cup prior to this one.
From an American perspective, the move would only make sense if the spots were enough that advancement was still likely. If there were only 7 to 8 slots (as has been the case for 1998 to 2010), and competition was direct with Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay for a spot, then it would be better to be separate.
The bigger issue is, politically, the Caribbean region. Jack Warner is part of this legacy. What is in it for them? Finding that balance will be the final piece. Expanded television contract money that can be divided? A package that involves regular games against Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and the like would be a valuable one within the United States. Ensuring and locking in more spots? If it can be sold that the overall pie has expanded, this might be attractive.
Travel would be an issue and, unlike Europe where the minnows get to participate against the best teams in group stage (and always lose), it would need to be pared down before the top teams got involved. Qualification could still open more spots in the final round than the current hexagonal for other CONCACAF members.
A scenario with 4 groups of 5 teams would still feature 10 CONCACAF teams, and more chance for Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Cuba to get in the field. From there, the top 2 teams would advance, and 3rd place could go to a playoff, like UEFA.
If the United States can get in a better qualifying pool of teams, be in a situation where the World Cup slots to account for the region’s growing strength, and become a permanent high-quality tournament during the World Cup off-cycle, I say bring it on.