A TSG Original, Nick Sindt on World Cup qualifying…
Prior to the last set of FIFA dates where the US secured their passage to the Hex, Jürgen Klinsmann made the following comment:
Europeans and South Americans may think that this region looks pretty easy because they don’t play here and they never experienced it. European coaches tell me you should qualify no problem, and I tell them, ‘Why don’t you come over and I’ll take you to Guatemala and Costa Rica and Jamaica and you’ll see.’ It would be an eye-opener for a lot of people in Europe to see our qualifying campaign.
As the ardent USMNT follower over the last few qualifying cycles can attest the 1970’s-looking Astro-turf in Saprissa, straining in the smog/altitude/urine of Azteca, and various other venues where grass just barely outnumbers ankle-breaking potholes do not make life easy on our boys. But are these assertions founded in objective facts or subjective reality?
Some will argue that Klinsmann is merely setting up the excuses in case things had or will still go all pear-shaped; however, the argument about which region is harder to qualify out of, like a Presidential debate, is rarely grounded in cold, hard facts. Typically these articles or discussions focus on the regions as a whole for example:
- There are 4.5/5.5 slots for 9/10 CONMEBOL nations (depending on who is hosting) but if you’re one of the lower teams you typically have to play 2 of the top 4.5 teams in the world and another 3 or 4 ranked in the top 20.
- UEFA is also a tough region because out of the 53 nations you have most of the rest of the top 20, plus a fair number of mid-range teams all fighting for a mere 13 spots.
Or the focus is placed on qualifying format, toughest draw/group of death, or similarly ranked teams (to the US) and their plight.
The problem is that none of these actually quote numbers/statistics that mean anything nor do they ask the real question USMNT fans want answered: Is it easier for the US to qualify for the World Cup out of CONCACAF or Spain, France, England, etc. out of UEFA?
To discern the overall quality of each nation/region we’ll utilize FIFA’s ranking system…you may not care for them but they are, in theory, objective and every nation has one. So we’ll use ‘em, but the question is how? Note: These are based on the January 2013 rankings. Brazil has been included in CONMEBOL’s numbers even though they’re not currently qualifying; also, their ranking is abnormally low due to only playing friendlies recently.
The first instinct is typically to look at the mean ranking of each team in each group of the competition currently – under consideration are: CONCAF’s semi-final and Hexagonal rounds, OFC’s semi-final and final rounds, CAF’s semi-final round, AFC’s 3rd and 4th rounds, and UEFA’s & CONMEBOL’s single round. Here’s how the regions stack up.
Mean FIFA Ranking – regions listed below comprised of multiple groups (e.g. UEFA has 9 groups) are the average of those groups’ averages
1) CONMEBOL = 25.8
2) CONCACAF Hexagonal = 45.333
3) UEFA = 64.533
4) CONCACAF Semis = 70.333
5) AFC Final = 73.5
6) CAF = 83.075
7) AFC Semis = 98.1
8) OFC Final = 122
9) OFC Semis = 148.13
While illuminating, these numbers only tell us which region has the densest concentration of highly ranked teams and the mid-points of the groups. But not how comparatively difficult it is for teams to get through to the World Cup. We know UEFA has a lot of top teams but there are also a lot of “minnows” and its qualifying format means that each group typically has at least one 3-point ATM (read: ranked below #150). So what else can be used to discern the difficulty?
The Median is another oft-used statistical tool, though because it is simply a mid-point it is fairly fruitless in this discussion. The range of ranks between the top and bottom teams gives us extra food for thought when entering into these discussions, the smaller the range means more parity. And, as the NFL and MLS have taught us more parity means less certainty about who will come out on top.
Range of FIFA Rankings – regions listed below comprised of multiple groups (e.g. UEFA has 9 groups) are the average of those groups’ average.
1) CONCACAF Hexagonal = 51
2) CONMEBOL = 52
3) OFC Final = 59
4) CAF = 75.2
5) CONCACAF Semis = 78.666
6) OFC Semis = 78.666
7) AFC Final = 91.5
8) AFC Semis = 95.4
9) UEFA = 138.333
While these numbers do help to clarify things, outliers can still wildly throw off your analysis; e.g. a group where the teams are ranked 1, 4, 5, and 100 has the same range as a group where the teams are ranked 2, 98, 99, and 101. It’s obviously [much, much, much x50] easier for the #2 ranked team to get out of its group than the #1 ranked team. Then, given my lack of mathematical and statistical knowledge it would appear that Standard Deviation (the average distance from the mean value of each item in a group) gives us the best data about the difficulty of a region.
Standard Deviation – regions listed below comprised of multiple groups (e.g. UEFA has 9 groups) are the average of those groups’ averages
1) CONMEBOL = 16.68
2) CONCACAF Hexagonal = 18.24
3) OFC Final = 23.95
4) CONCACAF Semis = 29.14
5) CAF = 29.95
6) OFC Semis = 31.22
7) AFC Final = 34.95
8) AFC Semis = 36.30
9) UEFA = 49.31
According to the Standard Deviations for each region it would appear that CONCACAF is a much harder region for the US and Mexico to qualify out of than UEFA is for England, France, and Spain. However, these are only numbers and they don’t/can’t take into account subjective factors such as hostility of away matches, pitch conditions, rivalries, etc. They also only slightly take into account the qualifying format – the US and Mexico must traverse through two groups mentioned above with tougher standard deviations than UEFA’s single group system.
All this information does is quantify Klinsmann’s comments in the Vertelney piece; CONCACAF is not as easy for the US to qualify out of as some may think. In fact, toss a European power into CONCACAF and they likely will also find it more difficult than they originally thought – being a power, they’ll still find a way to qualify, but it won’t be a stroll in the park.
2014 Qualifying Format:
1) 9 Groups comprising all of the nations in the region, playing league style. Group winners advance to WC.
- Top 8 2nd place finishers move onto two-legged play-offs for final 4 WC spots.
1) 1 Group comprising all of the nations in the region, playing league style. Top 4 teams qualify for WC.
- 5th place team qualifies for intercontinental play-off against Asian team.
1) Lowest 10 Ranked Nations play two-legged ties
2) 24 teams drawn into 6 groups of 4. Winners advance.
3) 12 teams drawn into 3 groups of 4. Top 2 advance. Highest Ranked teams enter here
4) 1 Group of 6 teams. Top 3 qualify for WC
- 4th place plays off against OCEANA winner
1) Lowest 16 Ranked Nations play two-legged ties. Winners advance.
2) 15 two-legged ties. Winners advance.
3) 20 teams drawn into 5 groups of 4. Top 2 advance.
4) 2 groups of 5 teams. Top 2 advance.
- 3rd place teams play off for intercontinental play-off.
- OCEANIA (OFC)
1) Lowest 4 teams compete in league play. Winner Advances
2) 8 teams drawn into 2 groups of 4. Top two advance.
3) 1 group of 4, league-style play. Winner advances to intercontinental play-off against CONCACAF.
1) Lowest 24 teams play two-legged ties. Winners Advance.
2) 10 groups of 4 teams. Winners advance.
3) 5 two-legged ties. Winners qualify for WC.