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?