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CONCACAF's New World Cup Qualifying Format Is Bigger (And Dumber) Than Ever

Photo: Jonathan Daniel (Getty Images)

CONCACAF’s convoluted World Cup qualifying format has always been tilted in favor the big boys at the expense of the teams in the confederation’s bottom tier, making it so the dozens of small nations had essentially no hope of ever playing in the World Cup. It’s understandable why CONCACAF sought to fiddle with the format in an effort to make it more fair. It’s just a shame that, with the new qualifying structure announced today, the confederation decided to make things more “equitable” by finding a new group of countries to fuck over.

The problem with the old qualification system is that the majority of CONCACAF teams were already out of the running for World Cup qualification long before the World Cup actually started. For instance, at what was more or less the true start of CONCACAF’s 2018 World Cup qualification process—the 12-team fourth round, which started in November of 2015—a full two-thirds of CONCACAF had already been eliminated from World Cup contention. Three years from the start of the World Cup, and 23 teams already knew they were out.

That reality is the main thing the new format attempts to address. As CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani put it, the new qualifying process is, along with the Gold Cup and Nations League, a way to give small teams the chance to play a bigger number of meaningful games, the idea being that through competitive games these teams can grow:

Through our freshly designed formats — across FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Concacaf Nations League and Concacaf Gold Cup — we are staging more competitive international matches than ever-before to help these communities fulfill their potential. 

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By the terms of the new qualification format, CONCACAF has eliminated the aforementioned 12-team fourth round stage, which previously determined which countries would compete in the final “Hexagonal” round where the confederation’s 3.5 World Cup spots (three automatic spots going to the top-three Hex finishers, with the fourth-placed team sent to a home-and-home intercontinental playoff) were handed out. The Hex does remain, but now the six teams that qualify for it will be selected by picking the six highest ranked CONCACAF teams in FIFA’s World Rankings.

The 29 other CONCACAF’s teams that don’t make the Hex will be placed in what sounds like a grueling group stage. The winners of each of the eight groups will then face off in a knockout tournament to crown one winner. The winner of the 7-35 tournament (we need a better name for this) will then face the fourth-placed team in the Hex in a home-and-home playoff, with that winner then facing off with an intercontinental foe for the last remaining slot in the World Cup. So an already convoluted format has gotten even more confounding, while arguably being even less fair, to boot.

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What this means, and who it benefits, depends on any given country’s place in CONCACAF’s hierarchy. Those at the very top are the big winners. The U.S. and Mexico are now virtual locks to qualify for the Hex going forward, with their qualification paths likely involving only 10 matches rather than the 16 of before. By dint of their size, prior success, and their ability to schedule rank-boosting friendlies against elite European and South American competition due to the financial rewards they can offer their opponents, there is no conceivable future where either the USMNT or Mexico could find themselves ranked below six other CONCACAF teams.

It is true that both the USMNT and Mexico always qualified for the Hex under the old system, but at least they had to earn their way in by winning actual matches against direct competitors—something the U.S. came close to failing at ahead of the 2018 World Cup. And even more to the point, at least the old system gave CONCACAF’s mid-tier nations a real shot to challenge for entrance to the Hex and the World Cup beyond.

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It’s that mid-tier group of CONCACAF nations just below the U.S. and Mexico that get the shortest shrift in the new format. Before, CONCACAF’s middle class knew they would be given a direct shot against their betters to win their way into the Hex, and upon doing so, pushing in the Hex for an automatic World Cup qualification spot. Now, a team could be kept away from all the Hex’s automatic qualification spots by a handful of aggregate rankings points, and then forced to try and climb through the muck of the 7-35 tournament in hopes of maybe possibly getting the chance to enter two different playoffs.

This is no idle worry, either. As of right now, the CONCACAF teams ranked six through nine (El Salvador, Panama, Canada, and Curaçao) are split by only 10 slots on the world rankings, from 69 to 79. If the confederation used the current rankings to decide the Hex participants, Panama—you know, the team that killed it in the last Hex and won one of the automatic qualification spots to make it to the 2018 World Cup—would miss out by a mere six spots. When the margins are so small, and the FIFA rankings of such dubious value and accuracy, it seems crazy to decide not to pit those teams against each other on the field of play and to instead leave it all up to whatever FIFA’s algorithm barfs up.

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To be fair, the benefit to the lowest-level CONCACAF nations is real. Under the new format, the smallest teams in CONCACAF will now have much more of an opportunity to prove their worth, improve as a team, and steadily further develop their soccer programs, with the slight though real chance of even qualifying for the World Cup. That couldn’t really happen with the majority of CONCACAF was already out of the running for the next World Cup only a year after the previous one.

It’s worth noting that these changes will probably prove to be a one-off. After the 2022 World Cup, the tournament will increase from 32 teams to 48. In a 48-team World Cup, CONCACAF would be set to gain a couple more qualification spots, which in turn will likely necessitate another, even more radical overhaul of the qualification format. In that sense, the stakes for this aren’t terribly high.

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In another way, though, the form of the new qualifying rules might imply something about the future direction of CONCACAF. While they might not make total sense in sporting terms, as a political move, the new tweaks are savvy. Confederation president Montagliani has done the two mega-powers of CONCACAF a solid by making it a little easier for them to make it to Qatar. At the same time, he’s made good on his promise to bring home some bacon to his large number of constituents at the bottom rung of the confederation. In doing so, Montagliani shores up his position amongst the nations of little power but with a vote that counts as much as anyone else’s, while also strengthening his ties with the true power players at the top so that he stays in their favor.

Looking at it that way, Montagliani’s political strategy as president is the same one that’s proven so successful in the infamously sleazy and venal world of international soccer since the dawn of FIFA: the top and the bottom working together against the middle.

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