“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.
The draw for the 2022 UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff took place last week, featuring twelve nations vying for just three available spots. The countries are split into three pods of four, featuring single-match playoff ties to determine the qualifiers.
While a slight deviation from the format of last cycle, the group stage into playoff format is nothing out of the ordinary across the board in World Cup Qualifying. Nobody has any reason to bat an eye. Well … until the powerhouses are pushed to the brink.
No. 6 and No. 8 in the FIFA World Rankings respectively, Italy and Portugal both failed to top their qualifying groups. The current European champions were bested by Switzerland, and the Portuguese finished the group stage looking up at Serbia.
Normally, the playoff would serve as a safety net for the pair and they would ultimately skate through, but not this year. Italy and Portugal are pitted across from one another and would face off in a potential playoff final, sending just one nation to Qatar.
So does this situation prove that UEFA needs a greater share of the World Cup spots?
Not even close.
The entirety of Europe makes up roughly 10% of the world’s population yet accounts for just over 40% of the nations in the World Cup.
UEFA has more than enough bids in the World Cup, and that disproportionate allotment is already shutting out countless nations across the globe.
The FIFA World Cup is just as much about the celebration of the global game as it is the culmination of the world’s most elite footballers. If you want to watch every decent team from Europe compete, watch the Euros. That’s their purpose.
The World Cup brings unmatched attention to the sport in a manner irreplicable by any other tournament of competition. The United States, of course, being the pillar of this cycle of soccer.
The World Cup draws extremely well in America, yet its domestic league in MLS and its men’s national team struggle to draw an even slightly comparable number of eyeballs. While ticket prices certainly affect the latter, the point still holds.
Simply qualifying for the biggest tournament in the world can spawn an entire generation of soccer players and supporters in a country overnight. It is indefensible to even consider robbing CONCACAF of spots, and that opportunity, simply to allow more European sides in.
Of course, setting aside the emotional argument, these CONCACAF nations have routinely proven they deserve their rightful places in the World Cup.
Since much of the outcry has surrounded the prospect of one of Italy or Portugal missing out on the World Cup, let’s take a look at how some of those European “powers” have fared against CONCACAF nations in the last two World Cups.
In 2014, Costa Rica topped Group D and ultimately advanced to the quarterfinals while Italy and England finished in the bottom two spots, crashing out of Brazil much earlier than anticipated.
The system isn’t fair though. Right? How can you leave “top 10″ nations at home?
That same World Cup, the United States sent Cristiano Ronaldo and, you guessed it, Portugal home packing in the group stage.
I thought Portugal had to make it. The soccer quality in Europe is so much higher than that of the rest of the world that we must move heaven and earth to open more spots.
At least that’s what former USMNT forward and current ESPN personality Taylor Twellman said in a tweet last week arguing that CONCACAF’s 3.5 spots were too much.
The fourth team to qualify from CONCACAF in 2014? Mexico.
Mexico, of course, also advanced to the knockouts in Brazil, besting a Croatia side that made the next World Cup Final along the way. Four years later in Russia, they upset Germany 1-0 to send the reigning World Champs home in the group stages.
Anyone who argues that CONCACAF and the other confederations around the world deserve fewer entrants in the World Cup is doing so in bad faith, and also happens to be ignoring reality.
If Italy truly deserves a trip to Qatar next fall, they wouldn’t have failed to beat a Northern Ireland side the United States had no trouble taking down back in March.
The FIFA World Cup should serve to showcase footballing talents and cultures from across the globe, not cater to UEFA nations simply because the Euro-centric FIFA rankings shine favorably upon them.
The quality around the globe is growing, and the explosion I’ve discussed previously in countries like Canada serves only to validate CONCACAF’s claim to their spots in the World Cup.
The system is not unfair because either Italy or Portugal will have to watch from home. In fact, the qualification process has already been bent unfairly in their favor and away from the corners of the globe desperate for the chance to write their own story.
“CONCACAF Chronicles” runs Tuesdays.