Four years until the next World Cup but the scramble
for places has started. Next time round only Germany as hosts receive
automatic qualification. Brazil will have to pre-qualify. Strange,
that when the World Cup finals had only sixteen teams that nobody questioned
the right of the holders to defend their title without having to qualify,
but now that twice as many compete, there is no room for the reigning
So how will the places be divided up. The 1998 and 2002
tournaments both had 32 finalists and they were allotted as follows:
Oceania: half a qualifying place with the regional winners facing a
play-off. Same in 2002 as in 1998. Africa and
Concacaf (North & Central America) had five and
three places respectively in both tournaments. In 1998 South
America had four plus the holders Brazil. In 2002
they had 4.5 (Uruguay beat Australia in a play-off). Europe
had 14 plus hosts France in 1998 then 13.5
and France as holders in 2002 (Ireland beat Iran in a
play-off). Asia had 3.5 in 1998 and 2.5 plus
the two co-hosts in 2002. Europe and South America effectively conceded
half a place each in order to permit the two co-hosts to qualify automatically
Logically, 2006 should pan out as follows: Oceania 0.5, Asia
3.5, Concacaf 3, Africa 5, Europe 13.5 plus hosts = 14.5, South America
4.5. Those of you quick with maths will realise that adds up to 31.
In other words there is an extra qualifying place released thanks to the
decision to exclude the holders from automatic qualification. Where should
The biggest noises are coming from Oceania and Asia. And
conveniently giving each of these federations an extra half place would
ensure one automatic qualification for Oceania and four from Asia. But
would that be the right decision? If it had been in place this year, the
competition would have gained Australia and Iran while losing
either Ireland or Uruguay plus (had France qualified)
one other European country from this quartet: Belgium, Germany, Slovenia,
That's right. We could have lost either the runners-up or the third-placed
team in order to accommodate a team which finished behind China
and Saudi Arabia in qualifying.
While Australia are currently fairly strong and ranked at 50 in
the world, the same could not be said of their regional opponents. Closest
rivals are New Zealand, ranked 88th, who have just been beaten
by Dunfermline Athletic! If Oceania do get a full slot awarded
it could be read as FIFA denying automatic qualification to
Brazil and in effect awarding it to Australia.
As for Asia's claims - they are simply laughable. In a World Cup
contested on Asian soil for the first time, the continent's performance
was lamentable. Discount the two co-hosts and what do you have? Two teams
- China and Saudi Arabia - supposedly the best in the continent
who, in six outings, couldn't muster a single goal between them and with
21 goals against. And they want an extra place! The way FIFA works, they'll
probably get it. 'Pigs' Blatter owes for his re-election and he'll
gladly pay what's due.
So who does deserve the extra qualifier? After the generally modest performances
of its teams, UEFA doesn't have a shout for another place. But
with nine of its fifteen teams making the second round, it doesn't deserve
to lose anything either. Of the five African entries only Senegal
made it past the group stages so there's no real claim for a sixth place.
And despite their poor showing, there's no way Africa will have its number
of qualifiers reduced.
South America is already ridiculously over-represented. 40%
of its members are guaranteed a place in the finals. As the South Americans
are stronger than Oceania, they will usually take a fifth place via a
play-off so that means HALF the Conmebol federation takes part
in the World Cup. No other federation comes remotely near that percentage
(Europe is under 30%, Africa is exactly 10%, Concacaf and Asia around
8.5% and Oceania's half place represents 5%). And since Bolivia
and Venezuela are highly unlikely ever to qualify, in effect only
three South American countries with real qualification chances lose out.
This is South America's chronic problem. They have two countries -
Brazil and Argentina - that are genuine superpowers. But, whereas
in Europe, their is a strong second tier of nations behind Italy
and Germany (Spain, England, France, Holland, Portugal, Belgium
etc), in South America there is only a third tier behind the big two.
The likes of Paraguay and Uruguay are closer to countries like
Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and (dare I say it) Scotland
in European terms.
Even with this gross over-representation, Paraguay were the only
Conmebol side apart from Brazil to make the last sixteen. And they
only got there by the slimmest of margins - more goals scored than South
The smallest federation, Oceania apart, in terms of qualifiers
is Concacaf - the North and Central American teams. Yet look at
their performances in this World Cup. Mexico controlled their group
from start to finish, winning twice against European and South American
opposition (Croatia and Ecuador) and drew with Italy after
leading with just a few minutes to play.
Costa Rica didn't repeat their heroics of 1990 when they
beat Sweden and another European country whose name escapes me.
But they were eliminated only on goal difference in a group where the
qualifiers finished as Champions and third. They were the only team other
than Brazil that Turkey played and failed to beat. And their
two goals against the Brazilians was exactly half the total the Champions
conceded in the entire tournament.
But the biggest revelation of the lot was the USA. They destroyed
Portugal, managed a draw against South Korea despite having
a penalty awarded against them. They were poor against Poland,
true, but that was the only really bad game played by any Concacaf side
in the competition. Having overcome regional rivals Mexico, they were
desperately unlucky against Germany in the quarter-finals.
So if any federation deserves another place it is Concacaf. If
any deserves to lose a place it is Conmebol. Of course it would
be possible to combine the two and have a single pan-American qualifying
zone with eight places up for grabs. It would allow for smaller groups
and fewer games. At the moment the South Americans play eighteen qualifiers.
It would reward Concacaf for the improvement in their performances.
It would even provide comfort for the South Americans. After all, surely
they'd take four or five of the places on offer? And if they couldn't,
then they don't deserve to have them now.
It would also allow Oceania a guaranteed qualifier and leave the present
European system of four internal play-offs plus one against an Asian side
This would be fair and logical way to go about the qualifying process
and settle the wrangles over the 'extra' place. So don't expect it to
It IS Rocket Science
FIFA's rankings continue to baffle. Admittedly, I
do not possess the doctorates in pure mathematics, nuclear physics and
advanced rocket science that appear to be necessary to understand the
ranking system but it still seems strange to me that Scotland can
drop two places in a month while our Euro 2004 opponents Iceland
rise two and leapfrog us in the process.
Iceland are now ranked 53rd while we are 55th. Yet Iceland
have lost 12.5% of the points they gained during good World Cup qualifiers
last June while Scotland had no ranking points to lose over the same period.
FIFA work out their rankings over an eight-year period with each month's
points progressively declining in value.
The only reason I can think of for our decline ( I can't say fathom
- that would imply I understood the system) is that the points
we gained in Euro 96 which were three-eighths full value last month have
reduced by 33% to a quarter full value and the solitary point gained during
World Cup 1998 which was worth five-eighths full value last month is now
worth half full value this month. (Is anyone still with me?)
As Iceland were not present at either of these tournaments, our decline
is proportionately greater than theirs.
I should explain here that a ranking point gained in a friendly counts
as 1, a Euro or World Cup qualifier as 1.5, Euro finals as 1.75 and World
cup finals as 2.
Other weighting measures also come into play, based on the strongest countries
in each continent. UEFA and Conmebol (South America) countries are ranked
as equal. Asia is ranked at 90% of these, Concacaf (North and Central
America) as 86% and Africa and Oceania as 84%.
If you really want to know how they do it, have a look
Guaranteed to drive you crazy.
And the winner
Just because the tournament is over doesn't mean that
the controversial decisions have stopped. FIFA's official world
cup website has proclaimed South Korea the most entertaining team
of the tournament. Yes, that's the same South Korea that scored six
goals in seven home matches. The same team that spent 210 minutes
in the quarter and semi-finals without scoring once and with scarcely
a shot on goal.
The only real surprise here was that the Koreans only got 61% of
the vote. Poor show, Sepp. If you're going to rig a ballot you could at
least do it properly and give them something like 99.99%. As for
Brazil, they got a measly 8%. That's right. For every vote
for the World Champions, the South Koreans got 7.5.
Oliver Kahn admittedly did have a superb tournament but does anyone
seriously think that he merited the 'Player of the Tournament'
award ahead of Ronaldo and his eight goals, including a pair in
the Final? Or was this another 'diplomatic' award? Like the fair
play title given to the Belgians who had suffered from an outrageous
decision in their game against Brazil. The team with the fewest fouls
committed and bookings received - Nigeria - received nothing for
And while we're at it, FIFA have issued their post-World Cup rankings.
Where do you suppose those fallen giants Argentina and France
are? Somewhere in the twenties? Teens, maybe? Think again. According to
FIFA they are the second and third best sides in the world. So what was
all that business in Korea and Japan about then?
The place to gain all this incredible information is FIFA's
official website which is rapidly becoming the Pravda of the