CONCACAF Would Be Wise To Change World Cup Qualifying Format

What's worse than making a mistake? Getting the chance to fix that mistake and not doing it. Last year CONCACAF announced that they would be changing their World Cup qualifying format for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. The change had a few different objectives, but one thing that was pretty clear early on was that it was done to qualify four teams for the World Cup. The problem was that the confederation only had three and a half spots for the 2010 tournament and while they were applying to get that bumped to four spots for 2014 it had not been determined if they would get it yet.

Well now we know, FIFA has decided that CONCACAF will not get a fourth spot and will stay with their three and a half so the confederation's new qualifying format doesn't really work anymore. Thankfully, it looks as if the confederation will be smart and change the format or they will at least consider changing the format, which for an organization run by Jack Warner is about as good as can be hoped for.

For the last four World Cups CONCACAF has determined their entrants into the tournament with a final round composed of six teams that made it to that final round through a previous group stage and a knockout stage before that predominantly for the smaller nations. When the confederation had three World Cup spots the top three teams in the final round of six, popularly referred to as the hexagonal round or "Hex," and when it went up to three and a half spots then the top three would automatically get a spot in the World Cup and the fourth place team would play in a playoff for another spot.

Last year, CONCACAF announced that the format would change. There would be more smaller groups earlier in the qualifying process so the smaller countries would get more matches against the confederations top teams and theoretically improve the quality of those national teams. In the final round of qualifying there would be two groups of four. If CONCACAF got a fourth World Cup spot then the format would be perfect with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the World Cup, but with three and a half spots it gets sticky.

To make the format work with three and a half spots the final round of qualifying would have to finish by the two dates set aside for qualifying by FIFA on September 7th and 11th of 2013. The top team in each group would qualify for the World Cup and then the two second place teams would have to use the October dates set aside for qualifying by FIFA on the 12th and 16th to have a two-legged playoff. The winner of that playoff would then have to play another two-legged playoff against a team from another confederation on November 16th and 20th with the winner qualifying for the World Cup.

Besides that being extremely clunky, it would put the two teams that win the final groups at a huge disadvantage in preparing for the 2014 World Cup. Those two teams would finish their qualifying run on September 11th, 2013. It would be nearly impossible for the two teams to find a decent friendly to play on either of the October dates because the rest of the world would be participating in qualifying still. There are two dates to play in November, but getting a good match then isn't a guarantee because some teams are playing in playoffs and with possibility of a playoff looming many teams don't schedule friendlies for those dates until very late. In fact, even though most would expect the United States and Mexico to be those two group winners, they might not win the group until September, putting them in a bigger time crunch to find a friendly.

What the schedule and format leaves the two first qualified teams with is one guaranteed match between September 11th, 2013 and the end of the international club season in May of 2014. That match is a midweek match on March 5th, 2014 and could end up being the only time to really prepare well for the World Cup. It isn't just not ideal for the first two qualified CONCACAF teams, it's a big disadvantage compared to the other teams in the world. Those teams are definitely getting two qualifying matches in October and because the final round elsewhere is more than six matches, they can wrap up their spot in qualifying earlier than September in some instances and plan for their November friendlies better.

All of this doesn't get into the fact that the new format has angered many supporters in both the United States and Mexico because it essentially eliminates the two World Cup qualifiers between the two countries. With the final groups determined by a ranking process, the two teams are likely to be put in separate groups and miss out on the thrilling qualifiers in Columbus, Ohio and Mexico City's imposing Estadio Azteca, two matches that have come to highlight a rivalry that is the best that the confederation had to offer.

The United States and Mexico are undoubtedly the two biggest countries in CONCACAF, but even several Central American countries like Costa RIca, Honduras and El Salvador are in the upper echelon of the confederation. Despite this, each country in the confederation only holds one vote in anything regarding the confederation so the Caribbean members hold 31 of the 41 votes in the confederations. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are the only two countries whose teams ever make the slightest of impacts in competition from the Caribbean, but that group of countries holds the fate of the confederation.

Because the Caribbean countries essentially determine the operations of the confederation the things that the confederation do benefit the smaller countries. That is not to say that it is a problem. A big reason CONCACAF changed the qualifying format was to help the smaller countries get more competitive matches and improve the quality of their play. Hosting more matches, especially those against bigger teams, would also help fund the smaller confederations that have very little money. There are positives to changing the qualifying format, but if CONACAF wants to make a change then it needs to be a smart change.

The current change in the qualifying format is not a smart change. It hinders the clubs who qualify for the World Cup first and eliminate some of the confederation's best matches. Especially with FIFA deciding that the confederation will not get their fourth World Cup spot the mistake of a change needs to be fixed. CONCACAF could go back to the old qualifying format, they could go back to the Hex and adjust the earlier rounds to help the smaller countries or they could revamp it all with something completely new.

There are several directions that the confederation can go with their World Cup qualifying format from here on out. The problem is partly that the new format is poor and partly that the confederation announced it just a few months ago and are already considering changing it. Why exactly would they announce their format before they knew how many World Cup qualifying spots they would have? It doesn't make sense, but those people who decided to change the format and announce it months ago are the people who will determine the new format if they decide to change it. At least they are considering changing it though, which going back to the top is a win from an organization run by Jack Warner.

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