Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some ideas just won't die

There's not much more to be said about the end to Concacaf World Cup qualifying, thanks largely to this guy. The United States, Costa Rica and Honduras have booked their tickets for Brazil, and Concacaf could earn a rare fourth World Cup bid if misfiring Mexico can get past New Zealand, which went unbeaten/winless at the 2010 World Cup (delete as necessary). Neither side seems particularly confident, with Mexico's problems loudly and publicly on display while New Zealand has only scored two or more goals against non-Oceania opposition twice -- a 3-2 loss to Jamaica and a 2-2 draw with El Salvador -- since beating out Bahrain for a place at the 2010 World Cup. Translation: Take the under.

There's also not a great deal more to say about the news that Major League Soccer is "considering" switching to a more European calendar. It's a misguided idea that would have MLS playing during the months with the least fan-friendly weather and with the bulk of its schedule in a time of year when all the oxygen in the US sports world is devoted to other events. Thankfully this idea has been knocked back elsewhere, both by MLS and by right-thinking people in the media. There may come a day when MLS can put itself up against the NFL, college football, NBA, college basketball and MLB playoffs and still succeed, but that day is neither now nor in the near future. You'll know soccer truly has made it in the United States when American fans stop feeling the need to measure everything they and their league do by the European model.

Instead, let's take a look at a couple claims that have floated around these here Internets recently -- that Concacaf qualifying is a luxury cruise compared to other regions and the region has too many World Cup bids. These claims are, shall we say, spurious, a fact that is borne out once you look beyond qualitative arguments and get into the hard numbers.

Warning: Stat attack ahead!

Certain pundits who shall remain nameless seem convinced that Concacaf is overrepresented with 3.5 World Cup bids. They differ as to who should receive the bids Concacaf sheds -- Asia, Africa, Europe, South America -- but they all agree that the region is nothing more than the United States, Mexico and a bunch of rabble. Reasonable people can disagree on how true this is, and no one (no one with a firm grasp on reality, anyway) is arguing that Concacaf is tougher than Europe or South America. However, if you compare the Hex with the final full qualifying rounds from Asia and Africa, a surprising picture emerges.

Using the most recent FIFA ranking (October 2013), here is the "strength of schedule" in the Hex: United States (13), Mexico (24), Costa Rica (31), Honduras (34), Panama (36), Jamaica (82). Average ranking: 36.67.

For comparison, here is the fourth round of qualifying in Asia: Group A -- Iran (49), Uzbekistan (55), South Korea (56), Qatar (105), Lebanon (121); Group B -- Japan (44), Australia (57), Jordan (70), Oman (92), Iraq (103). Average ranking: 75.2.

And here is the African playoff round: Ivory Coast (17), Ghana (23), Algeria (32), Nigeria (33), Tunisia (47), Egypt (51), Burkina Faso (52), Cameroon (59), Senegal (64), Ethiopia (95). Average ranking: 47.3.

If you're wondering, the European playoffs have an average ranking of 23.5 and Conmebol's round-robin (sans Brazil) is 27. Again, no one is arguing Concacaf should break up the traditional axis of power in world soccer, just that its hold on the third spot is more secure than some people care to realize.

Then there's the suggestion that Concacaf doesn't deserve its 3.5 World Cup bids. Arguments such as these can be difficult to wrangle because they rely on qualitative judgements -- one person's definition of "quality" may not necessarily match another's. How do you compare the likes of the United States, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Ghana to that of Chile, Ecuador, Ukraine, Croatia and Sweden? The latter group plays in more difficult regions from which to qualify, but their performance at World Cups -- South Korea's 2002 run aside -- is fairly comparable to the former: Scrap through the group stage, do just well enough to make the knockout round, then bow out to one of the more traditional powers. Which of these groups is "better"? How do you justify such an assertion?

About the only objective measure is performance in World Cups. The most obvious measurement, even allowing for the vagaries of the draw, is number of teams in the knockout round. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, Concacaf has advanced six teams out of the group stage -- Mexico four times, the United States twice -- compared to four by both Asia (Japan twice, South Korea twice) and Africa (Ghana twice, Nigeria once and Senegal once). Africa has two quarterfinalists (Senegal and Ghana) compared to one each for Concacaf (USA) and Asia (South Korea), and South Korea holds pride of place among world soccer's "mid-majors" with its 2002 run to the semifinals.

Still, that doesn't give the entire picture. Advancing out of the group stage is a tall order -- consider that its success in the latter stages of the tournament, Europe's World Cup participants make the last 16 at a clip barely better than 60 percent. How can you measure the return each region gets for its World Cup berths? Let's look at the average points per place for each region during the last four World Cups (since the field expanded to 32 teams). Total up the number of points earned by each team from each region in each tournament and divide that by the number of World Cup berths. Bad draws will bite every now and then -- the United States is due for one next year -- but that should average out across several tournaments.

Let's identify the outlier up front. Oceania has had two teams reach the World Cup in this time frame, New Zealand (three points) in 2010 and Australia (four points, Round of 16) in 2006. The region is averaging 3.5 points per place during the last two World Cups. Anyone want to argue Oceania deserves more places, especially with Australia now playing in Asia? Let's move on, then.

Asia has had four teams in each of the last four World Cups. Africa had five from 1998 to 2006 and six in 2010, while Concacaf had four in 2006 but three every other year. South America has had five in each World Cup except 2006, while Europe's allotment went from 15 in 1998 and 2002 to 14 in 2006 and 13 in 2010. In total, that's 16 World Cup places for Asia, 21 for Africa, 13 for Concacaf, 19 for South America and 57 for Europe.

Here's the breakdown for each World Cup (averages rounded to the nearest hundredth):

Asia: Saudi Arabia 1 point, South Korea 1, Iran 3, Japan 0. Total points: 5. Points per place: 1.25.
Africa: Morocco 4, Cameroon 2, South Africa 2, Nigeria 6, Tunisia 1. Total: 15. PPP: 3.
Concacaf: Mexico 5, United States 0, Jamaica 3. Total: 8. PPP: 2.67.
South America: Brazil 6, Chile 3, Paraguay 5, Colombia 3, Argentina 9. Total: 26. PPP: 5.2.
Europe: Norway 5, Scotland 1, Austria 2, Italy 7, France 9, Denmark 4, Spain 4, Bulgaria 1, Netherlands 5, Belgium 3, Germany 7, Yugoslavia 7, Romania 7, England 6, Croatia 6. Total: 74. PPP: 4.93.

Asia: China 0, South Korea 7, Saudi Arabia 0, Japan 7. Total: 14. PPP: 3.5.
Africa: Senegal 5, South Africa 4, Cameroon 4, Nigeria 1, Tunisia 1. Total: 15. PPP: 3.
Concacaf: Costa Rica 4, United States 4, Mexico 7. Total: 15. PPP: 5.
South America: Uruguay 2, Paraguay 4, Brazil 9, Argentina 4, Ecuador 3. Total: 22. PPP: 4.4.
Europe: Denmark 7, France 1, Spain 9, Slovenia 0, Turkey 4, Portugal 3, Poland 3, Germany 7, Ireland 5, Sweden 5, England 5, Italy 4, Croatia 3, Belgium 5, Russia 3. Total: 64. PPP: 4.27.

Asia: Iran 1, Japan 1, South Korea 4, Saudi Arabia 1. Total: 7. PPP: 1.75.
Africa: Ivory Coast 3, Angola 2, Ghana 6, Togo 0, Tunisia 1. Total: 12. PPP: 2.4.
Concacaf: Costa Rica 0, Trinidad and Tobago 1, Mexico 4, United States 1. Total: 6. PPP: 1.5.
South America: Ecuador 6, Paraguay 3, Argentina 7, Brazil 9. Total: 25. PPP: 6.25.
Europe: Germany 9, Poland 3, England 7, Sweden 5, Netherlands 7, Serbia and Montenegro 0, Portugal 9, Italy 7, Czech Republic 3, Croatia 2, Switzerland 7, France 5, Spain 9, Ukraine 6. Total: 79. PPP: 5.64.
Oceania: Australia 4. Total: 4. PPP: 4.

Asia: South Korea 4, Australia 4, Japan 6, North Korea 0. Total: 14. PPP: 3.5.
Africa: South Africa 4, Nigeria 1, Algeria 1, Ghana 4, Cameroon 0, Ivory Coast 4. Total: 14. PPP: 2.33.
Concacaf: Mexico 4, United States 5, Honduras 1. Total: 10. PPP: 3.33.
South America: Uruguay 7, Argentina 9, Paraguay 5, Brazil 7, Chile 6. Total: 34. PPP: 6.8.
Europe: France 1, Greece 3, England 5, Slovenia 4, Germany 6, Serbia 3, Netherlands 9, Denmark 3, Slovakia 4, Italy 2, Portugal 5, Spain 6, Switzerland 4. Total: 55. PPP: 4.23.
Oceania: New Zealand 3. Total: 3. PPP: 3.

Asia: 16 World Cup berths, 40 points. PPP: 2.5. Round of 16: 4. Quarterfinals: 1. Semifinals: 1.
Africa: 21 berths, 56 points. PPP: 2.67. Round of 16: 4. Quarterfinals: 2.
Concacaf: 13 berths, 39 points. PPP: 3. Round of 16: 6. Quarterfinals: 1.
South America: 19 berths, 107 points. PPP: 5.63. Round of 16: 14. Quarterfinals: 9. Semifinals: 3. Finals: 2. Champions: 1.
Europe: 57 berths, 272 points. PPP: 4.77. Round of 16: 35. Quarterfinals: 19. Semifinals: 12. Finals: 6. Champions: 3.

As you can see, Concacaf teams do more on average with their places in the World Cup than their counterparts in Asia or Africa. Does that mean Concacaf should get another whole World Cup place, as the region's leadership has requested? Far from it. Getting 3.5 bids is just about right for a region that has two established powers and two to three other teams who reliably make the Hex but whose fortunes there vary from cycle to cycle. Until the rest of Asia catches up to Japan and/or the rest of Africa lives up to Ghana's example, there is no performance-based evidence to suggest taking a World Cup place away from Concacaf is warranted.

"Performance-based" is the key phrase there as politics tends to play almost as big a role in international soccer's machinations as what happens on the field. Remember that for all FIFA's high-minded talk of being "for the good of the game," those at the top of the governing body have shown they will do whatever it takes to keep their seat on the gravy train, and that means securing as many votes as possible. Anyone who believes FIFA will lavish more World Cup places on Concacaf instead of Asia or Africa should bear these numbers in mind: Asia has 47 member nations, Africa has 56 and Concacaf has 41. (For the completists, Uefa has 54, Conmebol 10 and Oceania 14.) It's also worth remembering that groups of nations within a confederation -- if not entire confederations -- frequently vote in blocs, so angering a small handful of Asian or African countries could have disastrous effects come election time.

Lastly, there is the suggestion that the World Cup should not bother with the lesser nations and instead only include the best of the best, perhaps throwing a bone or two to the more upwardly-mobile mid-majors to appear magnanimous. After all, why wedge in a bunch of no-hopers when the tournament always ends up Europe vs. South America (or Europe vs. Europe) anyway? Why not cut out the preliminaries and get straight to the good stuff? The thing is, such tournaments already exist -- the European Championships and Copa America. Why bother calling it the "World" Cup if only a small sliver of the world is invited? If the idea behind the World Cup is to crown the best team in the world, then you'd be well-advised to include the best teams in the world -- not just the best from the regions you enjoy watching the most.

FIFA can tinker around the edges with the distribution of playoff berths, but barring something drastic such as a confederation splitting into smaller regions or ceasing to exist altogether, there won't be any major reallocation of World Cup places anytime soon. Three guaranteed berths for Concacaf, four for Asia and five for Africa is just about right given the current balance of power on and off the field. The playoff places likely will continue to flit around between Concacaf, Asia, Oceania and South America, which is fine as the difference between the teams usually ending up in those places isn't so great that any of the regions will lose such a spot or have it upgraded to a full World Cup berth.

Those who insist Concacaf is overrepresented at the World Cup and should cede places to other regions are welcome to their opinions, but they're wrong. The Hex is tougher than people think, and the teams that advance out of it to the World Cup do more with their berths than their counterparts in Asia and Africa. You can argue from personal preference that teams from other confederations "deserve" to be at the World Cup instead of the likes of Costa Rica and Honduras, but such arguments are rooted in opinion and not borne out by the numbers.

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