By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 10, 2017) US Soccer Players - UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is already staking his confederation’s claim to a large portion of as-of-yet-unallocated spots in the expanded World Cup coming in 2026. Ceferin told reporters after a UEFA executive committee meeting on Thursday in Switzerland that UEFA should have 16 of the 48 spots. Additionally, Ceferin issued a request that none of the 16 UEFA qualifiers be grouped together. That would mean no group stage games with European teams playing one another.
The better for them all to advance to the second round, something Ceferin said he believed was possible. Ceferin call UEFA’s requests “realistic.”
Europe holding 16 of the 48 spots in an expanded World Cup would be a net gain over the 13 places it now has, but would represent a decrease in the percent of the entries given to UEFA. As for why UEFA would be willing to accept a drop in the ratio of spots given to the continent, it likely has to do with the second part of Ceferin’s request. By asking that UEFA teams not be grouped together, UEFA is hoping to maximize the number of European nations who reach the knockout rounds.
From there, it takes only simple math. UEFA getting more countries into the knockout rounds means UEFA has a better chance of having the World Cup champion.
So Europe is retreating a bit, at least in one way, from their domination of the World Cup field. If UEFA gets its way, 32 places will remain for the rest of the world. If FIFA’s unanimous approval of the expansion is indication of anything, it’s that the members of soccer’s governing body see a bigger tournament as a potential boost for those countries often left just on the outside of qualification. While there’s a tipping point at which enlarging the tournament becomes ridiculous, FIFA’s constituent members don’t seem to think that's 48.
US Soccer president Sunil Gulati addressed both the expanded World Cup and the potential impact it could have on the qualifying process for CONCACAF on Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol podcast. Contrary to reports out of South America, Gulati says there are currently no plans to combine qualifying for Americas.
“In the future everything is possible,” Gulati said in response to a question about combined competition. “Do I see that as something that’s around the corner? The answer is no. The stories that were out there a month ago about a joint competition were completely nonsensical. No one had actually suggested that. No one at CONCACAF as far as I know had ever contemplated that.”
Gulati’s flat denial that any plan exists to put CONCACAF and CONMEBOL qualifying together should come as a relief to fans concerned about how much more difficult that would make the USMNT’s path to the World Cup. The flip side of that denial, however, is what more spots do to CONCACAF qualifying. The region’s best teams are hardly tested with many meaningful games in the current, 3.5-qualifying spot. If CONCACAF gets six full spots in the 48-team World Cup (a reasonable expectation), the degree of difficulty drops to near zero.
When asked about that problem, Gulati rightfully pointed out that the possibility of the World Cup coming back to the region in 2026 could mean the USMNT could be without any qualifiers at all. In absence of a home World Cup and automatic qualification, however (or thinking further down the line to 2030 and beyond) Gulati expressed a desire to let things play out.
“Lots of people are talking about the possibility of the World Cup [in 2026] being in North America or being in CONCACAF. If that’s the case, and whether it’s a joint or an individual host, you’ve got an automatic qualifier issue. That’s happened to us before. Our preparation for the 94 World Cup didn’t fall apart because we didn’t have any qualifiers. Nor did it for Mexico in ‘86. If there are multiple additional qualifiers, does it change the dynamics? Sure. Does it make it more interesting? Less interesting? If some of those countries are also hosts and not playing qualifying? We’ll wait and see.”
Multiple additional qualifiers absolutely changes the dynamics in a region like CONCACAF. While UEFA can expand their World Cup contingent by three and still send nations capable of knockout runs at the bottom end of the qualifying group, CONCACAF will likely send at least two or three teams to serve as whipping boys for their groups. Per FIFA president Gianni Infantino, the architect of the expanded tournament, and Gulati himself after hearing Infantino’s pitch, such a development should help boost the popularity of the game in those countries and perhaps jump start their programs.
Not going through the qualifying process in one cycle might not be the end of the world for the United States or Mexico. But Gulati and his colleagues in CONCACAF’s strongest soccer nations need to be conscious of the long term ramifications that too easy qualification would have on their national teams. It's not just qualifying. UEFA designed its new Nations League to curtail European countries playing friendlies.
Without the development of a regular combined Americas tournament (a la Copa America Centenario), the end of meaningful CONCACAF qualifying would lead to the region’s best teams having only the occasional late-stage Gold Cup match in which to test themselves.
More World Cup spots for CONCACAF is good for the minnows of CONCACAF and for countries desperate to get their shot on the biggest stage. It’s good for UEFA, who has plenty of strong teams to send the tournament. It’s hard to imagine it being good for the USMNT, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
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