By J Hutcherson (Nov 16, 2017) US Soccer Players – Peru finally gave the World Cup playoffs what it needed, a game worth watching. With all due respect to Australia’s win over Honduras much earlier in the day on Wednesday, that game quickly became an obvious conclusion. Though Peru was the stronger team by any metric, New Zealand gave them a game. Peru’s goals and both teams’ near misses were solid, turning around a series that played out yet another drab 0-0 opening leg.
Those scoreless opening legs didn’t help justify the travel for cross-confederation playoffs. FIFA trying to please everybody with half spots only works for the Confederations that win them. The rest of the time, it’s an obligation on top of whatever happened during the qualifying campaign.
Leave it to FIFA to decide to double down on playoffs given the opportunity. When the World Cup expands for 2026, so does the playoffs. What FIFA has in mind is a mini tournament inconveniencing all of their member federations. It’s not enough to expand the World Cup spots those confederations get. Let’s add in another obstacle.
FIFA’s plan is to put the highest-ranked team that missed the World Cup through direct qualification into a six-team tournament for the final two World Cup spots. If this seems like an answer to a question nobody will be asking, that’s the feeling with most revamped and new tournaments we’re seeing from the major governing bodies. We’re in an era of every stakeholder deciding they should fill the available space.
UEFA could certainly put a reasonable claim on both of those World Cup spots. They’re only getting three more places under the expanded format. UEFA is also the organization pushing for the worldwide Nations League, a tournament that doesn’t really answer an open question for international soccer.
Reuters’ Simon Evans reported on Thursday that CONCACAF is officially following UEFA’s lead with a confederation Nations League. CONCACAF made it official later that day. Though CONCACAF won’t release details until February, an earlier report had their league starting at the same time as Europe’s. That means games that count in CONCACAF in September. Well, depending on how much a new competition’s games will count in its debut season.
Europe and now North and Central America are hoping that the Nations League model takes the place of friendlies, but that also asks a question. All involved know some games that count don’t count quite so much. We see it in off cycle Gold Cups when CONCACAF countries send B teams. How the Nations League model addresses that could’ve been a question UEFA tried to answer on its own. Instead, they’ve got CONCACAF company in trying to show this is the way forward right now.
It might be. Complaints about friendlies for countries and clubs is nothing new. FIFA had to implement limits on substitutions to stop teams subbing off their entire side at halftime. Those kind of moves turned friendlies into farces, eventually burning out any market. It’s the market for these games that UEFA is trying to maintain. Leagues of national teams might seem to borrow too much from the club game, but it’s something organizers can package and sell around the world in a way that one-off friendlies can’t.
For CONCACAF it’s a different business, but there’s certainly value in a Nations League topflight featuring Mexico and the United States. FIFA’s World Cup expansion had to have helped push this idea forward. There might not be a USMNT vs Mexico game that counts in World Cup qualifying for 2022. There certainly won’t be in 2026 and beyond when CONCACAF has six spots to fill.
UEFA is in a similar situation with how they conduct qualifying. Seeding teams mean it’s unlikely the top European clubs play each other. Sure, there’s the chance Spain and Italy end up in the same group. From a confederation perspective, all that did was cost them Italy. UEFA’s European Championship qualifying model isn’t much better. So how to get those kinds of games in advance on a regular schedule? Keeping that in mind, getting rid of friendlies seems like the smart move.
Focus on “seems” because, like the World Cup playoffs, there’s seldom an easy and straightforward answer. UEFA’s attempt at promotion and relegation along with using playoffs to crown a Nations League winner looks difficult on paper. Will national teams care about improving their league position? How will this affect the FIFA Ranking that determines things like World Cup seeding and by 2026 entry into FIFA’s World Cup play-in tournament? If UEFA has their way and the Nations League becomes worldwide, what’s the distinction between winning the World Nations League and the World Cup?
The fans will provide a clear answer for a lot of this. They’re the ones now asked to embrace new tournaments, spend their time and money on them, and ultimately make them a success. It’s a different question for what counts for failure and how long organizers will push an idea that isn’t working.
Soccer is asking a lot of its audience right now. Things are changing in ways that weren’t predictable even a few years ago. What regions could take for granted about how they do things are quickly becoming open questions. The Hexagonal was once the height of CONCACAF. Now, it’s living on borrowed time.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson: