Last week, all European nations found out who they would be facing during the qualifying phase for the World Cup in 2018 with a draw in St Petersburg. In addition to this, South American qualifying was drawn, as were various stages of the Oceania, Africa and CONCACAF (North & Central America) qualification phases.
The real question though, is what was the point of the ceremony? Some continents have already started their qualifying whilst the first European qualifier is still over 12 months away. It seems ridiculous to rank teams for the draw that long before they will be qualifying whilst some teams have already faced qualifiers before the big, glitzy, official event. The Oceania, Africa and CONCACAF draws were messy due to their complex formats while the South American section involved putting 10 teams in a pot just to pull them all out again, with the only meaningful outcome the decision on fixture order. It would make much more sense for each governing body to do their own draws on a need to basis at their own headquarters, saving the cost and travel required for everyone to travel to St Petersburg.
Everybody knows football costs are escalating, but is it any wonder when the governing body is willing to splash out on a lavish ceremony that quite simply isn’t required. Of course, when it comes to FIFA and money, holding a draw ceremony is hardly a big problem in the grand scheme of things, but is another change that the incoming president – assuming Sepp Blatter does stand down as claimed – should be looking to make.
The draw itself did throw up some interesting ties in Europe. Just the group winners will automatically qualify for 2018, in stark contrast to the current Euro 2016 qualifying when a third place finish might be good enough to get to France. It means either Spain or Italy face the prospect of a playoff tie, as do one of France and The Netherlands, whilst lesser fancied teams could face a more straightforward passage. However, some of the groups have familiar looks to them with England facing Slovenia and Lithuania, two sides also in their Euro 2016 qualifying group. With International attendances suffering as the club game continues to grow, FIFA need to implement measures to avoid this repetitiveness. Ensuring teams avoid each other during each four year cycle would always give fans the opportunity to see new teams and new players, something that should stimulate interest. Even in England where international games are still popular, many fans would struggle to justify paying the extortionate ticket prices to see Lithuania twice in as many years.
A World Cup should also involve countries from all parts of the globe, especially the World Cup for the planet’s most popular sport. However, the winner from Oceania will face a play-off against the fifth placed team in South American qualifying. South America is blessed with talent at the moment with the past two Copa America winners Uruguay and Chile alongside usual powerhouses Brazil and Argentina. Columbia, with star man James Rodriguez, reached the quarter finals in 2014 whilst Paraguay matched that feat in South Africa four years before. The chances are, Oceania will be without a representative when 2018 rolls around.
The World Cup is one of the greatest shows on the planet and naturally benefits from having the best players and best teams there. However, the only way football is going to grow in Oceania is by giving their countries exposure to it on the biggest stage. Whilst the qualifier is unlikely to do much damage at the tournament, neither is the fifth best team from South America as there are already four teams better than them on their continent alone, without taking into account that Europe has provided the last 3 winners.
Qualifying is already underway across much of the world with 25 teams already being knocked out in Oceania, Africa and Asia. In Europe though, the World Cup will take a back seat as Euro 2016 qualifiers restart in the autumn before the tournament itself next summer. The questionable draw procedure raises the prospect of a World Cup top seed crashing out in the early stages in France, or not even making the tournament with nearly half of qualifying still remaining. Equally possible is a third or fourth seed making a serious mark on the tournament and making a mockery of the ranking system used. Poland, currently top of Germany’s group after a victory against their neighbours last October but were only seeded in pot 3 last Saturday. What is to say a team that beat the World Champions cannot win the European Championships? For football’s sake, let’s hope this doesn’t happen and following next summer’s tournament the groups resemble a sensible line up. Although, maybe it would force a rethink among the powers that be to create a fairer system for all involved, because World Cup Qualifying is in need of a revamp.
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