Sepp Blatter, it may not come as a complete surprise to learn, talks nonsense at times. He was at it again last week, speaking at the Asian Football Confederation conference in Kuala Lumpur, urging Asia to press for more places at the World Cup. It was wrong, he said, that Europe and Conmebol could have 19 of the 32 slots at the next World Cup. "We have to get a better balance," he told delegates. "You are a powerhouse. You must be aware that you are a powerhouse … If you have the same number of participants from all continents then there is a balance of strength and a balance of forces … There is no chance to kick them [Europeans or South Americans] out before one of them is in the semi-finals."
It's almost as though Blatter were buttering up voters before standing for a fifth term as Fifa president in 2015, almost as though he thinks his main rival may be the Uefa president, Michel Platini, and he is rallying the rest of the world to oppose the Frenchman (for more on the likelihood of Blatter standing, and on his opposition to Platini, see the interview with the Fifa president in issue seven of The Blizzard). Whatever the reason, this is excellent news for Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, given Blatter appears to be advocating equal representation for all six Confederational groups. Oceanian qualifying will be something of a damp squib, it's true, with its 11 Fifa members being whittled to five, but think of the benefits: whose hearts wouldn't warm to the sight of hordes of Cook Islanders taking over the streets of Kazan in 2018?
But even leaving aside Blatter's political machinations, the issue of World Cup places is a live one, in Asia and Africa particularly. Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football, rarely misses an opportunity to point out that half of Conmebol's 10 members qualify for each World Cup (in 2014, it will be Brazil as hosts, plus four automatic qualifiers, with the fifth-placed side playing off against the fifth-placed side in Asia) and how desperately unfair it is given only five of Caf's 56 members make it. There is of course a good reason for that, which is that Conmebol sides tend to be quite good at football, having produced nine of the 19 winners of the tournament and half the quarter-finalists last time round. So strong is the regional depth, in fact, that Uruguay, semi-finalists in South Africa, are struggling to qualify for Brazil.
So how many qualifiers should each confederation have? Let's assume that the aim of the World Cup is to gather together the best 32 teams from across the world so they can compete to find out who is the best.
In Brazil there will be 13 teams from Uefa, 5.5 from Conmebol (including Brazil as hosts), 5 from Caf, 4.5 from the AFC, 3.5 from Concacaf and 0.5 from the OFC (the .5s representing the teams entering intercontinental play-offs). If you simply took the top 32 from Fifa's world rankings, there would be 19 from Uefa, 6 from Conmebol, 4 from Caf, 2 from Concacaf, 1 from the AFC and none from the OFC. That suggests that Uefa and Conmebol are actually underrepresented.
But let's accept – as Blatter appears to – that the Fifa rankings are an imperfect guide and look at how confederations have done at the past four World Cups. The table below shows the proportion of qualified teams who have made it through the group stage – the asterisk denotes which confederation hosted the tournament. Given 16 of 32 teams qualify, the ideal would be for half of a confederation's teams to make it through.1998 2002 2006 2010 Total AFC 0/4 2/4* 0/4 2/4 25% Caf 1/5 1/5 1/5 1/6* 19% Concacaf 1/3 2/3 1/4 2/3 46% Conmebol 4/5 2/5 3/4 5/5 75% OFC 0/0 0/0 1/1# 0/1 50% Uefa 10/15* 9/15 10/14* 6/13 61%
# This was Australia, who have since left the OFC to join the AFC.
So far from being underrepresented, Caf and the AFC actually seem massively indulged, while Conmebol has a strong case for more qualifying slots. Working by proportion from appearances in the last 16 over the past four tournaments, Uefa would take 17.5 places, Conmebol 7, Concacaf 3, Caf 2, AFC 2 and OFC 0.5.Uefa Conmebol Caf AFC Concacaf OFC Actual 13 5.5 5 4.5 3.5 0.5 Fifa ranking 19 6 4 2 1 0 Proportion 17.5 7 2 2 3 0.5
Of course it's not quite as simple as that. The only Asian sides to have made it through in the past four tournaments are Japan and South Korea, and the only Concacaf teams Mexico and the USA, while Caf has had three different sides – Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana – make it through (Uefa has had 19 different teams reach the last 16 in the past four tournaments, Conmebol 6). It would be unfair if the whole of Concacaf or the AFC were to benefit at Caf's expense because of the strength of just two teams. Quality is not spread equally through confederations.
Besides which, the World Cup is only partly about determining the best team. It's also about spreading the game and putting on a truly global spectacle. Africa and Asia probably should be overrepresented to try to stimulate development (particularly given the reason for underperformance is less the quality of the players than a lack of organisation and infrastructure). But there is a danger of going too far.
The World Cup is too big as it is and there are already too many lesser teams – the past three tournaments have each been blighted by stodgy football as weak sides seek to nullify their opponents rather than playing themselves (there is nothing wrong with defensive football in and of itself but it becomes wearing when around two-thirds of the teams at a tournament do nothing other than timorously pack men behind the ball).
There are strong arguments for restructuring (amalgamating Conmebol and Concacaf qualifying and bringing the OFC into the AFC would be a start, while the best – if entirely improbable – solution, as I've argued before, is a return to a 16-team finals, but with qualifying conducted on a global rather than a regional basis) but to offer the AFC and Caf additional qualifying slots would simply weaken an already bloated tournament further. At some point, the World Cup has to be about football.
Source: England MAD