Opinion: The New CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Format

Last month on July 10, CONCACAF dropped this video debuting its new revamped qualifying format for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Let’s watch:

CONCACAF’s revamped World Cup qualifying format (via CONCACAF)

So to recap:

  • The top 6 members in the CONCACAF standings are placed in the new hex group while members from 7-35 are placed in group stages
  • The top 3 from the hex qualify straight to the World Cup
  • The group stage members play until one stands alone and plays the 4th place hex member in a playoff.
  • Finally whoever wins the playoff STILL has to play in an intercontinental play-off to have a chance at making the World Cup.

So let’s look at it as if World Cup Qualifiers would start today. The hex would look like this:

And Trinidad and Tobago are currently placed 11th so they’d be part of the 29 team fight to go through a group stage, then an elimination round and THEN MAYBE an intercontinental play-off. The first thing that jumped out at me was that this makes it a cakewalk for that Top 3 to easily get into the World Cup without doing much hard work. There’s a chance that maybe they fall off like how USA did last World Cup cycle but I don’t see that happening.

CONCACAF Men’s Football Rankings since 2000 (via Wikiapedia)

I took the liberty to go through the CONCACAF rankings of the top 6 CONCACAF members since 2000 to see if there was any variance over those years and yes there has been some. USA and Mexico have swapped the top spot since the turn of the century and only USA has been as low as 3rd since Costa Rica’s rise to #1 in 2015. Before that, Costa Rica wasn’t as good as how they are now, with them trading places in the top 6 with members such as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Panama, Honduras, Panama, Canada and El Salvador.

So my first opinion is the obvious favoritism that is taking place by giving the top 3 CONCACAF members the easiest road to the World Cup in Mexico, USA and Costa Rica. The new revamped format comes after the USA failed to qualify for the last World Cup, so this gives them almost a bye into the World Cup because let’s face it: what competition are Mexico, USA and Costa Rica gonna face in the Hex besides themselves? And before you say, “well the FIFA Rankings aren’t set in stone, maybe they fall out of the top 6.” Since the Year 2000, only 3 teams have ranked #1 in CONCACAF: Mexico, USA and recently, Costa Rica.

What I’m getting at here is that, unless Mexico, USA and Costa Rica undergo significant drops in their quality of football and don’t produce in their football development (which is highly unlikely to happen), they will almost always be the CONCACAF representatives for the World Cup, leaving the rest of the hex for a non-guaranteed spot at an intercontinental playoff that may or may not add another CONCACAF member; especially one from the Caribbean, which we have not had since Trinidad and Tobago since Germany 2006.

Another thing this does is that it puts the largely represented Caribbean Football Union to play in group stages with mid-tier teams like a Guatemala, a Canada, Jamaica etc. So now what you’re doing is lowering the competition level of those teams, and you’re even lowering the competition level of the Caribbean teams over time as well because they’re going to be playing against each other; teams that are evenly matched aren’t going be forced to raise their level of play because they’re not going to be playing a USA or a Mexico.

I think they tried to address that in the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League but you will still have teams punching in their weight class instead of being challenged unless they get promoted into a higher league. Sure it may provide for some equal and maybe exciting football but you’re still stagnating the competitive level of football in some of these countries if they keep playing each other.

Look at Barbados in Group C who are ranked 163rd in the world. Are they going to be challenged by teams like 199th ranked US Virgin Islands, 204th ranked Cayman Islands and unranked Saint Martin? Maybe there’s an upset somewhere in that group but I don’t see it. Then, when Barbados advances into League B it’s only then they’ll be tested but then again maybe the talent disparity may not be as wide. They could be relegated right back into League C.

Andre Batiste also made a point about some of the games being almost pointless due to some of the Caribbean members not being official FIFA members, therefore their FIFA Rankings would not affected:

“The rules are that you can gain points in the na­tion’s league but not when you play a non-Fi­fa coun­try, of which 11 of the teams in the Na­tion’s League will suf­fer as a re­sult of these match­es, or what about teams play­ing less­er-ranked teams. Does it mean that these match­es and re­sults are now worth­less or point­less?

Here are some ex­am­ples:

a) Ja­maica [52nd in FIFA Rankings] is in League Two and in a group now with less­er-ranked teams (Guyana [178th], Antigua & Barbuda [124th] and Aruba [189th])

b) Haiti [83rd] is in a group with less­er-ranked teams (Not true. They play Curaçao [79th] but also Costa Rica [44th])

c) T&T, in­ter­est­ing­ly in League One al­though not in top six, but that does not mat­ter clear­ly.

d) Hon­duras and T&T have non-Fi­fa team (Mar­tinique) in their group.

e) Grena­da, St Kitts and Be­lize have non-Fi­fa Team (French Guiana) in their group.

f) British Vir­gin Is­lands and Ba­hamas have non-Fi­fa Team (Bonaire) in their group.

g) Cay­man Is­lands, US Vir­gin Is­lands and Bar­ba­dos have non-Fi­fa Team (St Mar­tin) in their group.

Just to men­tion a few of the sit­u­a­tions which need to be ad­dressed, oth­er­wise it is clear that the re­gion has again been treat­ed like a step­son … it is al­so in­ter­est­ing to note that CON­CA­CAF is the on­ly re­gion that has put in place, this back­ward, ego­cen­tric sys­tem.”

Andre Errol Baptiste, Trinidad Guardian, July 2019

The majority of CONCACAF don’t have the developmental programs and the resources to fund their football teams like a USA, a Mexico, a Costa Rica, and a Canada, who launched their own football league to help with developing talent in Canada and adds another option for Caribbean and players in the Americas for a league to play in. So how do you expect the rest of CONCACAF to even ever challenge those teams for a chance to play and represent in a World Cup?

My final gripe is this: How and why did the Caribbean Football Union agree to this? Why did CFU president Ryan Harris thought that it was a good idea to pit the majority of the Caribbean CONCACAF members against each other and limit the opportunities (again) for a Caribbean nation to represent in the World Cup.

As of right now, Jamaica is the only Caribbean country in the Hex as it stands. Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago are the next highest in 10th and 11th. But what about the other Caribbean nations? How does the largest group of CONCACAF get the short end of the stick in this version of qualifying for the World Cup? How do 28 Caribbean nations agree on having the most difficult way of earning a spot on football’s biggest stage?

CONCACAF is currently the only confederation that has a set up like this where it alienates a large group of Nations into fighting amongst themselves for a non-guaranteed chance at a World Cup spot. It’s not like Europe anymore where groups are of equal strength and every team has a chance to make it out of a group. Unless you’re a top 6 team, it will be harder for you to get a World Cup spot.

This isn’t the proper way to qualify for the World Cup, it reeks of favoritism and bias for the more developed football nations and nearly discredits Caribbean football. I also see it lowering and decreasing the competition level in teams. Sure there will be equal-level football for the most part but the competition level of these teams would not be raised due to a lack of an ability to raise the difficulty for the challenge teams would get. Come 2026 when USA, Mexico AND Canada are all considered host nations, what will happen to the Hex then? This WCQ format needs a serious revision. There has to be a better way.