The mistake here is assuming the World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s 32 best teams. It’s more complicated than that. The desire to give those spots to the most competitive teams has to be balanced against making the competition truly representative. There’s no point of having a ‘World’ Cup if you stack the tournament with European teams.
We’re already at that point. Thirteen spots for UEFA is ridiculous. Sure, a team like Slovenia (in 2010) was probably among the top 32 teams in the world, but within their own region, they’d showed no real ability to compete with the top teams. Not viable competitively and not crucial to the representation of their confederation, Slovenia’s inclusion at the World Cup was superfluous. Giving that spot to a nation in Asia, Africa, or Central America ould have done more to grow the game.
It’s important not to lose sight of that when analyzing today’s routs, particularly since we’re likely to hear a number of people use the results to argue against a more inclusive World Cup. Just at that divide, they’ll note, hinting places like Asia (and by inference, any other region under-represented at World Cups) shouldn’t get more of Europe’s share.
But did we need a game in Amman to tell us the defending South American champions are years ahead of a team that’s never qualified for World Cup? Or a soccer power like Mexico is on another level than New Zealand? No. We knew that before kickoff. Nothing’s changed as a result of today’s blowouts.
If anything, today’s games reminded us of how strange these playoffs are. If you want Asia to get more teams in the World Cup, just give them another spot. Same with Africa and CONCACAF. If we agree places at the World Cup can help grow the game — bringing attention to a sport that may be struggling to gain a greater foothold in some nations — take some spots away from Europe and just give them to the “developing” regions. Don’t force the likes of Jordan and New Zealand to have to knock off relative powers like Uruguay and Mexico to earn their spots. And in the process, make the Uruguays and Mexicos of the world to prove their worth in qualifying. Remove their net.
If it’s not politically viable to take spots from Europe, then cue Michel Platini’s 40-team World Cup. Or perhaps decide we care too much about growing the game, not enough about making the World Cup the most competitive tournament it can be, even if that attitude would have never allowed the competition to grow to the point it’s at now. Where would teams from Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean be in a world where World Cup spots were only tied to competitiveness?
Yet when somebody complains about the scoreline to today’s playoffs, that will be the subtext. Neither Jordan nor New Zealand are up to snuff, further evidence that redistributing World Cup spots or expanding the tournament is a bad idea.
But World Cup spots aren’t about results alone. If there’s any complaint to be had about today’s playoffs, it’s that they were played at all. We don’t need to see if Mexico and Uruguay are better than still-developing soccer cultures. We need to do more to help those soccer cultures develop.