There were some rumblings over why certain teams were unfairly matched in qualifying rounds, leading to Cup participation. At the conclusion of UEFA (Europe) qualifying action, seven teams were ranked in the top 30 worldwide, but did not qualify for Cup play. Ukraine (#20), Sweden (25), Denmark (26), Czech Republic (27), Serbia (28), Romania (29) and Slovenia (30). Sweden, Romania and Ukraine placed second in first round action and faced off against other countries placing second in their group. The teams these three lost to, are in Cup action. Three of the other four failed to advance to Cup play or a runner-up play-off due to toughness of their first round group pairings. Denmark placed second in their group (behind Italy) but did not see any runner-up play-off action due to the lowest points total of the nine teams which placed second.
Four teams from Asia, Japan (44), Iran (49), South Korea (56) and Australia (57); two from Africa, Nigeria (33) and Cameroon (59); and one from North America, Honduras (34) will see Cup action. Is there such a disparity between soccer talent in Europe, compared to the rest of the World? Should there be an addition inter-continental play-off set in place to ensure quality teams have a suitable chance of reaching the Cup? Should the slots given for Cup play in each "continent" be redistributed to mirror talent?
Cup participants expanded from 16 to 24 in 1982, and from 24 to 32 in 1998. Instead of inciting worldwide riots by giving Europe more selections and taking away from 'less talented' continents, what about expanding the number of countries in Cup play? Or could we extend the number of games played in the first round? In the current eight group/four team format, each country plays three games. The difference in a win or a draw and a draw and a loss usually makes the difference in countries going home after the round or advancing to the round of 16. Cup play is every four years. From 2003 to 2013, it was played twice.
What about grouping the countries into four groups of eight teams? Seven games played by every participant and the top four in each group advances? Proceed with same round of 16. How about 48 countries, give the top 16 a bye past the first round, place teams ranked #17-48 in the same format as the current 32-team system. The top 16 from the group advance to face the top 16 who received a bye. Realign as 32 teams and repeat current Cup system. An expansion to 64 teams would allow several possibilities (NCAA basketball are you listening?). A 64-team group could have eight groups of eight teams, having the top four in each advance. Realign and follow current format.
The top 16 teams could have a bye, placing #17-64 into eight groups of six. Allow the top two in each group to advance. Realign and follow current format. Another possibility, and one I would wish to see, is the top 24 teams receiving a bye, teams #25-64 placed into eight groups of five. The top eight advance and realign to follow current format. Not only would the most deserving teams have a chance to participate, there would be more competition, more interest and (hold your breath money worshipers) more revenue. The World Cup "happens once in a seven year period (August 2006 to May 2014)," and there is nothing in the World which would increase the sales of HD-TVs worldwide than Cup games.
There should be five "continents" for Cup qualifying (the OFC should be absorbed by Asia). If there were 48 teams presented in Cup play, how about North America having five representatives, South America six, Europe twenty-one, Asia eight and Africa eight? Imagine 64 teams with North America six, South America eight, Europe thirty, Asia ten and Africa ten. Maybe delegate the bye seeds in a similar manner: With 16 byes; North America two, South America four, Europe six, Asia two and Africa two. With 24: North America three, South America five, Europe ten, Asia three and Africa three. But this is 'just a thought.'
The U.S. has gained an upper hand in qualifying tournaments recently. In 1998, the U.S. compiled a 4-1-5 mark to finish second and receive a Cup bid, a 5-3-2 mark in 2002 and a third place finish (top three advanced), a second place finish in 2006 with a 7-2-1 mark, and a first place finish in 2010 and 2014 (6-2-2 and 7-2-1).
World Cup qualifying was not as complex in the early years. FIFA invited all members for 1930 Cup play, 1934 qualifying was a one game match with Mexico, and the 1938 Cup was withdrawn by numerous countries in North and South America due to the host country's location. There was not any Cup tournament in 1942 or 1946 due to World War II. The North American Football Confederation (NAFC) awarded two teams a bid for Cup play in 1950, the U.S. and Mexico.
In 1954, 1958, 1962 and 1966 North America was either not guaranteed a bid or given only one. Each time Mexico was the qualifier for North America. Mexico hosted the 1970 Cup, garnishing an automatic bid but the U.S was not able to secure the other spot, it was awarded to El Salvador. The CONCACAF tournament in 1973, 1977, 1981, 1985 and 1989 decided what team(s) would advance to Cup play the following year. The U.S. was eliminated in opening round action in 1973, 1977 and 1981. The U.S. reached the championship round in 1985, but was not able to obtain a spot for the '86 Cup.
North America was awarded two spots in '90 Cup action. The favorite, Mexico, was disqualified for using over-age players in the 1988 Summer Olympics. This opened the door for the U.S. to qualify for the first time in 40 years. After hosting the Cup in '94 and receiving an automatic bid, the U.S. developed an interest in soccer once again.