We all know that World Cup qualifying is kind of a mess. There are many reasons why, most of which can be explained by money, some of which can be explained by proximity, and very few of which can be explained by common sense. However, this is a problem that FIFA has done very little to address in the past.
FIFA expanded the tournament from 24 nations in 1994 to 32 in 1998. This expansion coincided with major growth in the game financially and participatorily (yes, I just made a word up, deal with it dot gif) in two of the world's largest countries: the United States and China. Since then, the qualification allotment has largely been the same: 13-15 places for Europe, 5 for Africa, 4-5 for Asia, 4-6 for South America, 3-4 for North America, and 0-1 for Oceania.
While the number of qualified teams per region is okay, the method of arrival at this point has been...crap. With over 200 countries competing for only 32 spots over a 2-3 year time period things get confusing, discombobulated, and down right sloppy in some cases (we'll get to this in a bit). The following is my half-hearted recommendation for how to solve the befuddling riddle that is World Cup qualifying.
CURRENT FORMAT: Four stages, beginning with the lowest ranked teams in a home-and-home playoff, where the top teams enter in the third stage, and culminating with "The Hex" awarding the top three teams berths to the World Cup Finals and the fourth place team a spot in an intercontinental playoff
PROS: The Hex is great. Ten games over the course of the final year of qualifying for the right amount of berths. Berths are not decided too early, and in many cases, late dramatics swing the destinies of multiple nations with a single kick of the ball.
CONS: The potential for too many games for some teams, especially with two stages before the higher ranking teams enter the competition. Rankings are also dependent upon FIFA World Rankings, which are a joke and in most cases unreliable for lower ranked federations.
SUGGESTIONS: With a biennial continental tournament (the Gold Cup) relying on outside tournaments and rankings for qualification, the WCQs can take a cue from here. Allow for qualification into the Gold Cup or through Caribbean/Central American zones to play into WC groups, then let the nations that qualify for the World Cup have a bye to the second stage (which reflects the current third stage).
CURRENT FORMAT: The ten nations (The Guyanas - French, Dutch, and English - belong to CONCACAF) play a home and home with each nation over three years for four berths plus a playoff spot
PROS: Owing to only having ten nations, CONMEBOL is kind of perfect with regards to the number of nations competing
CONS: Too long of a time period to play the games (not really a con, but a team can change A LOT over one round of qualifying in three years) and too many spots, possibly. However, they've kind of earned it, having almost half the World Cups ever awarded on the continent.
SUGGESTIONS: None. Don't change, CONMEBOL, you're beautiful.
CURRENT FORMAT: 53 nations competing for 13 spots in nine groups. The eight best runners up after throwing out the results against sixth placed teams in six team groups play home and home playoffs for the last four spots
PROS: Separation of the best teams in Europe by keeping them out of the same groups allows them to qualify, for the most part, their best teams for the World Cup every four years along with England. Use of a separate coefficient from FIFA World Rankings
CONS: With the lack of even groups as well as having to do qualification immediately after Euros qualifications (which use a similar format), games can feel uneven, for lack of a better word. Plus, there are some just truly terrible teams in Europe.
SUGGESTIONS: Lets cut the charade of having the San Marinos, Faroe Islands, Liechtensteins, etc, try and compete with the Spains, Frances, Italies. Allow the lower ranked teams to play home and home playoffs to cut the list to 48 teams. Create eight groups of six (eight "Hexes"). The group winners qualify. The second placed teams are drawn into two, four-team groups that play each team in the group in two neutral locations (large cities with multiple world class stadiums) during the October and November international breaks. Each of those first and second place teams qualify in concurrently held matches and the two third place teams play a one-off match for the last spot (again, neutral site) while the other teams play friendlies by random draw.
CURRENT FORMAT: Lowest ranked federations play home and homes to get down to 40 nations drawn into ten groups of four. The group winners play home and homes seeded based on FIFA World Rankings for the five spots.
CONS: Pretty much everything else
SUGGESTIONS: What the hell, Africa! Could your qualifying be any more cocked up? The first suggestion: PLAY MORE GAMES! The second suggestion: STOP USING INELIGIBLE PLAYERS! In all seriousness, we need to create essentially a double of what CONCACAF has. Protect the top six teams (five most recent WC representatives, plus the highest AFCON finisher not yet represented), then whittle the rest of the continent down to 24 teams from 54 (four team groups, winners and top six second place teams) that double as AFCON qualifiers. Then do four groups of six. Group winners advance. Runners-up play home and home for the last two spots.
CURRENT FORMAT: Two rounds of knockouts with the lower seeded teams, followed by five groups of four (the top five teams receive a bye to this round) where the top two in each group qualify for the final two groups of five. The top two in each group qualify while the third place teams play a knockout for the right to make the intercontinental playoffs.
PROS: Protecting the best teams til the later stages, evenly splitting of the groups
CONS: Too many rounds, too much communism, too much confusion over who enters when
SUGGESTIONS: Okay, this is where things get a little crazy. First of all: Oceania, we love you, you have beautiful beaches, but your football is kind of crap. New Zealand, PLEASE join AFC so that my next plan works: OFC continental championship winner receives a bye to the final round of qualifying. It goes like this (assuming Australia and New Zealand are in AFC which they should be): The Oceania winner, along with the two finalists from the most recent AFC championship, receive a bye to the final round. The remaining nations are whittled down to 36 with knockouts playing in nine groups of four, where the group winners are drawn into two groups of six. The top two in each group qualify.
Simple enough, right? We adjusted a few things, gave Africa another bid, took away an intercontinental playoff, and got a little wacky, but I think that's a heck of a lot better than what we have now, no (I'm looking at you, Africa)? In total, we have 31 berths up there (accounting for the host getting another berth and shifting a berth away from Africa if need be for dual hosts or an African country hosting), and I think this is a heck of a lot more interesting while not screwing up the international calendar any more than it already is.
Think I'm crazy? Let me know!