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World Cup qualifying turnover is business as usual

No, frogs aren’t falling from the sky, but this is something that happens.

Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

International giants Italy and Netherlands won’t participate in the World Cup. Also missing from the tournament is rising power Chile. The United States had been a lock to participate for the better part of three decades, but they stumbled as well. With such high profile absences, many questions are being raised about the state of soccer globally. Is this a trend in the international version of the sport or is this an anomaly? Is this a story of minnows, like Iceland and Panama, catching the sharks? Or is this a story of the sharks, like Italy, losing a row of teeth? What exactly is going on here?

The reality is this kind of World Cup churn is business as usual. Netherlands isn’t going after a third place finish in Brazil in 2014, but a semifinalist missing the following World Cup isn’t atypical. It has happened fifteen times in twenty tournaments. This is actually the third time it’s happened to the Netherlands. We as fans like our sports predictable, especially when it comes to precious World Cups, but soccer has proven to be anything but a safe haven for teams.

This year, five teams that escaped the group stage in Brazil 2014 did not qualify for Russia 2018. Reaching back to 1986, the first year that the knockout stage started with sixteen teams, four teams on average have missed the next World Cup. Five is hardly an anomaly. The below chart shows the failures each year.

Notice that in six of the last eight World Cups a team that reached the semifinals did not qualify for the next one, and in every year one or more quarterfinalists failed to make a return trip. If a team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, fans might feel pretty good about their side making the next one, but there’s historically a 19 percent chance the team won’t be back.

The 2014 cycle had the least amount of top sixteen turnover with just two teams missing from the 2010 World Cup. That might have given fans some sense that stability had fallen upon the soccer elite, but this 2018 cycle shows that perhaps 2010 to 2014 was the aberration.

Another way to look at turnover is to examine the average number of years the participants waited to return to a World Cup. The higher the number means that more teams with long absences made the tournament and lower numbers signify the same teams are returning. For teams that made it for the first time, the total number of years a team waited following their first attempt to qualify is the starting point.

Again, the 2014 World Cup was the most stable year, but 2018 was just a return to a more normal level of turnover. Teams like Egypt, Iceland, Morocco, Peru and Panama are driving the high number this cycle. This chart follows closely with the one above and illustrates how the ebbs and flows of international cycles also may have decade long cycles of change followed by periods where a smaller number of teams enjoy power.

It’s worth nothing that in 1998 the World Cup expanded to 32 teams, from 24. One might expect that an opening of that magnitude would create a door for teams that hadn’t been there in a while to enter. But the opposite occurred. That expansion ended up inviting teams that had more recently attended. We might observe this again in 2026 when the tournament expands to 48 teams.

So is it the minnows charging or the sharks losing their bite? The obvious answer is ‘yes’ to both and that should give fans in Italy, Holland, Chile and the United States more reason to demand change. If it makes fans feels any better, World Cup qualifying has been this way since the tournament began, and it may just be our turn. For those old enough to remember the movie Magnolia, be reminded by what child prodigy Stanley Spector said as the frogs fell from the sky: “This is something that happens.”