By David Unsworth
What is “fair” when it comes to awarding the 32 much-coveted berths in the World Cup?
The increasing politicization of the sports world has recently become apparent to even the casual observer of American sports. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become the symbol of the intersection of politics and sports, spearheading a movement to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality, drawing the ire of many viewers, as well as condemnation from President Trump.
But do politics and political correctness also play a role in soccer, and its marquee event, the World Cup?
The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world: virtually the entire world is a member of FIFA, football’s governing body. Every four years countries compete for one of the 32 berths in the tournament. The classifications are continent-based, and each continent is assigned a certain number of births.
For the 2018 World Cup the 31 available slots (host Russia got an automatic bid), are distributed as follows: North America’s CONCACAF gets 3.5 berths, Africa’s CAF gets 5, Europe’s UEFA gets 13, South America’s CONMEBOL gets 4.5, Asia’s AFC gets 4.5 Oceania’s OFC gets 0.5,
But is the distribution of these berths fair? Do we want a democratic or a meritocratic distribution?
The fundamental question: What is fairness? Is it inherently fair to explicitly state that the goal is to have the 32 best squads in the world in the World Cup? Or is it fairer to allot berths based on population?
Japan shocked the world by defeating Colombia this week, but until that unexpected result, an Asian team had not defeated a South American team in 17 straight meetings.
Two South American powerhouses’ chances of advancing to the Round of 16 tournament hinged on their performance against an African team. Argentina had to beat Nigeria. And Colombia almost needed to defeat Senegal in order to advance.
However, in general, the performance of African teams has been disappointing at the World Cup. No African team has ever come close to winning the cup, and the vast majority of African teams have been eliminated before reaching the tournament stage.
Only three times in history has a non-European or South American team even made it to the final 4: the United States, placing third in 1930, and Turkey and South Korea, placing third and fourth in 2002.
Of the 20 World Cups in history, South America has won 9 (Brazil: 5, Uruguay: 2, Argentina, 2), while Europe has won the remaining 11.
It begs the question, then. Why does Africa get 5 berths in the World Cup, when they have no realistic chance of any of their teams winning it, or even advancing far in the tournament, while South America only gets 4.5 berths?
Why does Asia get 4.5 berths, putting it on par with South America, when the quality of its teams is so inferior?
59.6% of the world’s population lives in Asia, while 16.6% lives in Africa. Football powerhouses South America and Europe have 5.6% and 9.9%. North America has 7.4% of the world’s population, while Oceania has just 0.5% of the world’s population. So, let posit, that the World Cup employed an entirely “fair” strategy for allotting berths. Here’s what that would look like:
Asia: 19 berths, Africa: 5, Europe: 3, North America: 2, S. America: 2, Oceania: 1.
This version of “fairness” would have a dramatically negative impact on the tournament and the quality of play, and have catastrophic effects for both Europe and South America.
China’s domination of both men’s and women’s ping-pong is legendary, and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China won the gold, silver, and bronze medals in both the men’s and women’s competition. Many countries felt that this was unfair, so the rules were changed. China was only allowed a maximum of two entrants in both the men’s and women’s tournaments; this, in order to provide for “fairer” competition and greater opportunities to other countries.
It is preposterous to place a limit on the number of Chinese entrants. If they have the best players, then those players should be allowed to play, free of national and geographic considerations. If China wins all three medals, that should provide an incentive for other top ping-pong powers to work harder. But it is ludicrous to suggest that the sporting world benefits because China is restricted from fielding more players in the tournament, even if they are the best.
FIFA could implement a new system that would be entirely based on meritocracy. Without question, it would give a major boost to both Europe and South America. Such a system would be simple enough to implement. It would involve doing away with the current paradigm whereby teams only compete within their own continents for World Cup classification.
Rather, FIFA could adopt a strategy that resembles the current International Tennis Association (ITA) system for determining berths for tournaments: any player can play any other player, and there is a currently updated ranking system. If you beat an opponent, you move up. If you lose to an opponent, you move down. If you beat an opponent ranked much higher than you, you move up more. If you beat an opponent ranked slightly above you, you move up a little.
Such a “meritocracy” would elicit a fearsome push-back: from Asia, from Oceania, from North America, and from Africa.
And there would be a predictable outcry from a host of cultural, government, and media elites regarding the fairness of taking away opportunities, especially for Asian and African countries, where the majority of the world’s population is concentrated.
It’s a reasonable argument,. It would be a bit of a bore to have a tournament with just a handful of teams from outside Europe and South America. There is certainly an element of excitement added to a situation where teams from geographically disparate regions battle in the group stage.
But, we must also confront the cold hard reality that the current tournament structure is not designed to give opportunities to the best teams but to promote geographic diversity.
Clearly, what FIFA currently does is neither a pure meritocracy nor a purely equitable distribution based on geography. They are looking for that “sweet spot.” While they want to be inclusive towards regions of the world where the quality of play is not as good, they also don’t want to seriously impact the quality of the play, by giving mathematically “fair” representation to regions where the quality of teams does not equal Europe and South America.
Depending upon your perspective, the “political correctness” utilized by FIFA is either an outrageously discriminatory policy against South America; or FIFA’s current system unfairly denies World Cup opportunities to the teeming masses of Africa and Asia.
As football continues to increase in popularity around the world look for these debates regarding the concept of “fairness” to continue…and recognize that the same philosophical and theoretical principles discussed in a sports setting, also apply to many other economic and political issues, that serve to define our respective worldviews.