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South America, the Easiest Route to the World Cup Finals

2010 World Cup, AFC Qualifier between Qatar and Japan, courtesy of Tsutomu Takasu

On October 12, the United States squeaked by miniscule Antigua and Barbuda to keep U.S. World Cup qualifying on track. Despite American fans disappointment in the U.S. performance to-date, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann has said, “it is not easy qualifying” in CONCACAF, which begs the question: which confederation has the easiest route to qualifying for the World Cup Finals?

The nine teams in South America should count themselves lucky. FIFA allocates the comparatively tiny confederation up to five spots, and the local governing body, the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), puts all five teams in a single round-robin group. Taken together, those spots and the group structure ensure that South American teams have the easiest route to the WCF.

At first glance, South American teams may appear to have the hardest route to the finals. While no longer having the first-ranked team in the world, the confederation has a significantly better mean and median team ranking compared to Europe, the next best (Table 1). But unlike Europe, and all other confederations, CONMEBOL does not have teams compete across multiple qualification rounds.

In other confederations, the multiple rounds of qualifying ensure that the most of the worst ranked teams eliminate each other from the tournament long before the best teams enter. When those better-ranked teams enter the tournament, they join group stages with at most one or two spots per group to either continue in the qualifying process or book a ticket to the WCF. In that system, with a high degree of parity for teams in each qualifying group, the likelihood of random chance or a single poor performance excluding the best-ranked team from the WCF is high.

In contrast, the single, 9-team group in South America enables the best-ranked teams to qualify for the WCF—in spite of the occasional poor performance. For a team to qualify for the WCF, the team need only place fourth in the group. A fifth place finish pits the team against the fifth place finisher from Asia in a home-and-away aggregate series.

Accordingly, up to 56 percent of South American teams will qualify for the WCF—far higher than the next best of 25 percent of European teams. Adding in the opportunity to qualify through the home-and-away match the probability that any team will qualify for the WCF ranges from a low of 28 percent if the team enters the intercontinental playoff or a high of 44 percent if the team places anywhere from first to fourth in the single group (Table 2). Both probabilities are higher than those for all other confederations.

Using this process to rank the difficulty of qualifying for the WCF in each confederation, the hardest qualifying route is through Oceania. Teams in that region must compete in up to four rounds of qualifying, including a mandatory home-and-away series against the fourth place finisher from CONCACAF. That difficulty does not suggest that Oceania teams deserve a guaranteed spot in the WCF, and arguably, South America rightfully receives up to five spots since the teams in the confederation are many of the highest ranked in the world.

Still, when teams in Oceania compete, they do so in relative isolation—save the intercontinental playoff, so while their teams are ranked poorly, they compete against other poorly ranked teams. That parity is a constant across each confederation: teams largely compete against others of the same caliber. Holding the relative skill levels of the teams constant, thereby precluding skill as a factor for evaluating the difficulty of qualifying, the measures must be:

    1. The percent of teams eligible to qualify
    2. The number of rounds in qualifying
    3. The probability that any team will qualify

According to those measures, South American teams face the easiest route to the WCF. As for teams qualifying through CONCACAF, they face the second easiest route.

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