Editorial (December 19, 2017) – There has to be a smarter way to decide who represents a confederation at the World Cup. At the end of the qualification road, a team is either good enough or not to get in, but the present CONCACAF Hexagonal system is inefficient, flawed, archaic, confusing to some, and does little to help the growth of national teams for the betterment of competing with the rest of the world. With the format about to increase to 48 nations in 2026, the time for trying something else arguably could not be better.
Is it Time to Change the CONCACAF Hexagonal?
There are 35 FIFA members in the CONCACAF region. Under the current format, the first three rounds consist of two leg home-and-away knockouts based upon CONCACAF rankings that are derived in part from FIFA rankings, which can be questionable at the best of times, to whittle the field down to 12 for the fourth round, where a three group round-robin of which the top two teams from each group of four advances to reduce it down to the final six, otherwise known as the CONCACAF Hexagonal or simply the Hex, for a total of five rounds. The top three teams progress to the World Cup automatically and the fourth moves on to an inter-confederation home-and-away play-off.
The Imbalance of Friendlies
Any team that makes all five rounds will have played 22 total matches, which should be more than plenty enough for development and growth if all teams played that amount, but only happens if a side is good enough to begin with. This fate is the road that awaits teams at the bottom of the rankings in the region, as the top seeded teams don’t get into the qualification process until the first round-robin phase in round four and as a result play only 16 total matches including progression to the final stage, which should still be plenty enough for development and growth if all teams in the region played that many.
The Hex presents a few issues for both tiers of teams, but one that is most glaring: Friendlies. Every country in the world plays them and gleans information from their results, but games with something on the line are generally better sources for data and are a better training theater for players than games played merely for exhibition sake.
Teams at the foot of the rankings that fail to get out of the first two rounds or even the third are banished to the abyss of international friendlies until the next qualification cycle begins. The seeded teams are subject to rehearsing in the friendlies zone until round four, and if they fail to make it to the Hex, they only get six “unfriendly” matches until the next World Cup Qualification cycle. CONCACAF Gold Cups definitely provide meaningful games between World Cups but lately, it seems as though the timetable for the tournament that decides the CONCACAF champion gets based around whenever the USSF decides they need to make money from empty NFL stadiums and is at minimum, scheduled confusingly.
Lower ranking nations in the region must occasionally feel like their chances for growth are hindered if they are seemingly playing more friendlies than competitive matches, and if they do manage to get in to the World Cup, they tend to be easy to file under “just happy to be here.”
In comparison, it seems like higher ranking nations that get seeded can be at times guilty of behaving as though they were entitled, sometimes to their detriment, as if they can just practice in Friendlyville, float through qualifying and then figure it out at the World Cup.
Tables Allow Time For Patience … and Urgency
The formats in the two confederations that have produced all the World Cup winners begin from table-style. The desire to try a different approach is commendable but the results speak for themselves. CONMEBOL (South America) is one giant table where countries play each other home-and-away for a total of 18 matches. It is not uncommon for teams to stumble out of the gate, make a few significant changes and then make up enough ground to qualify.
UEFA (Europe) divides the continent into nine groups of six, each country playing 10 matches a piece. Stalling at the line brings more pressure to get positive results from the remaining games as there are fewer to contest and the group winners get in directly, but the incentive to finish in second place and qualify for the scenic route still remains. In both cases, teams are getting a multitude of meaningful and competitive matches with enough time during the campaign to make adjustments. The present system in UEFA gives some teams pressure from the get go, while others get complacent lying virtually idle in waiting.
Why would it be so hard for CONCACAF to divide teams into groups and go from there? The argument that the region is too big is plausible, though it can be countered by the fact that North America takes up the majority of the space. The scenario of Monsters vs. Minnows will arise regardless of where pros get paid to play and whether the side of doctors and plumbers come from an island, micro nation, or city-state.
Ideas For The Future
Here are a couple of suggestions based upon the amount of region members: The first could be called a dress rehearsal for 2026, results in 22 total games (12 minimum) and is an adjustment of the Hex for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. Divide teams into five groups of seven, spreading out the top seeds so they don’t end up stacked in the same one. After 12 games of round-robin home-and-away, the five group winners and the best second place teams move on to the Hex.
Beyond Qatar with six places proposed, simply stop at Step One. For the sake of spiciness, the two best second place records can go into a home and away play-off for the sixth spot.
President Victor Montagliani’s introduction of the League Of Nations initiative will certainly be a helpful alternative to international friendlies and the qualifying system could evolve tomorrow into something entirely different, but it won’t change the fact that the current one inhibits the progress of national teams in the region, or the fact that the United States will be missing the World Cup for the first time since México ’86. It could be said that maybe the U.S. could have gone about things differently, but it is also plain to see that the quality of football in CONCACAF has improved since 1986.
The World Cup is the apex. In the end, a team is either good enough or not to get in, but a better qualifying system would benefit everyone. The saying is iron sharpens iron. In the sports world, that result comes best from the interaction of stronger competition from the playing of meaningful games.