Since Victor Montagliani took over the head position of CONCACAF, he had promised a reform of the qualifying process for the men’s FIFA World Cup. On July 10th, the confederation released the long awaited format for its 35 nations aspiring to participate in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The new format is a joke (click here for what Alex made of it). It’s not funny though, because it puts Canada’s World Cup aspirations back into a state of unease, right when there seemed to be more confidence.
In the previous format, the decisive round was a group of 6 teams, where everyone would play each other home and away. The top 3 would Qualify for the World Cup and the 4th placed team would go to a play-off. It is dubbed “the Hex.” In fact, it is a great final round and CONCACAF has kept it. What’s changed is the way of getting there and that’s the part that has generally been the most important to Canada.
Here is how Canada has fared every time it’s participated in World Cup Qualifying.
1958: Eliminated in semi-final round
1970: Eliminated in first of three rounds
1974: Eliminated in semi-final round
1978: Eliminated in final round
1982: Eliminated in final round
1990: Eliminated in semi-final round
1994: Eliminated in inter-continental playoff against Australia in shootout
1998: Eliminated in final round
2002: Eliminated in semi-final round
2006: Eliminated in semi-final round
2010: Eliminated in semi-final round
2014: Eliminated in semi-final round
2018: Eliminated in semi-final round
It is evident that the before-last round, leading to the Hex, is where Canada has most often stumbled. Note that in the new system, not all is lost if the Hex is not reached, as there is a backdoor route for the remaining 29 member associations. But, If reaching Qatar is in the plans, so too must be the Hex. Giving every country an even chance, in theory the six countries in the Hex would each have a 54% chance of making it to the final tournament, while those left with the alternative, groups followed by knockout rounds, are each dealt a 0.89% sliver of hope of getting to Qatar. It’s still all about making the Hexagonal round, the biggest difference now is that qualification for the final round is based on FIFA Rankings.
For years Canada Soccer has said that their goal when it comes to the FIFA rankings is to be in CONCACAF’s top 6. All of a sudden, that objective is one of colossal importance. The world rankings have never meant that much, they’ve mostly served as a frame of reference. Now, Canada will spend until next June trying to figure out how to climb up the complex ladder that FIFA has put in place. This is where things get a little tricky.
Of CONCACAF members, Canada currently sits eight with 1312 points. In the crucial sixth spot is El Salvador with 1342 points. Here’s the complete FIFA Ranking. Since the 2018 World Cup, the team in that sixth place has had between 1327 and 1344 points.
Here are a few things to know which will help your understanding of the FIFA Rankings. For those of you who are eager enough to look into the math, this official document describes the ranking system, which was changed after the 2018 World Cup.
First, the difference in points between the teams is considered, meaning that a win against a higher ranked opponent will give more points than a win against a lower ranked opponent. Second, goal differential is not considered. So the 7-0 drubbing of Cuba didn’t do all that much. Third, different matches carry different weight. For example, friendlies have a coefficient of 10, while Nations League group stage (15) and playoff (25) and Gold Cup group stage (35) and playoff (40) matches all count for more. Lastly, in order not to punish teams who make it out of the group stage in final competitions, such as the Gold Cup, losses in the knock-out round are omitted. That means that Canada’s capitulation against Haiti doesn’t push them further down, it’s just an opportunity missed.
The formula is as follows:
Resulting points = Points before + Importance of match x (the result – the expected result)
What does this mean for Canada?
Well, the red and white are currently 30 points off the Hex, let’s look at how some of the upcoming matches could change that.
For CONCACAF members, the Nations League is the competition which will have the most influence on the FIFA Rankings between now and June 2020. Canada is grouped with USA and Cuba. Taking the current rankings, this is how it would look like:
W: + 3, D: – 4.5, L: – 12
W: + 10.7, D: + 3.2, L: – 4.3
What that shows is that if Canada wants to make a jump in the rankings, they will probably have to win their group. Not only would that mean Canada will have done well enough in the group stage, it will give them matches in the Nations League playoff round, where wins would count for more. For example, beating Mexico would mean 19 points, if current rankings didn’t change.
Another interesting quirk to take note of is that Jamaica and El Salvador didn’t qualify for nations league A. For Jamaica it’s most likely good news, as easier competition allows less chance for a slip up from their 4th spot among CONCACAF nations. For El Salvador, it could also be a good thing, but it also means that if they won every one of their nations league games, they wouldn’t gain many more than 17 points.
Between Canada and El Salvador sits Panama, currently on 1331 points. Panama is in a Nations League group with powerhouse Mexico and minnow Bermuda, meaning that if they want to make some considerable gains they will have to take down the region’s best.
Keep in mind that on top of the Nations League, teams can arrange friendlies, and you can bet that John Herdman, as well as the coaches of all teams trying to figure out how to earn points in this complex system, have plans to do so. After the Nations League group stage, there will be two international windows remaining, in March and June 2020 before the decisive rankings are released. Remember also that as matches are played, teams will fluctuate rankings, changing the potential points of each match up.
What it all means, is that we don’t really know exactly what it will take from Canada. What is for sure, though, is that the Canucks are looking at Qatar from a distance. If that is to change, if Canada is to prove they deserve a free entry to the 2026 edition and John Herman is to deliver on his promise of qualifying for the upcoming World Cup, his men will have to do well in the Nations League starting this fall. CONCACAF has really thrown everyone a curveball with this new format, but what the confederation has also done is make their new Nations League a competition of paramount importance. It’s as if in September begins the decisive placement round of this qualifying cycle.
Editor’s note: since this article was published, the weight of Nations League group stage matches has changed because of the implementation of 2021 Gold Cup Qualifying.