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Griffith: CONCACAF dream-killers destroying spirit of World Cup with new qualifying format

“This format is killing the aspirations of small nations. World Cup football is more than just football, but also about allowing millions of citizens from 29 other countries to simply try, hope and believe.

“This baseless and biased format intends to destroy just that…”

The following Letter to the Editor on Concacaf’s new qualifying format for the Qatar 2022 World Cup was submitted to Wired868 by Police Commissioner and former Trinidad and Tobago Hockey Board (TTHB) vice-president Gary Griffith:

Photo: Stern John (second from right) celebrates with goal scorer Dennis Lawrence (centre), Kenwyne Jones (far right), Aurtis Whitley (second from left) and Cyd Gray after going ahead against Bahrain in a famous 2006 World Cup playoff contest on 16 November 2005.
(Copyright AFP 2014)

The decision by a handful of individuals in CONCACAF to manipulate the system by using their position to alter the format for the 2022 World Cup qualifying series must be exposed and stopped, with the immediate involvement of FIFA, if good sense does not prevail at the CONCACAF level.

The clandestine decision, mainly by those who hold posts in CONCACAF, to jettison their own countries into a safe zone and bypass the rigors of qualifying through initial preliminary rounds is nothing short of an abuse of power. It is in total contrast to all that World Cup football stands for, which is small nations dreaming big.

In this ridiculous format, the six highest-ranked teams—none ever having even reached a World Cup semi-final—would now be shot straight into a final round without playing a single World Cup qualifying game. They would also get three automatic spots out of six teams.

That would leave the 29 remaining countries in the region to fight for one lone spot to play the 4th placed team of the self-appointed elite group of six for a playoff spot. The winner of that playoff would then participate in another playoff game against a country from another region for a spot in the World Cup finals.

This format is killing the aspirations of small nations. World Cup football is more than just football, but also about allowing millions of citizens from 29 other countries to simply try, hope and believe.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago left back Kevon Villaroel (left) tackles USA midfielder Christian Pulisic during 2018 World Cup qualifying action at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 10 October 2017.
I95.5FM was paid to cover all of Trinidad and Tobago’s football matches, inclusive of travel and accommodation, rather than the other way around.
(Copyright AFP 2017/Luis Acosta)

This baseless and biased format intends to destroy just that.

To put it into a simple perspective, the format highlighted below has been used for decades by the other regions in World Cup football qualification. These regions have all experienced far greater success than our CONCACAF region, via results, and some have even fewer teams than CONCACAF. However, they are mature enough to understand the value of a level playing field, something which seems beyond the understanding of those who make decisions on behalf of CONCACAF.

The format of a level playing field also engineers a structure to ensure development and growth by so-called weaker countries. Hence, the gap is closing on a regular basis between great teams and weaker teams in all other regions, thus making the development of football in those regions more effective.

It may appear that certain CONCACAF officials seem worried about weaker teams gaining ground and are intent on using this new biased format to destroy such a possibility.

The format used for decades is still to be used in 2022 for qualifying in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. It involves everyone being on a virtual level playing field from the start of qualifying. This is what World Cup football stands for: everyone having an equal opportunity. CONCACAF officials apparently see it as some being more equal than others.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Hughtun Hector (left) tries to drive the ball past Jamaica captain Michael Binns during international friendly action at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain on 24 August 2017.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/CA-images/Wired868)

Europe (UEFA): Fifty-four teams with the greatest success in the World Cup and the largest margin of rankings. A level playing field is provided from day one in qualifying as all 54 teams are placed in nine groups of six teams each. Belgium, ranked number one in the world, is placed in qualifying at the same level as San Marino, ranked 211th, the lowest in the world. UEFA understands the value of this, not just for the weaker teams, but for the overall development of football in their region.

South America (CONMEBOL): Likewise, with enormous World Cup success, but only with certain nations. However, like Europe, there is no easy passage to slip into the World Cup Finals based on past track record. All 10 countries start on a level playing field, with Brazil, ranked 2nd in the world, vying for a spot from day one in qualifying with the lowest-ranked team in this region, Bolivia which ranks 73rd.

Asia (AFC): Forty teams divided into 8 groups of 5 teams, inclusive of the highest-ranked Japan, ranked 28th, being on par with Sri Lanka, ranked 201st. There is no ludicrous format of teams getting safe passage to the final round—like CONCACAF—but every country fighting from day one in qualifiers.

Africa (CAF): A region comprising 54 teams, with the lowest-ranked 28 teams playing a home and away, and the 14 winners immediately being placed in a level playing field with the other 26 teams. Hence Senegal, ranked 20th, could be alongside Chad, ranked 175th, from the second round.

Now, compare with what can only be described as the backroom decision made by CONCACAF—because it is inconceivable that 29 countries out of the 35 would agree to such a biased decision.

Photo: CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani.
(Copyright Prensa)

The new format means a team that is ranked 6th in CONCACAF, presently El Salvador that is ranked 68th in the world, can get an easy passage to a group of six teams with three automatic spots for a World Cup final qualification. Meanwhile, a team ranked 7th or 8th like Panama (ranked 74th in the world) or Canada (ranked 78th), now have to fight with 29 teams for half a spot.

What makes it even more ludicrous is that national team coaches and administrations were not told of the decision beforehand. Some coaches, not knowing that there would be a ranking system to get a fast pass into the final hexagon round, have been using friendly games and tournaments against much stronger opponents—often unconcerned about results—to find the right mix of players in preparation for qualification.

Not letting them know in advance that even friendly games would now be an avenue to World Cup qualification via ranking is blatantly unfair and can be seen as football ambushing.

The 29 countries, including Caribbean nations, Canada, Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua, need to stand up to put an end to this draconian rule by a few that is affecting football development in the region. One wonders if this is decision is driven by fear of so-called big countries after a small country knocked one of them out of the World Cup in 2018. Are they now doing what they can, outside the field of play, to prevent a repeat embarrassment?

And to any Caribbean country that decides to jump on this bandwagon now because of where they may be ranked at this time, I humbly ask them to remember that this ranking is very fluid and ‘today might be for you and tomorrow for me.’ This is not what World Cup football stands for, nor should one have an easier passage to such a prestigious tournament.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago stand-in captain Daneil Cyrus (far right) has some choice words for USA midfielder Weston McKennie while goal scorer Paul Arriola (centre) is jostled by T&T players during their Gold Cup contest in Cleveland on 22 June 2019.
USA won 6-0.
(Courtesy TTFA Media)

Some may ask what my concern and involvement in this is, as a police commissioner from Trinidad and Tobago.

I would not venture to say that sport, through proper development, can assist in crime reduction, or that I was part of the technical staff of the National Team in the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, or that I saw what qualifying for the World Cup final did for my country in 2006.

Instead, I would say that I am a simple supporter, who is just as concerned as the tens of millions of citizens/supporters from dozens of Caribbean countries seeing a grave injustice being done, destroying dreams of nations due to the tunnel-vision of a handful of persons who presently hold the office.

It is hoped that the vast majority of CONCACAF, be it football officials or supporters, stand up to this football bullying, and advise these so-called stronger nations to stop being cowards and come up and fight for their spot in the World Cup Finals like anyone else.

Do not let one elimination by a small country cause you to lose focus on what is right for football.

To the few who may claim that this biased format is justified because their team is better than ours, you may be correct, but they should not need to show that superiority via a decision made in a boardroom.

Do it on the football field, where the playing field is level.

Photo: United States captain Michael Bradley (left) and teammate Christian Pulisic react to the final whistle after their 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in 2018 World Cup qualifying action in Couva on 10 October 2017.
(Copyright AFP 2017/Luis Acosta)

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2 comments

  1. FIFA and CONCACAF are very selfish. They are afraid to see USA not qualify for anothe World Cup.