Monthly Archives: June 2011

The 2014 World Cup is Underway

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago qualifying began for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. If you’ve paid any attention to the site at all the past few years, you may’ve seen the detail I paid to the qualifying rounds of the 2010 World Cup. In my opinion, that is part of what makes the tournament so great – it’s not just a tournament of 32 teams, it’s really a tournament that features nearly every FIFA member in the world – 204 out of 207, in fact.

For those unaware, I will first explain the qualification structure.

All FIFA members are organized into six confederations which roughly correspond the continents: CONCACAF (North and Central America), CONMEBOL (South America), UEFA (Europe), AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa), and the OFC (Oceania). For 2014, the bids are allocated thusly:

  • UEFA: 13 bids (out of 53 entrants)
  • CAF: 5 bids (out of 53)
  • AFC: 4.5 bids (out of 43)
  • CONMEBOL: 4.5 bids (out of 10; also Brazil qualifies automatically as hosts of the 2014 World Cup)
  • CONCACAF: 3.5 bids (out of 35)
  • OFC: 0.5 bids (out of 11)

All the whole number bids are direct entrants into the World Cup Finals – so UEFA gets 13 direct qualifiers, CONCACAF gets 3, and the OFC gets none. What are the half bids? The four half-bids will be contested in November 2013 for the final two spots in the World Cup. In a change from years past, this year on July 30th FIFA will draw which confederations will be matched against each other. (In 2010, the CONCACAF qualifier (Costa Rica) faced off against the CONMEBOL qualifier (Uruguay).)

Membership in the confederations is not fixed, and on occasion teams will move around. The two most notable examples are probably Israel (which switched from the AFC to UEFA) and Australia (which moved from the OFC to AFC prior to the 2010 World Cup cycle). The Israel move was for political reasons (the rest of the Middle East is in the AFC), and the Australia move was for competitive reasons (the only other sizable and competitive country in the OFC is New Zealand, the other countries are mostly remote Pacific micronations).

As you might’ve guessed, UEFA and CONMEBOL are the strongest confederations, and in fact no other confederation has ever produced a winner (or a runner-up, for that matter).

So, given that, how is the draw determined? Well, each confederation determines how to divvy up their bids. CONMEBOL’s is the simplest: all nine teams (Brazil is in automatically as hosts) will play a home-and-home double round-robin, and the top four teams get the automatic bid. Others, however, are more complicated. UEFA will draw eight groups of six teams and one group of five, with the nine winners advancing directly to the World Cup and the eight runners-up contesting among themselves for the final four spots. That’s still relatively simple, the other confederations have multiple rounds of tournaments.

One such tournament has already begun. In CONCACAF, Belize beat Montserrat 5-2 on June 15th, officially beginning the preliminaries of the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, four days later the Belize national football federation was suspended by FIFA, and unless the situation is resolved before July 10th the second leg will not take place (which would result in Montserrat going through automatically). The AFC will begin its qualifying tomorrow, however, with eight matches taking place. In fact, the AFC will be a veritable hub of World Cup activity over the next month, as the first and second rounds take place and the initial 43 teams whittled down to 20.

To help keep track of this action, I’ve created two sets of graphics that help visualize what is going on. First, for the AFC you can easily the first and second round pairings in every American’s favorite tournament abstraction, the bracket. (Of course, this being soccer all pairings are home-and-home, so each represents two games and the winner is decided on aggregate.) I’ve also made one for CONCACAF. I’ve used images instead of tables here to help show the individual early match ups and also to facilitate inling these brackets elsewhere. I may do one for the other confederations, though the other confederations make use mostly of drawn-out round-robin tournaments. Also, CAF and the OFC won’t begin their processes until next year, and the draws for these events have not yet taken place. (UEFA will start even later, as they are currently contesting their qualifiers for the 2012 Euro Cup.) I will update the brackets I’ve already made, of course, as action on the pitch warrants.

And speaking of “on the pitch”, it’s nice to be talking about FIFA and soccer again in that context, isn’t it?

On Baseball Realignment

So realignment is suddenly in the news again, as rumors of the possibility have begun to surface.

The article cited above talks about having two 15-team leagues and eliminating divisions. This would be a radical departure for baseball, which has featured divisional play since 1969, and in addition would require a team switching leagues, which has only happened once in modern baseball, when the Brewers moved to the NL in 1998 to accommodate the expansion Rays and Diamondbacks. (Wikipedia actually says baseball at that the considered doing two 15-team leagues then, but ultimately decided not to due to various issues.)

Currently, baseball is organized into two leagues with three divisions each. This setup originates from expansion in 1969, when both leagues expanded from 12 to 14 teams and instituted two divisions of 7 teams each. Those divisions would remain in place until 1994. Since then, other changes have taken place due to further expansion, giving us our current format or 14 teams in the American League and 16 teams in the National League.

You may be wondering why there’s still two separate leagues in the first place, which is another artifact of baseball history. Until 1999, the AL and NL were indeed separate organizations – hence why one league has slightly different rules than the other. That’s why a generic term for the top level of professional baseball is the major leagues – the AL and NL together represent the two top level baseball leagues. This is in contrast to the myriad minor leagues and independent leagues. (As a side note, some consider the post-World War II Pacific Coast League the only modern third major league, but any notion of the PCL being on the same level as the as the AL and NL was squashed when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1954.)

So are there any problems with the current setup? Well, yes. One of the issues baseball has struggled with since realignment is the idea of the balanced schedule versus the unbalanced schedule. Currently, teams play an unbalanced schedule, which means that they will generally play teams within their division more than teams without. I know the Braves’ schedule the best, so I’ll use them as an example: they’ll play most of the teams within their division 19 times this year, and most of the teams outside their division 6 times this year. (Remember, most teams play each other in 3 game series.)

There are pros and cons to each style. The nice part about the current format is that it places a strong emphasis on winning your division. There are 4 playoff berths in each league, 3 of which go to the division winners. The downside is that the wild card is then very wild, as a team’s overall record will depend much more on the teams within their division. The balanced schedule fixes that issue, but then the divisions are just arbitrary splits because everyone plays he same schedule.

One way to settle this is at the heart of the current rumor, that is, just eliminate the divisions altogether and award playoff spots to the top four teams. There are problems with this proposal as well, though. To me, this raises the question of “why bother to have playoffs at all?” After all, if everyone plays each other 11+ times, I’d say you have a pretty good idea who the best teams are in each league at the end of the end of the season. (Of course, that doesn’t seem to stop the NBA and NHL, where half of the teams make an entirely too long postseason after a reasonably long regular season.) Also, having divisions gives each team something to play for and “win” – after all, baseball is about the grind moreso than other sports, and home field does not confer nearly as significant an advantage, so what in reality is the difference between the top four seeds in a postseason tournament? Sure, the difference between the first and fourth place teams may be large, but the difference between each seedline is not going to be that great, so what is the incentive to try to build a team that wins the games necessary for first and the game necessary to win fourth? This plan could potentially ruin the regular season.

The other problem is with an odd number of teams in each league, you are also then forced to have an interleague series all year long. I don’t really have an inherent problem with this, and this could be easily solved by not having anyone switch leagues. (Though, if you asked me, I would say the Brewers should switch back to the AL.)

Of course, is there any room for realignment and keeping divisions? Sure. Unfortunately, the ideal solution would be for each league to have 18 teams so each division could have 6 teams, but further expansion is almost certainly not on the table. I have some other ideas, that would probably involve massive league switching, but I think if more than one team switches league that also raises the taboo discussion of the designed hitter. Otherwise, we’re just talking about trivial fixes, like having the Pirates switch to the NL East so they’re in the same division as Phillies.

So what’s going to happen? Well, nothing probably. But baseball fans love to talk about this stuff, and it makes for an interesting discussion as we try to predict what baseball will look like in the future.

Bowl Games 2010: So much for “later this week”

Okay, so I failed pretty miserably at getting this post-mortem up “later this week”, unless by that I meant “June 10th”. But it’s cool, ’cause it’s not like there’s anything else going on college football right now.

The final tally is in the usual place. This year was fairly mediocre once again, in that I equaled my percentage from last year (50%) by going 18-18. That was mostly due in part to a flawless New Year’s Day.

Most bowl game dates and times for 2011-2012 are set now, so I’ll try to have that up around September or so. All the games from this year returning, but there are (thankfully) no new ones. If you find a schedule online, don’t fret about January 2nd – that happens every time January 1st falls on a Sunday. Of course, this particular year for that to be a worry there has to be a NFL season first. So we’ll see.