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?