Analysis of qualifying draws for International competition always focuses on who has an easy draw, and who has the more difficult task. It is not an easy thing to judge, but I will still come to that for the European draws (which grabbed the headlines) at the end of the piece.
Firstly, what does the draw mean for the other five Confederations, starting with the one where it meant the least
The reason for this was that the second round groups in Asia have already started, and the third round will not be drawn until completion of the current round. The 39 teams are playing in eight groups of five (one group playing a team short because of the expulsion from competition of Indonesia). The eight group winners and four of the runners-up go into a third round, two groups of six with the winners and runners-up qualifying for the finals. The two third placed teams then play for 5th place which gets into an intercontinental play-off game.
Hence the only news in this draw for Asia is that right at the end of the process, the team fortunate enough to finish as 5th, has drawn against the fourth team in the CONCACAF draw. This is not great news, but better than that for the winners of the group in…
The winners of the qualifying process in Oceania will face the 5th place team from the CONMEBOL grouping. This has to be the worst possible draw one can get in the intercontinental section, and I very much doubt that we will see an Oceania representative in Russia. Despite Oceania having just 11 teams in the contest, the process is rather drawn out – starting at the end of August, when a four team tourney takes place in Tonga, with American Samoa, Samoa and the Cook Islands also playing. One team of this quartet joins the other seven from the confederation in the next round.
The second round also takes place within a single country, (probably two venues). There will be two groups of four teams, with Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the winner of the first round in Group A. Group B consists of New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.
This second round is also the 2016 Oceania Nations Cup, and has a semi-final and final defining who plays in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Those matches are not World Cup qualification games though – the top three from each group goes into a home and away series based on two groups of three. There is then a final before the eventual winners go against their South American opponents.
All ten of the South American countries play in a single group. This means 18 games apiece. It also means that there is no draw, except for the order of the matches to be played. We now know that Brazil will open with a game in Chile, and complete their schedule with a home game against the same opponents. Argentina will play host to Brazil in round 3, which will be in November this year and the return will be in round 11. The top four go through, while the 5th place gets to play the team from Oceania.
The North, Central and Caribbean American section is the most advanced, with 17 of the 35 teams in the Confederation being knocked out in two knock out rounds already played. A further six fall in the third round, played late August and early September. Included in this round is Jamaica, finalists in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (the final is on the same day as I write these notes). The ranking points for reaching the final are not added until too late for this draw. Jamaica have draw Nicaragua, and there is little to comment on in the other games. Expect Canada, El Salvador, Haiti and Jamaica to go through. I am less certain about Guatemala v Antigua and Barbuda, or Aruba v St. Vincent and the Grenadines – but I suspect that the FIFA seedings (which are based on the rankings before the qualification started) are right in picking Guatemala and Aruba to carry on.
The winners of the six games, go into three groups of four along with six teams exempt from the knock out rounds. At this stage, it would be a major surprise if the highest seeds, Mexico, Costa Rica and USA do not breeze through, but any of the second seeds, Honduras (with Mexico in Group A), Panama (with Costa Rica in Group B) or Trinidad and Tobago (with USA in Group C) could fall to an improving form team from the knock out rounds.
Two teams from each group of four go through to a final series – a singular group of six with three places directly up to grabs, and that match against the last survivor from Asia for the others.
Africa is the only confederation with no style of play-off. When it reaches group stage, the winners of the five groups (each of four teams) will qualify for the finals. Of course, five groups of four only requires 20 teams, and the CAF has 54 nations. One of these, Zimbabwe had their entry removed, thanks to being suspended by FIFA. That means 33 teams will drop out in two rounds of knock out games in October and November this year.
The draw is highly seeded, meaning that not only do the “top 20” avoid each other, but all of the “top 13” get to play a second round against the weaker states who played in the first round. Nothing really catches the eye in the first round games, but three second round games do.
Angola v South Africa. Angola have qualified once before, in 2006, while South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. South Africa are the seeded team, but this will be close.
Togo v Uganda. Uganda are seeded to beat Togo, who like Angola made it the German World Cup in 2006. Another close run game.
Morocco v Equatorial Guinea. Morocco have been to the finals four times, but none since 1998. Equatorial Guinea are the seeded team, but this appears to be mainly thanks to performances in the 2012 and 2015 African Cups of Nations. IN the first they were joint hosts, while for the second they stepped in as hosts at short notice. I expect Morocco to defy seeding and go through.
The European draws were always going to grab the headlines, despite no games taking place until September next year. If in the UK, the England v Scotland line up draws the eye, it is other groups that should do so. The recent surprise form of teams such as Wales, added to France not picking up many ranking points as they play only friendlies, while everyone else tries to qualify for Euro 2016 means that France and Italy both found themselves in the second group of seeds. With UEFA insisting these two play in groups of six in order to maximise their matches for TV, (52 teams in qualifying means seven groups of six, with two of five), they had an enhanced risk drawing against England, Germany, Spain or the Netherlands (who are also constrained to the six team groups). And it came to pass, with France in the same group as the Netherlands, and Spain playing Italy.
Group A features a third strong team in the form of Sweden, while Bulgaria may well be able to pick up the odd point to disturb the equilibrium. With one of the nine group runners-up missing out on play-offs, this is more likely to be a team from a close group, rather than one where the best two teams run away with the competition, except for points off each other. At least in group A, Belarus and Luxembourg are unlikely to take many points off the top three.
Groups B and C are more straight forward, the top seeds of Portugal and Germany should find a clear route with the second seeds, Switzerland and Czech Republic also expecting to come in as seeded. In Group B, none of Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia or Andorra are likely lads, while group C has Northern Ireland as third seed, but I think fourth seed Norway may finish above them and are more likely to nick points from the teams above them. San Marino hold no fear for anyone, and Azerbaijan have yet to see much progress from significant investments in their football infrastructure. Keep an eye open to see if they have any interesting naturalised players.
Both groups D and E appear relatively weak, but Group D in particular is another one where points may well be taken off each other. Wales are top seeds, Austria second, Serbia third and the republic of Ireland fourth. I do not believe Wales can win the group despite their recent good results, which makes this section wide open. Moldova and Georgia should get few points between them though. In group E, I suspect there is little to choose between Romania, Denmark and Poland, but the Romanians do have a habit of doing well in qualification. Montenegro, Armenia and Kazakhstan make up the group. None of these should present a problem on the field, but it does add to the logistics of anyone trying to see all their teams games. Missing Group F for the moment, we come across the other TV schedulers dream, Spain v Italy. At least in Group G, this pair should comfortably take the top two places, so the second team should get a play off position. Albania and Israel can both take the occasional good point without getting through, Macedonia and Liechtenstein should be able to present easy points.
Belgium will be more than happy with their draw, in a five team group with Bosnia, Greece, Estonia and Cyprus, but the other five team group is far more open, with Croatia seeded but playing Ukraine as third seed, and Turkey as fourth. These are both teams that can cause an upset. Second seed Iceland may well be above their station, while Finland may not be the whopping boys that other fifth seeds are.
Finally Group F. England are top seeds, with both Slovakia and Slovenia in the group. The only care is that supporters travelling need to know when to go to Bratislava and when to head to Ljubljana. Members of the Scottish Diaspora in England should already be applying for FAN numbers from the English FA in order to apply for their tickets in November next year. Lithuania and Malta make up one of the less exciting groups.
Even with the seeding, competition draws never produce completely even matches, but this draw in Europe highlights the difference between the FIFA seeding and other ranks, and may push FIFA to once again reconsider if they have it correct. It is one thing to produce a ranking that moves teams up and down the tables quickly, producing headlines either way, but it is another to use it in seeding tournaments and reducing the chances of some of the World’s best teams reaching a major finals tournament.
From FIFA’s point of view, pot one contained the top nine European teams, pot 2 the next 9, etc., so if we add the ranking positions of the top four in each group, we could theoretically get numbers between 58 and 90 as the totals, with a mean of 74. Now lets try the exercise comparing the ELO ratings, instead of FIFA rankings for the top four in each group. (I have made allowances for teams not in the draw, on the Elo ratings page http://www.eloratings.net/europe.html ). I have chosen the top four from each group as the fifth and sixth seeds tend to be poor any every ranking system. I could have easily chosen three (FIFA totals would be between 30 and 54 with a mean of 42), and so I show these in brackets.
Group A – 48 (18): Netherland 2, France 5, Sweden 11, Bulgaria 30
Group B – 92 (44): Portugal 6, Switzerland 12, Hungary 26, Faroes 48
Group C – 84 (53): Germany 1, Czech 16, Northern Ireland 36, Norway 31
Group D – 83 (62): Wales 24, Austria 17, Serbia 21, Ireland 21 (the latter two being tied in the Elo ratings)
Group E – 78 (45): Romania 14, Denmark 13, Poland 18, Montenegro 33
Group F – 66 (38): England 4, Slovakia 15, Scotland 19, Slovenia 28
Group G – 74 (43): Spain 3, Italy 8, Albania 32, Israel 31
Group H – 91 (53): Belgium 7, Bosnia 19, Greece 27, Estonia 38
Group I – 67 (44): Croatia 9, Iceland 25, Ukraine 10, Turkey 23
No one can claim the ELO ratings are without fault, but the comparison between the two demonstrates that FIFA may have a problem with their rankings. It seems to me that this goes to add fuel to my feelings that Group A is very strong. Group G has two strong teams, but little completion to them. England’s task may not be as easy as some think, while Group I is certainly close to call.
The other point is that before the matches get under way, we have a number of rounds of Euro qualifying, and of course the 2016 finals in France. The rankings could look very different when we get under way next September