Why Africa should change format: 2006 campaign produced new representatives because it was more inclusive
Caf needs to adopt South American system.
In a few days, the Fifa World Cup qualifying matches will end and a complete line-up for Russia 2018 will be known.
Africa will have five teams at the 2018 tournament and will maintain the same number at the 2022 edition before the proposed increase of teams to nine at the 2026 edition.
With Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal having already qualified for next year’s finals there will be no debut qualification from Africa.
Yet it is illustrative that whilst the qualifying competition was ending at least seven months from the showpiece event, more than half the African countries had already been knocked out even before the group stage matches took place.
Kenya was predictably among those nations that exited the qualifying tournament three years before group stages. Cape Verde knocked out Kenya on November 17, 2015 after shambolic travel arrangements cost the team holding a slender home lead to lose 2-1 on goal aggregate.
For a tournament that prides itself as the world’s greatest event with the widest entries of any sport, the World Cup is nonetheless turning out to be an exclusive club of the big boys of African football with the smaller nations not even getting closer to fully participating in the qualifiers.
This seems to be down to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) itself, who determine the qualifying format adopted for each edition of the World Cup tournament.
In its decision reached at its Executive Committee meeting on January 14, 2015, CAF decided to have three rounds of qualifying whose import was to whittle down the 54 entrants to the tournament into 20 teams that would play in five groups of four teams with group winners qualifying.
An undesirable situation was created that left a massive 34 teams excluded 940 days before the finals.
This exclusion of the majority means the players in those countries lost out on many opportunities to have more caps and more goals for their countries in competitive fixtures.
Michael Olunga, who has scored two goals for Kenya in the World Cup qualifiers, only needs two more goals to be the third in all-time scoring for the national team in the qualifiers.
Such players would appreciate that the periods between the end of one qualifying period to another can stretch to almost four years and with it a shift in form and other preponderables and vicissitudes of life such as injury.
South America format
The South American confederation CONMEBOL has done better than Africa as it had its ten nations playing in one group and each team played 18 matches with the fifth-placed team going to a playoff. In effect, their teams play 20 matches before getting to the World Cup.
These teams, therefore, get to play each other and thus one can measure the strength of the teams evenly across the continent.
It is also worth noting that in its qualifying attempts for 12 World Cups, Kenya has yet to meet some nations such as South Africa, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire or Senegal.
Yet, probably due to the penchant to classify countries within certain zones in Africa, Kenya has during its 68 World Cup qualifying matches met Nigeria, Malawi and Guinea eight times each. This lack of diversification is also troubling.
Smaller nations should arise and support the need for reform of the qualifying format for the World Cup. With better travel and easier movement of teams across the continent, it is baffling that Caf sees no need to broaden participation rather than stifle it.
Indeed, the last time that Caf tried to have broader groups was in the qualifying for the 2006 World Cup when 30 teams in five groups of six teams each played in the final round. There were still 21 one nations that had to be knocked out to get to this number.
Indeed, at the end of the qualification period Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Angola which had never qualified for the World Cup before debuted at the quadrennial finals.
Without this being done, there will just be a smaller group of privileged teams that would always qualify and the spread of football across the continent would not be felt.
Bigger nations should also support this proposal as they, too, can have an added advantage of spreading out their point picking during the qualifiers and not merely rise to the occasion when meeting other bigger nations.
There should be no problem with having 50 nations playing qualifiers in five groups of 10 teams each for the 2022 World Cup and 54 nations playing qualifiers in nine groups of six teams each for the 2026 World Cup without the obsession of elimination rounds.
The ball is squarely in the court of the federations including Football Kenya Federation to do the best for our nation and its players.
Murunga is a former Deputy Secretary General of AFC Leopards
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