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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Allocating World Cup slots: Is there a better way?

This is the title of a Planet World Cup article written by Paul Marcuccitti (he's Australian by the way) in 2007.

Paul also suggested in 2004 to include the OFC winner(s) in AFC's final qualifying round. It sort of happened in 2006 (more about it in this post).

Now, let's see what Paul's system is about:

Use a points system to determine each confederation’s allocation. Then confederations can gain or lose points through both intercontinental playoffs and the World Cup finals. It doesn’t need to be a complicated formula.

Each confederation’s starting points should be based on the current allocation of places (not including the host nation). So UEFA starts with 13 points, CONCACAF starts with 3.5, etc.

When a confederation loses an intercontinental playoff, it should lose 0.2 points for the next World Cup cycle while the winning confederation gains 0.2. Then the World Cup finals should also rank confederations against each other and the two best confederations would gain points (0.4 for best and 0.3 for next best) while the two worst would lose (0.4 for worst and 0.3 for next worst). The confederations’ new totals would then determine the allocation of slots for the next World Cup.

So how do we rank confederations’ World Cup finals performances against each other?

There needs to be only one criterion for determining this ranking: what percentage of a confederation’s teams finished bottom of their groups.

Whenever the debate over allocation of slots rears its head, media tend to focus on how many teams (from each confederation) reach the Second Round. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Only the weakest links count because this is effectively an exercise in promotion and relegation.

Let's apply the Marcuccitti system to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Bottom teams:

UEFA: France, Serbia, Italy
CAF: Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon
CONCACAF: Honduras

Column order:

  • Confederation
  • 2010 allocation
  • 2010 number of teams
  • 2010 number of bottom teams
  • Performance correction
  • Intercontinental playoffs correction
  • Adjusted values
  • Rounded values (with host moved to CONMEBOL)
UEFA 13 13 3 23.08 0 0 13 13
CONMEBOL 4.5 5 0 0 0.4 0.2 5.1 6
CAF 6 6 3 50 -0.4 0 5.6 4.5
CONCACAF 3.5 3 1 33.33 -0.3 -0.2 3 3
AFC+OFC 5 5 1 20 0.3 0 5.3 5.5

Thus, the allocation for 2014 would be:

UEFA: 13
CONMEBOL: 6 (including hosts Brazil)
CAF: 4.5
AFC+OFC: 5.5

I applied the Marcuccitti system to the the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Here are the results:

1998 World Cup

Bottom teams

UEFA: Scotland, Bulgaria
CAF: Cameroon, Tunisia
AFC: Saudi Arabia, Korea Republic, Japan

UEFA 15 15 2 13.33 0.3 0 15.3 14.5
0 0.4 0 5.4 5.5
CAF 5 5 2 40 -0.3 0 4.7 4.5
CONCACAF 3 3 1 33.33 0 0 3 3
AFC+OFC 4 4 3 75 -0.4 0 3.6 4.5

Actually, CONMEBOL got 1 places less (4.5), with AFC(+OFC) and CAF getting 0.5 more.

2002 World Cup

Bottom teams

UEFA: France, Slovenia, Poland
AFC: China PR, Saudi Arabia
CAF: Nigeria, Tunisia

UEFA 14.5 15 3 20 0.2 0.15 14.85 16
CONMEBOL 4.5 5 1 20 0.2 0.15 4.85 5
CAF 5 5 2 40 0 -0.3 4.7 4.5
CONCACAF 3 3 0 0 0 0.4 3.4 3.5
AFC+OFC 5 4 2 50 -0.4 -0.4 4.2 3

Actually, UEFA got 2 places less (14), CONMEBOL 0.5 less (5), CAF 0.5 more (5) and AFC(+OFC) 2 more.

2006 World Cup

Bottom teams

CONCACAF: Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, USA
UEFA: Serbia and Montenegro
AFC: Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia
CAF: Togo

UEFA 14 15 1 6.67 0.3 0 14.3 13.5
CONMEBOL 4.5 4 0 0 0.4 -0.2 4.7 4.5
CAF 5 5 1 20 0 0 5 6
CONCACAF 3.5 4 3 75 -0.35 0.2 3.35 3.5
AFC+OFC 5 4 3 75 -0.35 0 4.65 4.5

UEFA got 0.5 less (13) with AFC(+OFC) getting 0.5 more.

Adding the differences between the actual allocations and those the Marcuccitti system came up with, UEFA had the most to lose over the last three World Cups:

UEFA: -2.5
CAF: +1

CONCACAF always received from FIFA the exact number of slots computed by the Marcuccitti system.

About me:

Christian, husband, father x 3, programmer, Romanian. Started the blog in March 2007. Quit in April 2018. You can find me on LinkedIn.


  1. A commenter here points out that the formula has a problem in that it's impossible for both Euro teams in a group to finish last -- there's an inherent Euro bias with that adjustment formula.

  2. Edgar,

    Paul writes about the percentage of teams from each confederation that finish in the "bottom" of their WC group -- where "bottom" means 4th place in the group.

    If we redefine "bottom" to mean the lower half (3rd or 4th), and keep everything else the same, what would the results look like?

  3. @ERic

    In 4 WCs with 32 teams it only happened twice.

    1998 - Spain and Bulgaria
    2002 - Portugal and Poland

    CAF: South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire
    UEFA: Greece, Slovenia, Denmark, Switzerland
    AFC: Australia, New Zealand

    Awarding 0.5 points for each team finishing 3rd in the group (as SpartanDan suggests), the allocations for 2014 would be:

    UEFA: 13
    CONMEBOL: 6 (including hosts Brazil)
    CAF: 4.5
    CONCACAF: 3.5
    AFC+OFC: 5


    Redefining bottom (basically awarding a full point instead of 0.5 as in my reply to ERic) would yield the same result: half place moving from CAF to CONMEBOL.

  4. The "bottom" thing can also be defined as "teams with less than 3 points". In this case the allocations would be:

    UEFA: 13.5
    CONMEBOL: 6 (including hosts Brazil)
    CAF: 4.5
    AFC+OFC: 5

    However, I'm 99% sure FIFA will never implement a clear formula for WC slots.

  5. After watching this world cup I would suggest the most fair allocation would be

    Europe - 16
    S.America - Brazil + 4
    N.America, Asia, Africa - 3.5 each
    Oceania - 0.5

    0.5 meaning final round of 4 teams from each confideration playing for last 2 places for WC

  6. i reckon it should be:

    Uefa- 13

    Concacaf - 4.5

    Conmebol- Brazil +4

    Afc - 4

    Ofc - 1.5

    Caf- 4

    ofc no.2 v concacaf no.5

  7. To avoid too much fighting back and forth about slots, why not just impliment more intercontinental playoff matches?

    For instance, all the runner-ups from the UEFA groups, heading for playoffs anyway, could each play an opponent from another continent?

    And in other confederations, you could have less direct qualifying slots, but then more teams going to intercontinental playoffs?

    That would by far be the most fair and competitive way to do it... But of course, then there's a risk of a confederation having very few participants. At least, you could then say that you had your chance to play your chance.

    An example of my suggestion could be (regarding the 2014 World Cup):

    DQ = direct qualification slots
    IC = intercontinental playoff slots

    Host: 1 DQ
    AFC: 2 DQ + 4 IC
    CAF: 3 DQ + 3 IC
    CONCACAF: 2 DQ + 4 IC
    CONMEBOL: 2 DQ + 3 IC
    OFC: 2 IC
    UEFA: 8 DQ + 8 IC

    TOTAL = 20 direct qualifiers + 24 IC playoff slots (meanning 12 playoff encounters).

    I know this is kind of extreme, and it could be organized in hundreds of ways with the slots (this is just a rough example), but then you would have a much more fair and sportive/competitive decision of the slots, plus you would get a lot of hyper intense encounters to decide the last (in this example 12) slots.

    I don't even see a problem in organizing the direct qualifiers and the ICP contestants with the present quali systems, besides the CAF maybe. In AFC, you just let the final round group winners qualify, whilst 2nd and 3rd placed teams go to the IC playoffs. CONCACAF will probably change to having a final round of two groups as well. Then in CAF, you could have 6 final groups, with the group winners in playoffs, and the losers go to IC playoffs. Or a 3 group final round with group winners qualifying and 2nd placed teams to playoffs.

    At the IC playoff draw, all teams are thrown into one pot, and only rule is that 2 teams from same confederation cannot play each other. OR, you could have some kind of seeding, which again I think would be unfair.

    Of course, you could end up having 6 slots for AFC and only 2 for CONCACAF. But at least you could then say, that you got the chance to play for your slots, but you just weren't good enough...

    And at the next WCQ, you get the chance to raise your amount of slots again. By WINNING football matches, not by bribing Sepp Blatter with the most expensive luxury treatment ;-)