But what are their chances of winning? In short, terrible. The sports books have deemed Ivory Coast to have the best odds at 125/1, and Algeria face some of the longest odds in the tournament at 1500/1. These long odds are nothing new: an African team has never advanced past the quarter-finals.
This seems odd, since there are plenty of Africans playing soccer at the highest levels. For instance, the 25 best clubs in Europe (according to UEFA’s Club Coefficient) have 43 African players, whose nationalities are concentrated to a handful of countries. Yet there are a variety of reasons why African nations have fared poorly in World Cup showings, including poor youth development and unpopular domestic leagues, among other things. However, most of these problems require a great deal of time and even more money to fix. That said, there is one thing that CAF (Africa’s soccer confederation) could do to almost immediately improve its members’ future World Cup chances: change the qualifying format.
For the current World Cup cycle, CAF has been awarded 5 spots. How CAF decides to allocate these spots, however, is left completely up to them. Here is what CAF decided to do:
· Sort member nations according to their FIFA Ranking from 1 to 52. Award nations 1-28 a bye to the second round.
· First Round: Pair off nations 29-52 into 12 fixtures, which are to be decided in a two-game aggregate series. Winners advance to the second round.
· Second Round: Place 28 nations with byes and 12 round one winners into 10 groups of four nations each, taking FIFA ranking into account. Each group is a double round-robin. Winner of each group advances to third round.
· Third Round: Taking FIFA ranking into account, pair off 10 group winners into five fixtures. Which are to be decided in a two-game aggregate series. Five winners qualify for World Cup.
While exciting, this is not a system that is meant to ensure that the five best nations qualify for the World Cup. Almost every other continental confederation uses a more forgiving system, in which group stages, not two-game playoffs decide the final qualifiers, and rarely must a nation win a group outright to advance.
Unlike in other confederations, CAF qualifying is high stakes at every stage. In the second round, only one team from each group advances, so one slip up can end a nation’s world cup hosts. And the third round is even riskier, with the opponent you draw being of the utmost importance.
Granted, CAF’s qualifying system makes sense if two statements hold true:
1. FIFA Rankings are meaningful, and
2. Soccer is a game in which the better team almost always wins, i.e. there is little randomness
Unfortunately, neither of these claims hold up under much scrutiny. FIFA Rankings serve as vague barometers of a nation’s ability, but nations have far too few common opponents or competitive matches in general for the ranking to have any kind of precise predictive power. Soccer is also a sport with a great deal of randomness. This is why top European leagues, such as the English Premier League or the Spanish La Liga crown champions only after clubs have played 38 games, giving the title to the team with the best overall record. It takes time to separate the best from the rest, so placing teams such as Cameroon (ranked 50th worldwide), Algeria (52), and Tunisia (55) into small groups with Gabon (60), Libya (T-63), and Morocco (T-63) and only allowing one team to advance seems like a foolish way to try to determine the highest quality nations.
A lower stakes model with two group stages, like the one used by in Asian qualifying, would provide a decent solution. For example, the first couple of rounds could use two-game series to whittle the competition down to 24 nations (there are far fewer than 24 legitimate contenders for the final spots, so giving the 16 highest-ranked teams byes and letting the rest fight it out is a low-risk solution that makes things quick). Separate the 24 remaining countries into four groups of six teams each. Advance two teams from each group, and in the final round, split the 8 remaining nations into two groups of four, with two nations from each group qualifying for the World Cup. The fifth spot would go to the winner of a play-off between the third-place team from each group.
This scenario allows the top teams to play more games, allowing a higher margin for error. One bad day from a star striker or one single howler from a keeper will not eliminate a team from contention like it would in the current system. If CAF wants its nations to succeed at the World Cup, it needs to ensure that it is sending its best possible squads. Changing how those squads are selected is a good first step.