How World Cup qualification has become fairer (Part 1)

Last month I looked at how holding the World Cup qualifying draw 13 months before the first ball was kicked in the European section has led to changes in the balance of groups from which some teams have benefitted and others have suffered. However, when it comes to the qualifying competition, things have improved a great deal from the way they used to be.

There is a lot of criticism of the organisation of World Cup qualification these days, focusing on factors like the seeding system, the presence of so many minnows, and the seeding of the play-offs to name but three. By looking at the World Cups of the 1970s, I hope to show that the situation is far fairer than it was then with the better European nations no longer missing out on their place in the World Cup finals.

Prior to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Europe was generally awarded just nine places in the World Cup finals. Given that there was usually only one qualification place from a group, the chances of failure for countries who should really have been there was much higher than would be the case now. Firstly, luck played a part in the draw as England discovered in 1973 when they were knocked out by Poland who later finished third at the 1974 World Cup. Secondly bad luck in a single inopportune match could ruin a team’s qualification hopes. This also happened to England against Poland as I will investigate in an article prior to the match between the two countries next week. The fact is that both England and Poland should have been present in 1974 as they were ranked third and fourth in the world throughout the qualification series.

Both the luck of the draw and the effect of bad luck in a single match were magnified by the fact the qualifying groups prior to 1982 usually had just four teams in them and sometimes even three which meant that a team played very few matches. In 1974 for example, four groups contained just three teams and three of those were so tight that they were decided on the result of a single match. Even in the four team groups, qualification was decided by the result of a single match in three cases. In one of those, a referee’s decision in favour of the Netherlands sent the Dutch to the 1974 World Cup at the expense of Belgium who hadn’t conceded a single goal in their six qualification matches.

Things were not quite as tight in the 1978 qualification groups in Europe but England were effectively eliminated by Italy because they hadn’t beaten Finland at Wembley by quite as many goals as Italy had done so in their home fixture against the Finns.

There were also single match play-offs on neutral ground for World Cup places in those days too, generally when two teams had finished level on points at the top of their group. Czechoslovakia (1970), Sweden and Yugoslavia (both 1974) all qualified for World Cups in the 1970s in this fashion with Hungary, Austria and Spain unluckily missing out.

So, limited qualification places and small numbers of qualifying matches often led to tight groups being decided on single matches or even single incidents during the 1970s. This brought the role of luck in as a major factor in qualification but there were other reasons why many of the best teams missed out on one of Europe’s nine spots at the World Cup.

In part two, I will look at how the qualifying groups were decided in those days, a system which has been massively improved over the years and now generally provides far more balanced groups than existed in the past.

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