It is unclear how the qualification groups were decided prior to the introduction of performance related indicators like the FIFA World ranking. However, looking at the 1974 and 1978 qualification groups I would suggest that participation in the previous World Cup was probably used to decide the top seeds in the 1970s as the European teams taking part in both 1970 and 1974 were all kept apart in the subsequent qualification series.
Not only that but the World Cup qualifying draw only involved the best and the worst European teams being seeded and therefore unbalanced groups were made much more likely. This combination of potentially unfair seeding and limited qualification places discussed in part one led to a lot of major nations missing out on the World Cup, often by little more than failing to win a crucial match.
For example, 1966 World Cup semi-finalists Portugal and 1968 European Championship finalists Yugoslavia failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. In 1974, England, Hungary, the Soviet Union and Spain were notable for their absence. Four years later England again missed out along with 1976 European champions Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
I have used the ELO ratings from 1972 and 1976 (ie roughly when qualification began) to see just how big an effect the draw method had in eliminating the better European teams from the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978.
So, of the 12 highest ranked European teams who had to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, only four of them managed to make it to West Germany. If this was the case now, only four of Spain, Germany, England, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Russia, France, Croatia, Switzerland and Greece would make it to Rio de Janeiro in two years’ time. It is also perhaps interesting to note how the best European nations have changed in the intervening 38 years with only six appearing in the best teams in 1974 and 2012. It was a similar story four years later.
Only half of the top 12 European teams who had to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, made it to Argentina. England were again particularly unlucky when it came to the draw as there was just one place up for grabs between them and the world’s seventh best team Italy. Compare this to Sweden and France’s groups where none of the teams were ranked in the best 13 countries in Europe on the ELO ratings.
In fact England had a very unlucky time in the 1970s which they began as the world’s best team according to the ELO method. At the World Cup in Mexico, England were drawn in a group with Brazil who were then ranked second in the world and having finished as group runners-up after a tight 1-0 defeat by the Brazilians, England then had to play the third best team in the world at that stage, West Germany. Two years later, England again met the West Germans – the only European team ranked above them in 1972 – in the final qualifying match for Euro 72. Then came the qualifying group for 1974 in which England, the highest ranked team needing to qualify were paired with Poland who were the world’s fourth best team at that stage. It was only in 1977 that England finally dropped out of the world’s best five teams despite failing to qualify for two World Cups.
The addition of four extra places for Europe with the expansion of the 1982 World Cup made things better but there were still some odd qualification groups like the one which contained 1974 and 1978 World Cup runners-up the Netherlands, 1980 European Championship finalists Belgium, eventual 1982 World Cup semi-finalists France and the Republic of Ireland who were no pushovers in those days. Unsurprisingly every team in that group lost at least two matches and the group ended with just two points covering the top four and Belgium and France qualifying for the final tournament.
Nowadays the FIFA rankings are used to decide the seedings and thus deliver relatively balanced groups in qualification. This is a huge step forward from where things used to be in a time when at least half of the best European teams were unable to qualify, often through nothing more than bad luck.