Is it time to scrap the inter-continental play-off?

As far as anti-climax go, Uruguay’s win in Jordan yesterday won’t be beaten for a very long time, well until the next World Cup play-off, that is.

With the return leg still to be played, Luis Suarez & Co. are technically still not qualified for this summer’s World Cup, even though their place in Brazil had been sealed the moment they finished fifth in the South American pool.

As much as football loves an underdog, the play-off between the fifth ranked team in the South American team and their Asian counterpart is a pantomime of epic proportions, whose only purpose is to add a touch farce to the qualifying process.

Four teams qualify automatically from South America – five this year, given Brazil’s status as host country – with the same amount of teams from the AFC inexplicably granted the same status.

That FIFA and common sense occupy two different worlds, is long been established, but the technicalities behind the qualifying process are absolutely ludicrous, particularly considering that the current farce derived from what was, originally, an inspired decision.

Tired of seeing Australia running the risk of not reaching the World Cup despite winning every game in their group, FIFA decided to rewrite geography, thus moving the Socceroos into the Asian pool and sparing them the prospect of facing a top South American side in the play-off.

The decision, theoretically at least, was set to benefit all the parties involved.

Australia would get to face much more competitive sides than the one they routinely thrash in Oceania’s qualifying group but, given the way the AFC’s qualifying process is structured, the risk of them missing out on the World Cup was comprehensively toned down.

The first top two teams of the AFC’s two groups go straight through to the final phase of a World Cup, while the teams that finish third in both groups face each other in a play-off, before the winner goes on to play the fifth-placed team of the South American pool.

So far, so good, one might think.

Except that the system means that while the likes of Uruguay and Chile can miss out from a play-off spot altogether when the World Cup isn’t organised by a South American country, the likes of Jordan and Uzbekistan are awarded the chance of a playing a play-off, as FIFA insists to consider Asian teams as competitive as their African counterparts.

The farce is complete as the Asian team reaching the play-off has virtually no hopes whatsoever of progressing to the World Cup.

With Japan, Australia and South Korea all but guaranteed one of the three automatic spots, one between Saudia Arabia and Iran normally gets the coveted fourth spot, with the other, technically, a strong favourite to reach the intercontinental play-off.

Unfortunately, more or less suspicious upsets aren’t so uncommon in AFC’s matches that don’t involve any of the big three, meaning that a team like Jordan can then go toe-to-toe with the likes of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, a bit like a Sunday league team taking on Real Madrid.

The World Cup is football’s most important tournament because it includes the world’s best, rather than because it is the more geographically varied and FIFA have done very little to ensure the tournament remains as competitive as possible.

If football’s governing body wanted to include an underdog from a “non footballing are”, why not pair the winners of the OFC with the winner of the AFC’s play-off as they did when Australia faced Iran ahead of the 1998 World Cup?

Surely a two-legged tie between New Zealand and, say, Saudi Arabia or Oman, would be a lot more balanced than Uruguay vs Jordan and would also give the Kiwis a better chance of reaching the World Cup than the current system, which sees them pitted against the third-placed team in the Central American pool.

Either that, or simply award New Zealand – or whoever the winners of the OFC’s pool migt be –  the right to automatic qualification, as it already happens with the winners of each continental pool.

Football might be the world game, but the quality is far from being evenly spread across the globe and there’s nothing FIFA can do about it.

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