Blueprint to salvage 2022 World Cup qualifying

Concacaf (3.5 slots, 16 dates) will have to likely start its World Cup qualifying matches by October 2020 if it is to get every game finished in time for the finals in Qatar in late 2022, according to a new blueprint for a post-coronavirus world.

Concacaf's current schedule is to begin World Cup qualifying -- including the six-team Hexagonal in which the USA will enter -- during the September 2020 window -- and finish everything but the intercontinental playoffs by October 2021.

The blueprint shows Concacaf requires 16 "FIFA Dates" to complete the qualification process in time for a 2022 kickoff in Qatar.

This is because the second tier of lower-seeded teams will need 12 dates for their six-home-and-away series -- three  in group play and three in the knockout round -- plus four playoff dates.

The top six seeded teams will need to play 10 matches in the Hexagonal -- five-home-and-away series -- plus four games in playoffs for a total of 14 games, so the Hex can start one window later than the second tier does.

FIFA's 10 windows (2020-22):
Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 2020 (2 games)
Oct. 5-13, 2020  (2 games)
Nov. 9-17, 2020  (2 games)
March 22-30, 2021  (2 games)
May 31-June 8, 2021  (2 games)
Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021  (2 games)
Oct. 4-12, 2021  (2 games)
Nov. 8-16, 2021  (2 games)
March 21-29, 2022  (2 games)
May 30-June 14, 2022  (4 games)

According to current rankings, due to be updated in June, the top seeded teams set to qualify for the Hexagonal are Mexico, the USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador.

The top three teams in the group will qualify for the 2022 World Cup and the fourth-place team will enter a playoff against the winner of the lower-tier -- the 29 teams ranked from 7-35, who are split into eight groups before entering a knockout stage.

The remaining dates are taken up with intercontinental home-and-away playoffs, which will need to take place during the first two dates in June 2022 and involve the winner of the Concacaf playoff.

Concacaf's current schedule is set up for the second tier to play the semifinal round of its knockout stage in June 2020 while the Hexagonal is off. That gives Concacaf another extra window into which it might move Hexagonal matches if necessary.

But Concacaf's problem is on the back end -- it needs dates in March and June 2022 for the start of its second Nations League tournament. It will also still have to find dates to complete the postponed 2020 Nations League (slated to be played in Texas) and qualifying for the 2021 Gold Cup (dates: July 2-25, 2021).

A global shutdown of football by the Covid-19 virus has played havoc with fixture schedules both on the international stage and at the domestic level.

The World Cup qualification plan is based on a study of the calendar of FIFA’s "fixed dates for International matches," or "FIFA Dates" when domestic leagues are supposed to be suspended and clubs are required to release players.

Despite the coronavirus shutdown, it's still possible for the Concacaf calendar to be completed in full because FIFA has moved the Qatar World Cup to the late fall of 2022 -- Nov. 21-Dec. 18 -- to avoid the searing summer heat in the Gulf.

Ironically, what was criticized at the time as an unwelcome disruption to the fixture lists of the European leagues has now proved a blessing – buying everyone an extra six months to finish World Cup qualifiers.

Under the new timetable, the world’s six confederations have different deadlines from when they would have to restart the qualifiers, ranging from September 2020 to March 2021.

UEFA (13 slots, 12 dates). Europe, for example, has just 12 "FIFA dates" and does not have to start its qualification matches for another year.

Given that the European countries have been some of the hardest hit by Covid-19, it’s fortunate they do not have to start playing qualifiers until March 2021. UEFA is also able to fit in the 24-team Euros next summer, after they were postponed this year. (The June 2021 window will be blocked out for the Euros.)

Under its plan, UEFA would finish its 10 qualifying matches by March 2022, and use the two "FIFA dates" in June 2022 for playoffs with 12 nations involved in one-legged two-stage series to produce the final three qualifiers. (Right now, the June 2022 window of four dates is reserved for the first four games in the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League group stage.)

Under this scenario, UEFA would still be able to stage the 2020-21 Nations League group stage in September, October and November 2020 – if there is sufficient recovery from the virus by then.

Conmebol (4.5 slots, 20 dates). The South American confederation must re-start in September 2020 if it is to finish 18 rounds of home-and-away matches by the end of March 2022.

This would still leave room for the Copa America in June 2021 -- but after playing qualifiers on June 3 and June 8 -- and the international playoffs involving its fifth-place team during the first two FIFA dates of June 2022.

AFC (4.5 slots + host Qatar, 18 dates). The Asian Football Confederation will need 18 match dates to finish qualifying. (It was six games into the second round when the four remaining dates scheduled for March and June were postponed.)

These will have to start in October 2020 if the AFC is to get through its second and third (final) group stages by November 2021, in time for continental and intercontinental playoffs from March-June 2022.”

OFC (0.5 slot, format yet to be confirmed). The Oceania Football Confederation, which includes New Zealand and 10 other full members from the Pacific islands, can easily handle staging its whole qualification process between March 2021 and March 2022.

CAF (5 slots, 8 dates). The Confederation of African Football, with just eight FIFA dates needed, has the most time to schedule its qualifying tournament. (It already held the first round of qualifying in September 2019, eliminating 14 teams).

If it starts its qualifiers in March 2021, CAF can finish the six-round group stage by October 2021, with the two November 2021 FIFA dates for its five home-and-away final qualifiers.

Football sources pointed out that if FIFA is able to stick to this timetable it will safeguard each confederation’s revenues. But it does rely on the domestic leagues being up and running by then as, otherwise, there could be no international football.

One source said: "These qualifying formats maximize each confederation’s and its member association’s marketing and TV revenues. So while clubs and leagues are facing many dilemmas, including possible revenue hits, international competition can avoid a financial hit, as long as international football can resume in September or October."

He added that "had the World Cup been in June-July 2022, a change in qualifying format and consequently reduction of games and revenues for confederations would have been inevitable.’

If international soccer cannot resume by autumn, a change of format would still be needed, possibly involving bringing countries together for a period of two weeks for mini-tournaments, he said.

If playoffs are switched to June 2022, FIFA can still proceed with the finals’ draw in April 2022 or it could wait until the other five nations -- three from UEFA and two from the intercontinental playoffs -- have qualified for the finals after the first two FIFA dates of June 2020.

Five months between the draw and finals would give teams time to prepare and for the 2022 World Cup's media hype to create momentum and build interest for the finals.

3 comments about "Blueprint to salvage 2022 World Cup qualifying".
  1. beautiful game, April 9, 2020 at 9:27 a.m.

    WC2022, bought and paid for by FIFA and Qatar; amen.

  2. Bob Ashpole, April 9, 2020 at 8:48 p.m.

    I thought that Qatar was moving to the winter instead of the traditional summer dates?

  3. R2 Dad, April 10, 2020 at 2:45 a.m.

    What about the movement to push for more teams (as scheduled for 2026) into the 2022 WC as well? That was a thing at some point, and could simplify qualifying because almost everyone would go. 64 teams...or 48? Maybe it just seemed like 128.

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