World Cup 2022 qualifying will likely be delayed, raising more questions than answers in Concacaf

Concacaf president Victor Montagliani conceded in a conference call on Monday that the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying in September will likely be delayed and his organization has more questions than answers about what comes next.

Concacaf is slated to use the next six dates of FIFA international calendar to complete the new two-tiered format -- all but the June 2021 window for the six-team Hexagonal to complete 10 games and all six windows during which the confederation's other 29 teams will compete, first in eight groups that will require three windows and then in the three-round knockout phase that will require three more windows.

Concacaf is scheduled to hold the playoff between the fourth-place team in the upper-tier Hexagonal and the winner of the lower-tier final in the October 2021 window. That Concacaf winner will enter the intercontinental playoffs scheduled for March 2022.

Concacaf calendar (2020-22):
Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 2020 (WCQ upper and lower)
Oct. 5-13, 2020  (WCQ upper and lower)
Nov. 9-17, 2020  (WCQ upper and lower)
March 22-30, 2021 (WCQ upper and lower)
May 31-June 8, 2021 (WCQ lower)
July 2-25, 2021 (Gold Cup finals)
Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021  (WCQ upper and lower)
Oct. 4-12, 2021 (WCQ Concacaf playoff)
Nov. 8-16, 2021 (open window)
March 21-29, 2022 (WCQ Intercontinental playoff)

Concacaf also must complete the 2020 Concacaf Nations League -- the semifinals and finals were scheduled to be played in June in Texas -- and finish qualifying for the 2021 Gold Cup -- for which two home-and-away rounds were slated to narrow 12 teams down to four that will join the 12 teams already qualified.

All this leaves Concacaf needing all eight windows, as currently scheduled by FIFA, from October 2020 to March 2022 after which FIFA is slated to hold the World Cup 2022 draw.

If a format change is necessary, Montagliani says it's for the good of all 41 federations (35 FIFA members, plus six associate members who aren't eligible to play in the World Cup but are involved in Gold Cup qualifying).

"My responsibility is not just for the top six, or the bottom six, or the middle six, it's for all," he said. "So we need to be cognizant that we need to try to in some form or other get everything done and if the format needs to change then it needs to change."

And Montagliani added the postponements that wiped out the March and June 2020 windows bring up "a little bit of an integrity issue when teams haven't been able to play" -- he hails from Canada, which currently sits in seventh place in Concacaf's FIFA rankings to be used to determine the six Hexagonal entrants -- and any change in format will have be done from "a sporting standpoint."

Montagliani admitted that all things being equal, "having us playing in September is not very high, even sitting here in April.”

Montagliani said the most important consideration has to be the public's health and any decision for soccer to return will be made "when the health authorities say that we're in a positioned to have it come back." That restart will likely happen without fans in the stands.

"I think it's unrealistic to think that you get the green flag," he said, "and all of a sudden, we're all rushing into an arena here watching matches or concerts or whatever public entertainment we're talking about/ I think it's going to be a phased-in approach. I think that would be a prudent way to do it. And I think the likelihood of the first matches being behind with no fans is probably high."

International competition like World Cup qualifying adds a complicating factor of determining "what is realistic in terms of allowing 40 people to jump on some form of transportation to go across an international border to play a football match."

There is some flexibility in the international calendar, as Soccer America's Anthony Harwood recently reported, if play can't resume in September.

Concacaf isn't the only confederation needing to figure out how it will complete its schedule not is in in the worst shape.

-- Conmebol (South America) needs 10 windows with only nine now available: nine for its marathon qualifying tournament, plus one for the intercontinental playoffs.
-- The AFC (Asia) needs all nine windows to complete qualifying: eight for qualifying -- including two windows that have been postponed -- plus one for the intercontinental playoffs.
-- UEFA (Europe) needs only six windows: five for qualifying  plus one for its playoffs series that will produce its final three qualifiers. But UEFA will also want to play its 2020-21 Nations League over four windows and start its 2022-23 Nations League in 2022.

FIFA has one backup that all confederations will be looking at to salvage qualifying with or without any more cancellation of windows. The June 2022 window -- still five months away from the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar -- could be used to finish qualifying, and it extends over 16 days, creating what is in effect a double window to play for games.

FIFA could postpone the World Cup draw until after the June 2022 window or hold it in April 2022 and leave five place-holders for the five slots to be decided in playoffs during the June 2022 window. (One problem: UEFA wants to use the June window to play the first four of six group games in the 2022--23 Nations League.)

Concacaf has a few other options:

-- It could move Hexagonal games into the June 2021 window -- like has been done in past qualifying cycles -- and reduce the lower-tier competition by one window by making moving the semifinals and final to a single window, hosted by one of the participants or at a neutral site.

-- It could move the Nations Cup final four and reduce the remainder of 2021 Gold Cup qualifying to a single games and play them over a weekend outside a FIFA window. (Concacaf finished 2017 Gold Cup qualifying in January 2017 in that format outside a FIFA window.)

Those changes would allow Concacaf to complete World Cup qualifying in seven windows, starting in March 2021 and extending into June 2022 with the intercontinental playoffs.

Concacaf's dilemma:

-- Like UEFA, it needs to look ahead to the next Nations League, which would serve as qualifying for the 2023 Gold Cup. It would need the double June window and the late September window -- the only window in the fall of 2022 -- to complete group play. The one team affected -- the representative in the intercontinental playoffs -- would have to play the two legs of the intercontinental playoffs and then two Nation League games over the 16-day June 2022 window.

Montagliani will have a big say in what happens worldwide. He chairs the powerful FIFA Stakeholders Committee that will have to address all the calendar issues national teams and clubs face.

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