The Absurdness Of The African World Cup Qualifying Draw

This is really nothing though compared to Sunil late night.

This is really nothing though compared to Sunil late night.

Author Steve Fenn is just as perplexed as you…and Bob.

On Monday, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) held the draw for their final round of World Cup Qualification. In the preceding 26 months, the CAF had presided over 144 matches in which these 10 nations had outlasted their 42 continental rivals. Actually, in Tunisia’s case they didn’t entirely outlast them all, because they had apparently been eliminated by Cape Verde days before. But Cape Verde was found guilty of using an ineligible player in that decisive group stage match, so the Tunisians advanced, but without the coach who quit after losing to Cape Verde.


Welcome to Africa, the continent whose World Cup Qualification format makes the FIFA general assembly seem as organized as a German auto factory, and whose qualifying trials make CONCACAF’s guantlet look like a red carpet.

It bears repeating: 144 matches to eliminate 42 countries, and now 5 of the best 10 will emerge from randomness-heavy head-to-heads for a spot in Brazil next June.  CAF…might as well stand for Crazy As F…..

Not even Nelson Mandela could broker this.

Along with the chaos of the coming matches themselves, the draw matching up these teams had an enormous impact on many of these squads World Cup probabilities. ESPNFC maintains a visualization of World Cup Qualification odds driven by their Soccer Power Index (SPI), which was developed by Nate Silver. Based on the difference between their published odds pre-draw and post-draw,  here’s a ranking of the difference that “draw luck,” alone, played in each country’s World Cup odds (with their fantasic nicknames included as an added bonus):



Those 20% swings based on only the draw are larger than you would usually see from the results of an actual qualifying match. Draws often have a great deal of power, but only in Africa are even the best teams subject to their whims at the end of qualification.

The pairings that led to this, with the top seeds on the left:

Ivory Coast – Senegal

Nigeria – Ethiopa

Ghana – Egypt

Algeria – Burkina Faso

Tunisia – Cameroon

Essentially, SPI is saying that Algeria and Tunisia were weak top seeds, and Ethiopia is the weakest of them all, so all of their opponents were lucky. Meanwhile, no one wanted to draw the strongest in their respective pots: Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt.

In January of this year, the Blacks Stars tagged Bradley's Egypt squad in a tune-up match in the UAE, 3-0.

In January of this year, the Blacks Stars tagged Bradley’s Egypt squad in a tune-up match in the UAE, 3-0.

The Ghana-Egypt matchup is the deepest cut.

Bob Bradley’s Pharaohs deserved to be a top seed after a perfect 6-0-0 record in qualifying matches under the stoic former United States boss. Their FIFA ranking couldn’t bounce back from the sins of Bradley’s predecessor, though.

Now Bradley gets a shot at… redemption or merely a re-do. If you know Bradley, history is not crossing his mind. That said, it was Ghana who denied Bradley’s US Men’s National Team a trip to the last World Cup’s quarterfinals. Four years earlier, of course, Ghana dealt the final blow also; the Black Stars denying passage out of group play to a US team coached by Bradley’s mentor, Bruce Arena.

Per SPI this matchup is the most even pairing of the 5 CAF head-to-heads. The odds are basically 55/45 favoring Ghana, but Egypt is more than capable of taking it to the Black Stars.

Specific dates have not been announced for any of these CAF matches, yet. US broadcast rights are TBA, too.

The odds for all 10 teams to advance:


Notice that once you get past Nigeria-Ethiopia, every team has a respectable chance here. Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon are favorites in their matchups but, given these SPI odds, there is a 71.9% chance that at least one of them will not make it to Brazil next June. And of course there is a 100% chance that either Egypt or Ghana will miss out on the 2014 World Cup.

36 responses to this post.

  1. Great piece. I had no idea. Absurdity is truly the theme here. BTW, still waiting on Jason Price’s piece on his time as an Assistant Coach for Malawi.


  2. Posted by Eiffel on 2013/09/20 at 5:44 AM

    I love that picture!

    And we think CONCACAF is hard!


  3. I didn’t want to dive into the rabbit hole of improving the CAF qualifying format because 1) the politics of keeping 52 nations happy has to be very complicated, and 2) it’s almost too easy to theoretically improve on it. But this sort of thing seems well-suited to the comments section.

    First, let’s note that there are only 8 African countries’ SPI ranks are even top 50 in the world. Yet right now 28 get to skip the first round of qualifying. Teams outside the SPI top 100 got byes. 8 is probably too few byes, though, so let’s go with 12.

    So, 20 will get past the first round (40 matches) and join the 12 byes for group phase. 4 groups of 8 (96 more matches), with winners moving on.

    Now we’ve reached the final round faster, and you could have two more groups where the top 2 in each get spots (24 matches) and the 3rd place teams have a home-and-home (2).

    That does end up being 8 extra matches, but everything after the first round would be much more interesting because you’d have weeded many more minnows, and the final round would be an immensely better measure of team strength.


    • Posted by Nick on 2013/09/20 at 10:28 AM

      Are these extra matches you mention possible with the number of FIFA Dates in a given year/qualifying cycle?


      • I’d think 8 extra matches wouldn’t be too hard to squeeze in, but this was just a quick doodle of an attempt (thus leaving it out of the article & saving it for the comments). I think it’s better than what they have now, but there are a lot of proposals that could trump that mess.

        There were always be problems though, because 52 is a whole lot to narrow down to 5, travel on that continent is difficult and dangerous, and the CAF somehow has to keep the majority of those countries (few of which are known for diplomacy) happy. I certainly don’t envy them.


  4. The CAF qualifying is insane. Not only because of the draw, or even the fact that the home-and-away format is a terrible way to decide between the last 10 teams, but the round before is crazy too.

    You have a 4 team group where anything can happen, with teams playing road games in incredibly difficult conditions. The best teams don’t even get to skip this first stage, so you can have 2 good teams playing in a group and then not even get to the ridiculous head-to-head stage. It is no wonder at all that no African team from the ’06 World Cup were in the ’10 World Cup, because the qualifying has such an added element of randomness.

    It is bad for African soccer to have a system where the best teams aren’t necessarily the ones who make it to the World Cup. I have no idea how they agreed on the current system, but it is truly horrendous.


    • Posted by Nick on 2013/09/20 at 10:31 AM

      Horrendous, indeed. It’d be interesting to see how they’d fare with a UEFA style qualification where teams are seeded into pots and the top seeds should (in theory) always advance out of their groups into the World Cup. The kicker here based on FIFA Ranking (I haven’t perused the SPI rankings in their entirety yet but I would presume they’re the same) is that CAF has much more parity than UEFA so the minnows and mid-tier teams would be more likely to pull some upsets than you’d see in UEFA.


      • To do it UEFA-style, first you’d need to pair 52 down to 48 (8 H&H matches). Then 8 groups of 6 (240 matches) or 6 groups of 8 (336 matches).

        Good idea, but no way can they do that much travel across a large, dangerous continent. No matter what they do, I think they have to skim off a ton of minnows as the very first step.


        • i’m not saying they “should” do it UEFA style, just a comment on how UEFA’s Pot 1 typically fare well in qualifying but in CAF there’s a lot more parity across the continent so Pot 1 might not make it in half the groups or more….

          I think the UEFA model has its definite Cons (primarily that the minnows get spanked over and over and over and over again with no real hope to climb out of the cellar) but it is definitely a test of mettle when only 1.5 slots are up for grabs in each group.

          Personally I think the whole of WCQ for every confederation could use some over-hauling…


    • Posted by Zack G. on 2013/09/23 at 2:03 PM

      I generally agree with the logic and general premise of this article and comments section — but it should be noted that TWO African teams made both the ’06 and ’10 World Cup. Ghana made the knockout stage in both tournaments (R16, QF) and Cote d’Ivoire was in the Group of Death in ’06 and ’10.


  5. Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 10:54 AM

    people, Europe has a home and away, playoff pretty much just like Africa. if the stronger team according to the rankings loses to the lesser team in the rankings, the lesser team is going to the world cup. such a simple format, and there are a lot of countries in Africa, so it is going to be more of a crap shoot.

    to bad Egypt didn’t draw Algeria. but Ghana, it is what it is and if Egypt want to go to the world cup, bob Bradley has to exercise his demons and help get them there, against an African team that beat USA in two consecutive world cups.

    this is great drama, and it is what this sport is all about. the big African teams will get there, this is not as random as it is being made out to be. the strong survive, and that’s what African qualifying is about, but that’s also what qualifying around the rest of the world is about.

    I mean golly, mexico is on the verge of not qualifying for the world cup, and they had a three in six chance of automatically qualifying from the hex.


    • Europe’s a different matter. The very best earn the right to avoid the randomness of Home & Home playoffs.

      Africa has consistently missed out on sending some of their best teams to the World Cup. Last time it was Nigeria and Egypt. This year it will be one of Ghana/Egypt, and there’s a legitimate threat to Ivory Coast, which is absurd. Of the other top 20 teams in the world, 15 are over 90% to clinch, with only France & Sweden having a lower chance than Ivory Coast, and that’s because they’ve made mistakes than go beyond being in a disorganized continent.


      • Posted by Kevin_H on 2013/09/20 at 11:49 AM

        With Africa’s format, it’s possible only one out of the top two teams will progress each cycle. Ludicrous.


      • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 11:52 AM

        steve, Nigeria played in the 2010 world cup, well, they picked up one point, which was a little better than the goose egg which Cameroon laid. and these were the top two ranked African nations going into the last world cup.

        and with regards to cote divore, if they don’t make it, perhaps it says more about the countries organization itself, rather than the disorganization of mother africa


      • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 11:53 AM

        oh yeah, and last cycle, USA beat Egypt 3-0 and Egypt lost to Algeria, and USA beat Algeria 1-0, so it sounds about right to me, although, if USA had to beat Algeria by more than one goal, I think they might have done that as well.


        • On Nigeria, all I can say is whoops. I remembered them being disappointing, but but forgot that they did so in the World Cup, not in qualifying. Also, it helped that CAF got an absurd 6 spots last time when you include the South African hosts.

          As for Egypt, I hold that it is at the very least odd when the reigning continental champion (having won 19! consecutive AFCON matches) isn’t in the World Cup.

          Your bringing up 3 matches, one of which didn’t feature Egypt, highlights the crux of our disagreement. You seem to feel that a team’s performance over 2 matches is a telling sign of their overall quality. I outright distrust the short term. It has minimal predictive power over future results and correlates poorly with any long-term evaluation.

          You are right that home-and-home can be thrilling, but it also inherently makes teams susceptible to odd bounces of the ball, referee decisions, and other factors that are best described as luck.


          • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 12:46 PM

            when Africa produces some world cup semi finalist, or better, they might get a little more leeway. as it is, African nations are not teams at a higher level than USA, or mexico. well, Ghana does have USA number, but they were so close, it really is neck and neck, and Ghana might not qualify. its pretty much a coin flip, but the truth is, the stronger team is going to go to the world cup between Egypt and Ghana, and that is pretty fair. Ghana could have drawn Ethiopia and been more excited about their chances, but Ghana has a good team and it comes down to this moment and if it were just boring stats, no offense, that determined who should go and who should not, the ratings plummet.


          • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 12:53 PM

            oh, and steve, though USA are the reigning gold cup champions, mexico sort of is like the reigning continental champion, having won in 2011, and they are on the verge of missing out on a world cup. Ghana and Egypt have won the last three African cups and one of them is not going to brasil. USA and mexico have won the last three gold cups and one of them might not be going to the world cup. its good to be in concacaf, nobody is going to deny that, but nor do we need to apologize.


  6. Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/20 at 12:06 PM

    it should also be noted, that out of the eight number one seeds in the European qualifying, two are a virtual lock to not win their groups and several other number one seeds are on the verge of not winning. it makes the sport more fun.


    • Posted by CJ on 2013/09/21 at 10:33 AM

      The fun shouldn’t be experienced in the qualifying, the qualifying is work. The fun is the World Cup. No player dreams of being in qualifying, every player dreams of being in the World Cup. Maybe it makes it more fun to you but, when you’re talking about growth of a game that could potentially lead to growth of countries and a continent as a whole the last thing that organization (CAF) should be doing is subjecting its best assets to randomly drawn matchups that could potentially devalue the continents overall performance in the World Cup.

      It’s bad marketing and bad business. Just because you like the randomness of the process because it’s “more fun” doesn’t mean it’s the best approach. I’d rather watch the the 5 best teams or at least the 4 best teams with the 5th slot being an extremely difficult opportunity for the lesser teams i.e. the 16 seed vs 1 seed in March Madness. Can it happen? Yes. Should it happen? No. When the 15 seed beats a 2 seed it does add excitement but, the odds of that 15seed winning from there on out vs if the 2 seed had one are extremely slim.

      The work these countries put into developing its players and soccer programs should be rewarded and the countries that are behind should have to earn their success, not luckily draw against a weak opponent to see them in.

      I don’t even follow the CAF qualifying but I feel like this is just common sense.


      • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/21 at 8:20 PM

        there are 32 slots available at the world cup finals. qualifying, it is the world cup. im really confused, because you guys want to assign a value, and then have that value determine who goes to the world cup. what kind of nonsense is that? the teams play and the winner goes on and the loser goes home. it is so simple and fair.


        • Posted by adrian lago on 2013/09/22 at 6:54 AM

          dont be absurd john mosby. take CONMEBOL, there’s a reason Argentina v Bolivia for a world cup spot doesnt happen. its because Argentina is a lot better than Bolivia and does better internationally. however, playing 2 miles in the sky is tough for a team like Argentina (see the 1-1 draw in Bolivia these teams played out a few months ago), and they would potentially lose out on going to the WC Finals. For the region, CONMEBOL, it would make sense to have their best teams playing at the WC Finals. Therefore, they play group play and surprise, surprise, Argentina dominates and Bolivia struggles. but again, if they played a h&h, the result has a better chance to end up differently. Your method produces a worse WC Finals in Brazil, rather than the very best it could be.


        • By extended that logic, any setup of qualifying is fair as long as it involves playing games. But fairness exists on a spectrum. I’m just saying that home-and-away opens the whole thing up to enormous swings of luck based on who draws who.

          No matter which approach is taken, it will be dramatic & compelling because it’s the beautiful game played at a high level for high stakes. It deserves a fairer setup, though.


          • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/23 at 2:44 PM

            its kind of interesting that Norway and Iceland are in the same group. its two countries that are suffering from losing out on players to the USA. Norway was the one seed in their group and they currently sit in 4th.

            steve, you have to admit that these two seeds in uefa do have pretty much just as high a ranking as the one seeds in Africa, if not higher. that seems to be the balance there, and both must play a two game playoff to get into the world cup.

            the world cup finals is not about who was the best team leading up to qualifying, its about who were the best teams in qualifying.


            • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/23 at 11:11 PM

              another thing to note is that a team like Egypt, who have relied heavily on domestic based talent, have an advantage in cup of nations, which of course did not help this last time around, maybe a little political strife did not help with that either, but in the past Egypt has represented well in this event, yet not in WCQ, and it has been Algeria, a country with a strong soccer tradition that has kept Egypt from the finals.

              I think it all works out pretty neat. many eyes will be focused on Egypt v Ghana. and remember, this IS the world cup, and it is winner take all.

            • John, I’m going to skip the non-sequiters that don’t seem to relate to anything I’ve written and just say that you seem to think that I’m arguing that (1) stats are more important than games & (2) any upset is an unjust result.
              I don’t know where you’re getting (1), but 2 should’ve been clearer about (2) I guess.
              It’s not at all central to my argument that one particular African team is better than another. What is central, & I admittedly didn’t state explicitly, is that a good system would see all teams tested in a roughly even manner, meaning that the truly best would qualify very consistently, while the underperformers would be be punished.

            • Posted by john mosby on 2013/09/24 at 7:01 PM

              steve, im sorry, I should have been more clear myself. I am not in agreement with the article, and id love your response, so as to maybe come to a conclusion on this topic.

              im keying in on the 20% paragraph, right below the red chart, where you talk about only Africa being subject to the whims of the draw. to me, this is the case in Europe just as well, where the top eight second seeds will be subject to the identical draw that produced the teams in Africa. and in Europe you could see a team such as france end up in the lower pot of the second place teams, and this is a world cup winner we are talking about.

              I do think your last statement spoke the most truth, and that is the truly best should qualify consistently, while the underperformers are punished. this makes the most sense.

  7. Posted by adrian lago on 2013/09/22 at 7:02 AM

    CAF should follow a CONCACAF and or Asian Federation model. There are 35 teams in CONCACAF, not that much less than 52. I did not check how many there are in Asia, but I am guessing quite a few. The Double-Hex with four automatic qualifiers, plus the fifth team going through in a play-off would be something that Africa could easily emulate (of course 5th place Asian team must have intercontinental play-off, but Africa wouldn’t have this, and the winner of the playoff of the two third place teams from their respective hex would go straight to the World Cup Finals).
    we all want to see the very best at the world cup, perhaps they will change the format before 2018


  8. Posted by Ufficio on 2013/09/22 at 9:32 AM

    If FIFA started taking WC berths away from CAF for their dismal performances at the finals (three of sixteen CAF teams have advanced to the knockout stages in the last three events), maybe CAF would have the incentive to implement a qualifier process that maximized the likelihood of the best teams advancing.


  9. Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/09/27 at 5:49 AM

    Speaking of absurdness…following this link…..this is NOT safe for work…especially if you’re drinking coffee or milk…funny crap


  10. Posted by emma henda on 2013/09/28 at 4:10 AM

    just what is supposed to be the argument here? By this arrangement africa will present her strongest at the mondial. What is wrong with this?


  11. “Their FIFA ranking couldn’t bounce back from the sins of Bradley’s predecessor, ”

    I know you only care about African WCQ because of Bradley but this is flat wrong.

    Bradley’s predecessor won three consecutive African Nations Cup titles… an unprecedented feat.

    Egypt’s slide came under Bradley, under whom the Pharaohs shockingly failed to even qualify for both the 2012 and 2013 Nations Cups, after having won the previous three editions. The 2012 run was ended when 3-time defending African champions were stunned by the Central African Republic, a team from a failed state in a perpetual civil war that had never before even qualified for the tournament in their 50+ year history.

    Certainly Egypt’s problems on the pitch were related to issues off it and that can’t be blamed on Bradley. But it absolutely can not be blamed on his predecessor who set an unprecedented streak and helped Egypt rise as high as 9th in the FIFA World rankings.

    Don’t trash a hugely successful manager just because of your ignorance of African soccer.


    • Shehata led Egypt to amazing AFCON successes in 2006, 2008, and 2010. I wasn’t trying to dismiss that, but it was more relevant to note the state he left the team in, which impacts its current FIFA rating significantly. When Shehata resigned on June 6, 2011 Egypt had 2 points through 4 matches of group play, and under Bradley they get 3 points from the final 2.
      I guess in a sense the Pharaohs failed to qualify under Bradley, but Niger would have topped the group and knocked Egypt out even if Bob had led them to win both of those first matches under him.

      I do concede that Bradley’s Egypt failed to beat Central African Republic in a head-to-head matchup for 2013 AFCON qualifying. However, it’s highly relevant that those fixtures came only 4 months after Port Said and amidst the closure of the Egyptian Premier League. Also, it speaks the volatility of home-and-home format, whose outcomes aren’t terribly meaningful because of an emphasis on short-term matchups.

      Could I have gone more in-depth on Egypt’s situation? Sure, but that would have distracted further from the main point of the article.


      • Posted by john mosby on 2013/10/02 at 1:01 PM

        steve, the main point of your article seems to be in the headlines, and if that is the case, maybe the headlines and the article are off base. I don’t think that is to far out of the realm of possibility.


  12. Posted by Soccer fan on 2013/10/06 at 6:19 AM

    I don’t see any need to change the qualifying format. If you are a truly capable team, you should be able to qualify on the strength of your ability. Only losers make excuses. The best teams have always emerged from the qualifying process. Aberrations in world cup qualifying are not unique to Africa. Other regions similarly experience inconsistencies in their qualifying matches. When was the last time Costa Rica qualified for the world cup? What about Peru which has made several World cup appearances? Jamaica made one appearance and hasn’t been heard from since.

    So I don’t really see anything in Africa’s qualifying format that needs to be fixed. And no, I don’t think FIFA should concern itself with that. She should focus instead on more important things, like eliminating the racism and the culture of match-fixing in European football.


  13. Real nice article, and Ima let you finish, but “Indomitable Lions” is the best team nickname of all time.


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