Even though the 2020 Euros are just getting started, football’s premier competition, the World Cup, is just a year away. Because of a changed schedule that involved ditching many friendlies that could have improved national rankings, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, were forced to completely rethink how these World Cup qualifiers occurred in North America.
Rather than just choosing the top six teams ranked in North America by FIFA, CONCACAF had every team not ranked in the top five nations in North America play group stage games to see who would reach the final stage. Mexico, the United States, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Honduras got to sit back and watch as teams fought in group stages to advance to the next round, which involves six teams playing a two-legged series, with the three victors advancing.
Whilst this new format is confusing, I would argue that it is one of the best qualifying systems in the world. It gives small nations like Saint Kitts and Nevis a chance to possibly qualify for a World Cup, but it also removes teams that would not be able to adequately compete. Thomas Müller once asked why Germany has to play games against countries like San Marino, and to an extent, he is right.
It’s only fair that smaller nations get a chance to qualify, but they should have to play other teams at around their level first to show that they are good enough to compete. San Marino don’t benefit from 8-0 losses to Germany, but could become more prepared if they had to play teams like Gibraltar to get there. This is what the system in North America allows, as you will soon see.
Saint Kitts and Nevis – El Salvador
Right away, Saint Kitts and Nevis prove the effectiveness of this format. With a population of 50,000, Saint Kitts and Nevis have a smaller population than any other team in its group: Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Guyana, and the Bahamas all have significantly larger populations, and therefore larger player pools to pick from. (In fact, Guyana and the Bahamas each have one city with a population larger than Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad have three, and Puerto Rico have eight).
Saint Kitts and Nevis were also ranked lower than Trinidad, but managed to surprisingly top the group despite a final day loss. Striker Keithroy Freeman led the way for the Sugar Boyz, scoring four goals in three games including braces against Guyana and the Bahamas. Saint Kitts and Nevis now await El Salvador in a two-legged tie to see who advances to the next round.
El Salvador are no pushovers, however: they are ranked sixth best in CONCACAF, and would have been the final team to advance under the previous format. Journeyman striker David Rugamas, who has played in four countries in Asia and North America, is the team’s top scorer. Rugamas bagged a goal in all four games for El Salvador including a hat trick against the US Virgin Islands.
Ultimately, though, it was a slightly disappointing qualifying process for El Salvador. The past few years, they have beat the likes of Jamaica, Peru, Honduras, and more, but the results were more than underwhelming. El Salvador started with a 2-0 victory over micro nation Grenada. They followed that result with a 1-1 draw against Montserrat, a nation abandoned several years ago due to natural disasters and volcano eruptions which now has a population of under 5,000, which is 105 times smaller than El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador.
They then recovered to beat the US Virgin Islands 7-0, and followed that result with a 3-0 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. Not terrible results, but they’ll need to do better overall if they have serious hopes to qualify for the World Cup, let alone make the next round.
Haiti – Canada
Fun fact: Haiti has as many World Cup appearances as China, Indonesia, and Ukraine.
The Haitian national team are currently looking to double their World Cup appearance tally, which would take it up to two, and they do look capable as ever. In three matches (they were going to play St. Lucia, who withdrew), Haiti won all three. Les Grenadiers scored 13 goals and conceded none, with the highlights including a 10-0 thrashing of Turks and Caicos. Belize and Nicaragua were the next victims.
Haiti have three players with three or more goals, including Duckens Nazon, a former Wolverhampton striker now playing in Belgium. With four goals in qualifiers so far (all against Turks and Caicos), Nazon brought his tally to 23 international goals, just 14 shy of Haiti’s all time record. Nazon is only 27. Unfortunately for Haiti, Nazon is unlikely to be available for both legs against Canada.
Unfortunately for Haiti, they are up against Canada. Canada are arguably the most up-and-coming team in North America, with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, and Cyle Larin starring for some of Europe’s top clubs. Canada won all four games they played convincingly with a combined score of 27-1.
As joint hosts with Mexico and the United States in 2026, Canada will want to qualify for the 2022 World Cup so that they will be prepared when they play the tournament in front of their own fans. Canada have an impressive squad and good form, but Haiti will be tough opponents.
Curacao – Panama
I have been preaching about Curacao’s national team for years, predicting them to qualify for the World Cup all the way back in June of 2019. (And this was before the eligibility rules were changed and Patrick Kluivert was appointed). Now, people are starting to realize that this could happen.
Curacao, a tiny Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela, had a superb group stage, handily beating St Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba, and the British Virgin Islands before a draw against Guatemala clinched a spot in the next round. Qualification for the World Cup would be absolutely massive – it would help convince Dutch players from or with ancestors from Curacao to declare for Curacao instead of the Dutch team.
Increasingly, Curacao are getting players from top teams in the Netherlands to declare for the team – Jeremy Antonisse and Tyrick Bodak from PSV come to mind. However, with success Curacao could get even more stars to declare, like Justin Kluivert, the son of manager Patrick Kluivert. Justin is eligible to play for Curacao through his grandparents. Justin has played just two games for the Dutch senior team, a grand total of 17 minutes. He also hasn’t been called up since 2018, and would be eligible for a national team switch.
With his dad, who is also the manager, trying to encourage more Dutch players to choose Curacao, a switch to Curacao for Justin Kluivert isn’t likely but would make sense for all parties. More famous players, such as Manchester United loanee Tahith Chong, Patrick van Aanholt, Jurgen Locadia, are or have been eligible for Curacao. The further Curacao are able to advance, the more players they would convince to play for Curacao and other Caribbean islands.
Panama, on the other hand, qualified for their first ever World Cup in 2018 and are hoping to make it a habit. Unfortunately for Panama, they had a very old squad in 2018 and even though many players have now retired, and they still have a relatively old squad. Panama had close results against Barbados and Dominica, but showed up when it mattered the most, battering Anguilla 13-0 and tossing aside the Dominican Republic to win the group.
Panama have a good squad, but no longer have as many players in Europe and they have struggled to get younger players in the squad. This team can compete immediately, but questions have to be asked about the future.
With all six of these games (both legs for each game) going to be played by June 15th, depth will once more have an important role to play in qualification. After such a long season, so many games in such a short period of time means teams have to use reserve players early and often, something that could harm smaller nations. On the other hand, smaller nations without star players can benefit from this, whereas larger nations used to having at least one star (like Canada) might suffer more if that star misses games. Whether you have a team to support or not, it’s worth tuning in to watch these qualifiers and getting a preview of the players who could soon be at the world’s biggest stage.
Let me know in the comments who you are rooting for!
Image Courtesy of Warrenfish, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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