Here’s a bit of technical for you – the 2018 World Cup is already underway. Has been for months. What we normally think of as the “World Cup” – such as the event in Russia next summer or the last shindig in Brazil – is actually the World Cup “finals.” They only take about a month. The process of getting to the finals takes over a year, winnowing the field down from 210 countries to a relative handful.
One of the neat things about the process is that FIFA allocates slots in the finals to each confederation, but let’s each confederation figure out how to fill its allocation. Europe, for example, divides up into groups, with the winners advancing and some number of second-place teams matching up in playoffs for the other spots. South American, by contrast, puts everybody in one group and plays a true round robin tournament (easy to do when you only have 10 countries). Most other confederations use some group structure to do away with a number of nations over two or three phases.
CONCACAF – the federation that covers North America, Central America and the Caribbean – works that way. Two rounds of preliminaries produce six teams that battle it out in “The Hex” – ten games, home and away. The top three go to the finals, while the fourth has to playoff against someone else (from Asia, this time around) to get in. The bottom two go home. While the region isn’t the toughest as far as talent, the 10-game format still makes for a great combination of slim margins and long hauls. Witness 2014, when Mexico had to claw back into fourth place and win the play off to get to Brazil, or the current Hex, where the US is barely in fourth place after laying goose eggs in our first two games.
Sadly, The Hex is almost certainly dead. Last year, when FIFA announced that the World Cup finals would expand to 48 teams (from 32) in 2026, everybody was fairly certain that would be the case. All the extra spots would call for a massive reorganization of qualifying the world round. But now, with FIFA announcing the allocations for 2026, it’s official – there’s no point having The Hex if six teams will qualify for the finals from CONCACAF.
I’m not sure whether the expanded World Cup finals will be an improvement over the current setup. The bloated European Championships last year included an awful lot of dull group games, although the knockout rounds were better. And I’m all for letting more people get to the biggest dance in the world (sorry, March Madness). But it will undoubtedly depressurize qualifying, at least in most confederations.
So, adios to The Hex.