FIFA and Rugby World Cup qualifying differences

There are glaringly obvious FIFA and Rugby World Cup qualifying differences, as well as in their respective World Cups. But there are some subtle differences which illustrate the aims and values of the two codes.

Subtle differences

The biggest and most obvious difference is that football has over 200 countries involved in qualifying. In contrast, rugby has just over 100 officially playing the game. This gives FIFA more freedom to use systems which expose highly ranked nations to more risk of elimination, as the quality of football played globally is quite high.

Rugby doesn’t have this freedom. Imagine if a top 10 or top 15 team failed to qualify for the RWC. This would seriously diminish the spectacle and possibly harm enthusiasm for rugby in that country.

RWC qualifying doesn’t even involve every country that plays the game. World Rugby places each country into different competitions and tournaments in a system of levels or ‘tiers’. Realistically only tier 1 and 2 teams have a chance of qualifying. And even then the top three ranked teams (12 / 20 teams) from the previous World Cup pools avoid having to qualify entirely.

FIFA gives every nation a chance of qualification (and elimination)

It exposes teams to top level opponents, no matter their ability, through tournaments split up into pools. This is usually very competitive as the top 100 are generally capable of competing with one another, depending on the location. In rugby perhaps only the top 10 can compete with one another, and even that’s stretching it a bit in some cases.

Rugby’s tiered qualification and tournament system means that it doesn’t expose top ranked teams to the threat of World Cup qualification elimination. They can concentrate their time between World Cups on development and other tournaments. They have the goal of World Cup success, without the possibility of missing out on the final tournament entirely. Conversely, it also means that World Rugby doesn’t expose developing nations to the rigours of top level rugby, as they only ever play games against teams on their own level.

How are they supposed to improve if they don’t get to play against the best at least semi-regularly?

FIFA gives any team the genuine opportunity of playing at the World Cup

Sure, some teams have a more difficult road to follow. But if they win their qualifying games they can still make the World Cup even if they’re ranked outside the top 32. This is evidenced by the fact South Korea (ranked 62) and Saudi Arabia (ranked 63) both recently qualified, along with seven other teams outside the top 32, based on world rankings (eight if you include 65th ranked host nation Russia).

Plus they were able to measure themselves against some of the best teams in the world through the qualification process. Italy, ranked 9th in the world, failed to qualify, along with several other highly ranked teams.

Six-time finalist, four-times winner and twice hosts Italy have missed out.
Photo: Dr. Abdullah Naser, via Flickr

The FIFA qualification model is made up of six confederations and all but two of the 32 World Cup places are decided within these confederations. The inter-confederation playoffs involve four teams from different confederations, with two home and away series’ played.

In rugby, there are several cross-regional play-off games, which ultimately only decide two World Cup places. There are several cross-over matches just to decide the final 4 repechage teams. Six of the eight RWC qualification spaces are decided inside the five regions (South America and North America are one region).

So what does this say about the two systems?

Protection from ‘drubbings’

World Rugby have reservations about how low ranked nations would cope with top 10 teams and don’t want to negatively affect these nations in terms of development and participation, ie they want to minimise ‘drubbings’. Hence the European conference levels and the various levels of competition in all of the regions. I’m assuming this also helps to keep costs down, as it would invariably be expensive for some teams to compete in other parts of the world. Plus, would a game consisting of England and Lithuania, for example, garner much media or televised attention? Would a stadium in either location sell-out?

Perhaps not.

FIFA give every team an equal opportunity.

FIFA only guarantees a World Cup place to the host nation; every other nation needs to fight it out. But did they implement this system because of the sheer numbers in participation and the quality of play throughout all confederations? Or is football’s level of participation a result of this rigorous, knock-out style and the importance it places on World Cup qualification games?

A chicken and egg question, surely.

The FIFA World Cup allows 32 teams

And let’s be honest, they could probably allow more teams in and it would still be competitive. In contrast, World Rugby was considering a reduction to 16 teams! I think they should be trying to involve more countries, not cut them out. An expansion to 32 places would certainly not see a more competitive product immediately. But allowing more teams a taste of high-performance rugby via intense qualification matches and pool games would, over the next few decades, create more teams that are capable of competing against the best on a regular basis. It would also give lower ranked teams and their supporters opportunities to see top ranked teams in their countries more regularly, even if these games are blowouts or if they hardly involve the best players in the world.

World Rugby need to showcase the game, not block it off from those in developing rugby nations.

Author: Steven Cartwright

I grew up in Taranaki and was introduced to rugby at 8 years old, and have been playing ever since. I went to school at FDMC in New Plymouth. After graduating from Canterbury University I moved with my fiancee to Brazil where I’ve been playing/coaching rugby, working and partaking in the odd caipirinha.


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