By Anthony Harwood
Plans for African nations to get all their qualifying matches finished in time for the 2022 World Cup are the least threatened by the coronavirus outbreak, it has emerged.
A new blueprint for a post-Covid-19 world shows that while some continents have to start their qualifiers as early as September 2020, Africa does not have to begin until March 2021.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) will even be able to complete its qualifying for AFCON 2021 – postponed by the Covid-19 outbreak – during ‘FIFA dates’ in October and November set aside for World Cup qualification.
The six-round group stage for the ten CAF groups competing to play in Qatar would then be held between March 2021 and October 2021.
Two ‘FIFA dates’ set aside in November 2021 could then be used for the five home-and-away matches for the winners of the groups to decide which five countries go to the tiny Gulf state in 2022.
Under this scenario, CAF could either hold AFCON 2021 in Jan-Feb 2021 as planned, or move it to June 2021 at the same time as the Euros and Copa American, which have been postponed until then from this year.
In contrast to the eight ‘FIFA dates’ required by CAF, the South American confederation, CONMEBOL, needs to start in September to get through its 18 round-robin home-and-away matches, plus two intercontinental play-offs.
UEFA needs 12 ‘FIFA dates’ for its ten groups, and also has a year before it needs to start.
The global shutdown of football by the coronavirus virus has played havoc with fixture schedules.
But it is still possible despite coronavirus because FIFA moved the 2022 tournament to winter months of November and December to avoid the searing summer heat in the Gulf.
Ironically what was criticised at the time as an unwelcome disruption to the fixture lists of the European leagues has now proved a blessing – buying everyone an extra six months to finish World Cup qualifiers.
Under the new timetable, the world’s six footballing confederations have different deadlines from when they would have to re-start the qualifiers, ranging from September 2020 to March 2021.
Given that the European countries covered by UEFA have been hardest hit in the world by Covid-19 it’s lucky that they do not have to start playing qualifiers until March 2021.
Even without the availability of two dates in June 2021 due to the postponement of this year’s Euros, there is still room for its 10-group qualifying process.
This would involve concluding the 10 qualifying matches by March 2022, and using the two ‘FIFA dates’ in June 2022 for play-offs with twelve nations involved in one-legged two stage fixtures.
Under this scenario UEFA would still be able to stage the Nations League in Sept, Oct and Nov 2020 – if there is sufficient recovery from the virus by then.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is the hardest hit in terms of population density, Covid-19 reach and qualifying schedule, with 18 match dates needing to be played.
These will have to start in October 2020 if the AFC is to get through their group stage by November 2021, in time for continental and intercontinental play-offs from March-June 2022.
The latest that CONCACAF – the North and Central American, and Caribbean confederation – can start is October 2020. Under this scenario their own playoff would have to be played in March 2022 in order for their representative to play their intercontinental playoff in June 2022.
Like CAF, The Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), which includes New Zealand and Pacific island countries, can easily handle staging THE 14 ‘FIFA dates’ in its qualification process between March 2021 and March 2022.
Football sources pointed out that if FIFA is able to stick to this timetable it will safeguard each confederation’s revenues.
But it does rely on the domestic leagues being up and running by then as, otherwise, there could be no international football.
One source said: ‘These qualifying formats maximise each confederation’s and its member association’s marketing and TV revenues.
‘So while clubs and leagues are facing many dilemmas, including possible revenue hits, international competition can avoid a financial hit, as long as international football can resume in September or October’.
He added that ‘had the World Cup been in June-July 2022, a change in qualifying format and consequently reduction of games and revenues for confederations would have been inevitable.’
If international football cannot resume by autumn, a change of format would be needed, possibly involving bringing countries together for a period of two weeks for mini-tournaments, he said.
If playoffs are switched to June 2022, FIFA can still proceed with the finals’ draw in April 2022 or they could wait until the other five nations have qualified for the finals after the FIFA dates of June 2022’.
Table (number of required ‘FIFA Dates’ to hold matches)