The FIFA World Cup qualification is fair. So was Italy's elimination. Let's embrace the excitement it gives us while this system lasts.
At the moment of writing this newsletter, several countries are playing off for the final FIFA World Cup 2022 spots. In Africa and Europe, we have defining games where the winner is on and the loser is out, and in the two American eliminations, come countries are clinching their spots for the World cup, including Canada’s comeback to a World Cup for the first time since 1986.

The shock of last week was Italy, who will be absent for a second World Cup in a row after Northern Macedonia eliminated the four-time Champions. Northern Macedonia then lost to Portugal for one of the last UEFA spots as we wrote this.

Leonardo Bonucci, from the Italian national team, vented his frustration by remarking that: “We played it all in a one-off match, it’s an absurd system…Unfortunately, that’s the way it went, but it’s a crazy decision.”

Except he was wrong. Italy literally played 9 games, of which they won four -less than half. A team with less international prestige such as Switzerland won the direct berth in their group, and then they had the home advantage against a team that has never qualified to the World Cup as an independent state. There was nothing unfair. Italy lost fair and square against teams with smaller football infrastructure.

The qualification is not perfect but it will never be easy. This is the tournament with more national teams represented. It literally has more represented nations than the Olympic Games and the United Nations. The logistics of just making a sensible qualification system happen are impressive.

Instead of complaining, we should embrace the qualification system for the excitement that it provides. It is a fair system where there is still uncertainty until the end, and teams have the chance of directly competing against their peers for a playoff berth, without luck involved.

In four years, the qualification system might not be as exciting. With almost a quarter of national teams (48) qualifying, you will have confederations like South America’s CONMEBOL, where seven of the eight teams will qualify, and there will only be one more qualification spot.

The current system in CONMEBOL works. Every team plays home and away games against everyone and the best qualify. There are no excuses.

Now, the question is whether to keep such a system that has allowed for rivalries and also exciting match days where the qualified teams are defined on the last day or to make it “more exciting” and rely more on one-off matches, instead of having, say, Argentina and Brazil qualified halfway through.

The FIFA World Cup qualification should prime fairness. They currently do. It should b kept this way. There will still undoubtedly be ways in which the next qualifications will still be exciting. For example, the intercontinental playoff tournament. 

Next time, Italy will have a greater chance to qualify, and if that entails that there are less bizarre results influencing the outcome, that should be applauded. But also, bizarre results are part of the magic of football.

At the World Cup, once you are done with the Group stage you have to win every single match that remains, otherwise you are out. If we think that is fair, then a qualification that affords you a second chance for a playoff once you have already lost is, by no means, unfair.

Giant-killing is one of the most exciting narratives in humanity. Especially in sports. And a system that allows it under fair conditions is desirable.