Michael O’Neill, the Northern Ireland manager, believes Fifa’s reforms of the World Cup should go further and include a more immediate overhaul of the qualifying process for the tournament. Fifa voted in January to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026, an increase of 16, which will mean some changes to qualifying.
O’Neill favours an expanded World Cup and disputes suggestions that it could dilute the quality of the tournament but he believes the competition would benefit from changes to qualifying criteria for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
At present, only the group winners in the European section of the draw are guaranteed qualification for next summer’s tournament in Russia, with the eight best runners-up contesting two-legged play-offs to determine who takes the remaining four places.
By contrast, the team who finish fourth out of a six-team group in the North and Central America and Caribbean (Concacaf) group will take part in a play-off against the winners of a tie between the two Asian Football Confederation sides who finish third in their respective six-team groups for a place in Russia.
Furthermore, the team who finish fifth in South America’s 10-team qualifying group face the winner of Oceania’s qualifying process, with the victor going to Russia. Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was slightly different with the fourth-placed Concacaf side playing the team from the Oceania Football Confederation, which meant Mexico qualified at New Zealand’s expense, despite winning just two of their 10 group matches.
Northern Ireland are second in Group C behind world champions Germany and will boost their hopes of making the play-offs if they beat Norway at Windsor Park tonight but O’Neill believes the current qualification process is not fair enough.
“I think there needs to be a middle stage in terms of qualification, almost a global point,” O’Neill said. “Some really big countries in Europe miss out and there are some countries in Concacaf who will always qualify.
“I’m not against a bigger World Cup because it gives Northern Ireland a better chance. But when you see how some countries sail into the World Cup and others miss out it’s a bit galling.
“I think in the last World Cup, Mexico won two games out of qualification and had five draws and still got a play-off against New Zealand. Whereas you could finish second in our qualifying group and we don’t even get a shot at it [the play-offs].
“Qualification through Europe is the most difficult. We are in an era where players are flying back to South America from Europe to play in qualifiers so could we have that scenario where a third-place team in a Euro group plays off against someone from another part of the world? Groups finish in October and you still have until the following June [before the tournament starts] so you could fit something in during that time.”
O’Neill will come face-to-face this evening with Lars Lagerback, who was appointed as Norway’s new coach last month following the departure of Per-Mathias Hogmo. Lagerback oversaw Iceland’s run to the quarter-finals of the Euros last summer, famously beating England in the last 16, and O’Neill admits the Swede’s early work during his five years in charge of Iceland provided a blueprint for his own plans with Northern Ireland.
“When you are a small nation you look at like-minded countries to see what they are doing,” O’Neill said. “I went and spoke to Lars as a young international manager maybe three or four years ago because I had seen what Iceland were doing, not just at senior level but at junior level too, and what struck me straight away was that his success was built on simplicity.
“There is nothing complicated about him. He didn’t try to bamboozle me with the way they did things. He talked about the mindset of the players, which is the hardest work.”