LONDON - World Cup qualifying in North America is set to be overhauled to avoid shutting out the majority of countries in the CONCACAF region so early.
CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani has instigated a review of an "archaic" format that leaves only six out of the region's 35 teams still in with a shot at qualifying for Russia in 2018.
Alongside a potential new name to replace the corruption-tainted CONCACAF brand, revamping qualifying to be more inclusive has emerged as a key objective for Montagliani after five months in charge of the confederation covering North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"Something needs to change because you can't have 85 per cent of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup," Montagliani told The Associated Press. "It doesn't make sense."
Since qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, CONCACAF has used a system where teams play home and away in early rounds. Once 12 nations are remaining there are three groups of four, which produces six teams for a final round.
The United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago are the last teams standing , chasing three of CONCACAF's automatic qualification places. Starting next month, they play each other twice in a league.
"It's great for those six teams over the next year and a bit but how about the other ones?" Montagliani said. "It's hard."
Hard for players to raise their standard and hard for teams to generate revenue to fund soccer development.
"Caribbean countries have problems climbing the FIFA rankings, just because we are not able to play as many international games as you want to," John Krishnadath, president of the Suriname soccer federation, told the AP earlier this year, while also highlighting the high cost of travelling to matches.
Suriname's World Cup journey ended in June 2015 immediately after entering in the second round of CONCACAF qualifying. The first seven CONCACAF teams were eliminated back in March 2015. It's so long ago that Montagliani is the third president CONCACAF has had during qualifying for the 2018 tournament.
Former CONCACAF head Jeffrey Webb was first arrested as part of the sprawling American investigation into soccer corruption in May 2015 and his temporary replacement, Alfredo Hawit, was indicted seven months later. Montagliani said CONCACAF competitions and the interests of teams were neglected in an era when the leadership was motivated by corruptly extorting money from the confederation and its commercial backers.
"Can you imagine you are a country trying to find a sponsor and they say, 'I'm all for it, when's your next big game?' And it's three years from now," Montagliani said during an interview in London.
"So we seriously need to look at our World Cup qualifying system that is a bit archaic. We need to be a bit more all-encompassing. We're looking at how we balance competitions with our commercial (priorities) without putting too much stress on already too busy calendars as well."
But Montagliani is certain qualifying must change, although there could be a proliferation of games that draw smaller crowds and little broadcast revenue.
Discussing a new configuration, Montagliani said: "Maybe it's like the Europeans or maybe it's like the South Americans with a league — or it's a hybrid of the two."
In Europe, countries are split into nine groups, balanced according to their rankings, and play games from September 2016 to October 2017. The group winners qualify automatically and the eight best runners-up will contest playoffs for the remaining four UEFA spots in Russia.
In South America, the 10 CONMEBOL members are in a two-year league that started in October 2015. The top four have guaranteed World Cup places and the fifth-place team has to go through a playoff against a country from Oceania.
Each region will gain more automatic World Cup places if FIFA President Gianni Infantino achieves his mission to expand the finals from 32 to 48 teams by 2026 when CONCACAF is in a strong position to bring the tournament to North America.
Separately, Montagliani is also exploring how to upgrade CONCACAF's premier club competition. The Champions League is currently nearing the end of its group stage — featuring eight, three-team mini-leagues — before a knockout phase, starting with quarterfinals.
"The Champions League is a real opportunity for us to grow that product because when you look at the latter stages of it, it's quite good, really well attended and great TV audiences," Montagliani said. "But the early stages are poor, not well attended and maybe not the best stadiums.
"So I think we need to rejig that so it really becomes an impactful event both for television and our fans and on the technical side so it is quality all the way through — from the group stage to the final."
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports