CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani says that the qualifying format for the 2022 World Cup from the confederation may have to change due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At present, three CONCACAF teams will qualify via a hexagonal, whose participants will be comprised of the six teams from the region with the highest FIFA rankings. The fourth-place team will advance to the playoff round where it will face the winner of a competition involving the remaining 35 CONCACAF teams. The winner of that round will then progress to the inter-continental playoffs, which is scheduled for March of 2022.
That schedule at the moment requires that CONCACAF World Cup qualifying be done by November of the previous year.
But the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with the FIFA international calendar, with matches canceled or postponed during the March and June windows. That has prevented teams from accumulating more points in the race to be one of the six highest ranked teams. In particular, El Salvador and Montagliani's native Canada are locked in a tight battle for the sixth and final spot, with El Salvador currently having the advantage.
"It brings in a little bit of an integrity issue when teams haven't been able to play," said Montagliani about the cancellations.
Montagliani added that the September international window, which is scheduled to contain the first round of games in the qualifying competition, was in danger of being postponed, which could further complicate decisions about the format.
He added, "What we're committed to is ensuring that whatever the format will be, [it] has to be a fit into whatever the new calendar is going to look like," as well as be done from "a sporting standpoint."
In addition to being the president of CONCACAF and a FIFA vice president, Montagliani chairs the FIFA Stakeholders Committee which recently announced recommendations on how to handle contracts that could expire while league seasons are still ongoing. The Stakeholders Committee is also examining how to proceed with the international calendar.
Montagliani plans to forge ahead with completing the final stages of the CONCACAF Nations League and qualifying for the 2021 Gold Cup. Men's Olympic qualifying, which was originally slated for March and was subsequently canceled, will still be hosted in Mexico. Getting those competitions completed will come at the expense of friendly matches.
"My responsibility is not just for the top six, or the bottom six ,or the middle six, it's for all 41 [member associations]," he said. "So we need to be cognizant that we need to try to in some form or other get everything done and if the format needs to change then it needs to change."
Montagliani said that decisions about the international calendar will largely be driven by how matters proceed with domestic leagues, with those leagues needing to open up before any international matches can be played. Travel considerations will also be a factor.
"You need to look at it through that lens of what is realistic in terms of allowing 40 people to jump on some form of transportation to go across an international border to play a football match," he said.
Montagliani also anticipates that when games do begin again, they will initially be played behind closed doors.
"I think it's unrealistic to think that you get the green flag, and all of a sudden, we're all rushing into an arena here watching matches or concerts or whatever public entertainment we're talking about," he said. "I think it's going to be a phased-in approach. I think that would be a prudent way to do it. And I think the likelihood of the first matches being behind with no fans is probably high."
He added, We all want it to start tomorrow. But the reality is we need to be prudent here. We need to understand that what's the most important thing is the health of our citizens and we need to help them any way we can, and obviously, we need to be realistic in terms of when football will come back. And it will only come back when the health authorities say that we're in a positioned to have it come back."