Thursday, December 5, 2013

FIFA's folly as Groups of Death beckon

2014 World Cup Draw 
Friday 13:00 local time (17:00 GMT), Costa do Sauipe, Brazil.

Ah World Cup draws, those ersatz episodes when FIFA tries to do showbiz.

It was not always thus. The blazers and ties of bigwigs and bureaucrats sufficed for years.

Remember the Spain ’82 draw when the little matadors and flamencistas took the wrong balls from the wrong urns - some groups were bigger than others. That was my favourite.

The USA ’94 draw in that soccer hotbed of Las Vegas set the tone for future extravagnzas, with Robin Williams at work and James Brown and Barry Manilow amongst the crooners.

The use of celebs is surely redundant as the World Cup is watched by all and sundry anyway and the only people taking time off work to follow the draw are already aficionados.

“Heidi Klum has sent us to hell” cried Serbian daily Blic in 2005 as the German supermodel’s choice of ball had dumped them in a ‘group of death’ with Argentina, the Ivory Coast and the Netherlands.

Are certain balls ever heated or chilled to ensure shenanigans? I doubt it, though to my untrained eye the hosts always seem to land cushy groups.

This year the seeding seems utterly barking: in case anyone had forgotten, FIFA is crazy, irrational, unfair and unfit to run football. I would like England to play the USA and Colombia for emotional reasons, but I would take anyone as long as Joe Hart does not do a ‘Rob Green of Rustenburg’.

With the Europeans’ dismal record in the Americas, five entrants including the host and two other seeds, CONMEBOL looks to have it in the bag anyway.  Chile dazzled when beating England 2-0 at Wembley last month, while Colombia, boasting star striker Radamel Falcao make a welcome return for the first time since 1998 having finished second in the South American table behind Argentina.

But don’t write off the holders just yet or the other big Eurostars – Germany, Holland and Italy, for that matter.

I am most keen to watch Japan next summer. Their dismissal of Denmark in 2010 was a frightening warning of how far Asian soccer had come, I thought, and only Paraguayan penalties halted their advance.

Brazil has a sizeable Japanese expat population and the connections between the two countries run deep in soccer with many Brazilians having coached in Japan, most famously Zico.  Nippon will not feel lost in Brazil.

Roy Hodgson mentioned the heat could affect Northern European teams like his but England performed better in baking Mexico in 1970 and ’86, reaching the Quarter-Final both times, than in chilly South Africa in 2010, where they struggled out of an easy group before being hammered in the Second Round.

But back to the seeding, which is more proof of how Sepp Blatter’s FIFA has lost the plot. How on earth are Italy and Holland unseeded while Belgium and Switzerland are? Why are South American group qualifiers Chile and Ecuador unseeded while Uruguay, who only made it via the playoffs, a seed?

According to the byzantine detail of the World Rankings, the eight seeds are correct: The host nation plus the top seven ranked nations in October 2013.

The Netherlands just missed out in eighth spot, followed by Italy and England. This was due to them playing a friendly against former possession Indonesia, a weak opponent which afforded the Dutch few points in the FIFA World Rankings as a result.

For historical reasons England too played weaker nations this year – Scotland and Ireland, and slipped down the charts. Strong nations are tougher to beat of course but the ranking difference a win brings is invaluable.  

If friendlies were not counted by FIFA, then Chile, Holland and Italy would replace Colombia, Switzerland and Uruguay as World Cup seeds and no-one would be crying foul.

Quite clearly the system is so flawed that Friday’s draw could throw up any of the following nightmare groupings:
  • Germany, Chile, Japan, Netherlands
  • Brazil, England, USA, Italy
  • Argentina, France, South Korea, England
  • Spain, Chile, Honduras, Netherlands
The possibility of a real Group of Death or two is there. And FIFA must shoulder most of the blame for persisting with a pedantic rankings system in defiance of common sense.

Yet national associations like the F.A. and the Dutch K.N.V.B. should also have done their homework while planning their friendlies for the season leading up to the World Cup draw.

Pot One: Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay and Switzerland.
Pot Two: Chile, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Cameroon, (plus one team from Pot Four)
Pot Three: Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, USA
Pot Four: Bosnia, Croatia, England, France, Greece, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Russia (minus one team)

 (c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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