FIFA’s World Cup Organizing Committee meets tomorrow to finalize the procedures and placement of teams for the World Cup Draw to be held Friday in Cape Town. One key remaining decision is which region—either the South or North Americans—is placed in the pot with the five unseeded African teams. One might think that FIFA would have made these decisions much earlier than just two days before the draw. But that would have denied FIFA the chance to tilt the playing field in favor of certain teams—one of its favorite activities. With that in mind, it is in FIFA’s interests to put the US in the pot with the Africans which would likely result in an easier group.
The 32 team field is divided into four, eight-team pots to select the eight groups for the first round of the World Cup Finals. The first pot consists of the eight seeded teams, the host South Africa and the top seven teams in FIFA’s complicated seeding formula. The second pot is made up of the eight remaining unseeded European teams. That leaves 16 teams for the last two pots, five unseeded Africans, five from Asia and Oceania, and three each from North/Central and South America.
For reasons we discussed in detail here, it would be vastly preferable for the US to be placed in the pot with the Africans. Individually and as a whole, the African teams are better than the Asian teams, and being in the same pot would eliminate the prospect of facing a solid African team energized by playing in the first World Cup in Africa in the group stage. Going into the same pot as the Asians also means the US would have no chance of being drawn with genuine minnows North Korea or New Zealand. And being placed with the African teams significantly increases the chances of being drawn with South Africa, thus avoiding the other powerhouse seeds.
FIFA has not yet, and as far as I can tell has never, released the criteria for how it matches up the remaining regions into the last two pots. For the 2002 World Cup, the US and the other Concacaf teams were placed in the pot with the Africans. But four years later, we wound up in the pot with the Asian teams. Some have argued that FIFA uses the regional coefficient to match up the highest ranked regions in the same pot, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence to support that.
One of the reasons it’s hard to find FIFA’s procedures is because they are often subject to change, usually to benefit high profile teams or players. Just recently, FIFA altered the playoff format for the final four European World Cup places to ease the path into the Finals for glamour teams like France and Portugal. It should be considered likely that FIFA’s decision on the placement of the North/Central and South American teams will be made along similar lines.
To most American soccer fans accustomed to getting the short end of the stick, that might seem like bad news. But this time around FIFA has strong reasons to put its thumb on the scale in favor of the US team. FIFA has a serious commercial interest in soccer’s success in the United States as we are making a strong bid to host the tournament in 2018. FIFA is extremely interested in bring the tournament back to America after the 1994 event set attendance and revenue records while soccer was only on the fringes of the American sports scene. A good run in the 2010 World Cup would further solidify soccer in the United States.
Additionally, the American team’s excellent showing at the Confederation’s Cup should not be discounted. FIFA have promoted the Confederations Cup as a major tournament and, as a consequence, probably don’t want its just beaten finalists to be placed in an extremely tough group and go out of the tournament in the first round.
It’s virtually impossible to predict what FIFA will do, but they do have a genuine interest in putting the US in the African pot. We’ll find out tomorrow.