We’ve reached the last international break of the main round of World Cup qualifying ends and again its time to start thinking about the World Cup draw. Last week I broke down some of the byzantine structure for the draw. Building off some great work by the guys at MatchfitUSA, I’ll look at the equally complicated seeding process, why it’s so important for non-European teams, and what has to happen (and who US fans should be rooting for) if the US is going to get one of the coveted seeds.
Even though it hasn’t released it yet this year, since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams and eight groups in 1998, FIFA has followed roughly the same formula for selecting the seeded teams that go into the first pot: performance in recent World Cups added to an average of the three most recent year’s world rankings. That sounds pretty straight-forward; trust me, it isn’t.
First off, for 2006 World Cup draw, FIFA switched the first part of the formula from counting performance at the last three World Cups to just the last two. So I’m making an educated guess by thinking that it will stick with performance in the last two tournaments. Within the World Cup performance score, it’s weighted towards the most recent tournament which counts twice as much as the earlier Cup. So this portion of the total points looks like this:
(2002WC + (2006WC*2))/3
The World Cup performance points are awarded based on how far each team advanced in the tournament. At the conclusion of each World Cup Finals, FIFA ranks all 32 teams in the tournament. For seeding points, each team that ranked 25-32 (finished last in their group) gets 8 points, those teams ranked 24-17 (finished third) get 9, and the 16th-1st ranked team get points totaling 33 minus their rank. So the #1 team gets 32 (33-1) and the 8th place team gets 25 (33-8). Obviously, if a team doesn’t reach the World Cup it gets no points.
The portion of the formula based on the world ranking is even more complicated. The three most recent year’s last world ranking each are given equal weight, but the formula uses a complex system to assign points for each year rather than the raw ranking. The points are awarded based on the team’s performance compared to the other 31 teams that make the World Cup Finals. For example, the United States world ranking in December 2007 was 19. But the teams ranked 13th, 14th, and 18th have already been eliminated from the 2010 tournament and it is likely that at least two others will also fail to qualify, meaning the US will be ranked 14th for the 2007 year and may be higher. A #14 rank gets 19 points using the same 33-14 method from the performance portion. The world ranking portion of the formula looks like this:
((33-(12/07 rank/32) + (33-(12/08 rank/32) + (33-11/09/32))/3
Getting a seed obviously means a team won’t have to face one of the other big powers in the opening round, which is clearly a huge advantage. But it’s even more important for non-European teams because of the three remaining pots of unseeded teams the European pot is by far the strongest. If a team winds up in one of the other two pots, which the US team definitely should it fail to earn a seed, it will not only face a major power but also a top European side. European teams that on current points won’t get a seed if they make the World Cup include the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Croatia, Greece, Sweden, Switzerland, and Denmark. I’d still take Australia or even Paraguay (the toughest of the unseeded South American or Asian teams) over a match-up against Greece or Denmark.
It’s so hard for unseeded non-European teams to advance since the tournament expanded to four, eight-team groups (eliminating the option of advancing while finishing third), that only two have reached the quarterfinals; the United States and Senegal, both in 2002. Six of the eight seeded teams reached the quarterfinals in 2006, and the two that went out were matched up against other seeded teams in the second round.
Getting a seed is vital to reaching the quarterfinals, and reaching the quarterfinals is an important factor in getting a seed. Not only does a team get a huge point bonus for reaching the quarterfinals in the tournament performance, it boosts a team’s world ranking as winning World Cup games dramatically raises a team’s ranking for that year, which affects its ranking points. It creates a massive feedback loop that help keeps top teams coming back year after year. Nothing can overcome a team’s poor performance, but it’s a lot easier to advance out of the group stage when facing Paraguay, Sweden, and Trinidad and Tobago (England’s group in 2006) than it is against Italy, Czech Republic, and Ghana (the US’s).
The US doesn’t have the pedigree of the regularly seeded teams like Brazil, Germany, and Italy and it may seem a stretch to think the US could get a seed. But in 2006, the US team was just one place out of the seeds and Mexico did get one that year, so it’s not out of the question that the United States could break into this group. Two major obstacles standing in the way, however, is the US’s poor performance at the 2006 World Cup (which is the one that counts double) and FIFA’s policy of always giving the host nation a seed. South Africa is currently ranked 77th in the world and would otherwise have no chance of receiving a seed, meaning only the top seven in the points standings will be seeded this time around.
Since the formulas are based on two things we don’t yet know the final answers to—the exact makeup of the 32 teams in the tournament and the final November 2009 ranking—there are variables at play that make exact predictions difficult. Of all the teams still alive in qualifying, the United States ranks 12th behind (in order), Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Argentina, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Mexico, and Croatia. If all those teams qualify, the last seed would go to France. It’s too late in the process for the US to leapfrog any of these teams in the rankings, so for us to get a seed, a lot of these teams must fail to qualify.
The good news is that while Brazil, Spain, England, and the Netherlands are in and Italy is on the verge, at least of couple of them are in real trouble. Argentina currently sit in fifth place in South American qualifying, outside of the automatic places and in jeopardy of needing a playoff against the fourth placed North American team or of missing out all together unless it stops its precipitous slide. Portugal is currently in third place in its qualifying group and needs two good wins and results to go its way for it to even make the playoffs. France is headed to the playoffs. Croatia is a favorite to make the playoffs but still could be pipped by Ukraine. Germany faces a tough road game in Moscow to secure its place or it could be headed to the playoffs as well. (A primer on European qualifying will come later this week.)
Portugal is the most likely to miss out, but for the US to get a seed, Germany, Argentina, France, and Croatia would all have to falter. It’s not out of the question but it has to rank as a remote possibility. US fans should be rooting for Sweden over Denmark (which would keep Portugal out), Ukraine to beat England (moving them above Croatia), Russia to beat Germany (pushing them into the playoffs), and Argentina to continue to struggle against Peru and Uruguay.
That’s a lot of results that have to go exactly right – and then teams like France, Germany, and probably Argentina would still have to lose in the playoffs – for the US team to get a seed. It’s highly unlikely that we will break through this year. But there are other ways that the US could get into an easier group, and I’ll be breaking those down later on this week and we get ready for the big clash with Honduras on Saturday.