World Cup farce: FIFA adds seeds to UEFA playoffs to ease qualification for big powers

FIFA rig UEFA playoff to favor top sides; Photo by AsianFC

FIFA rig UEFA playoff to favor top sides; Photo by AsianFC

Fate seems hard enough to overcome, given the intervention of a beach ball on Liverpool’s title hopes. It’s even more difficult when the system actually is rigged against you. That’s what faces four European nations tomorrow.

The main round of European World Cup qualifying is now complete, with nine teams getting bids to the Finals by winning their group and the best eight runners-up going into home and away playoffs to determine the last four slots. The draw is set for Monday, with France, Russia, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, Ireland, Slovenia, and Bosnia vying for those last coveted spots in the Finals. But the playoff format was dramatically altered by FIFA just last month to seed the top four teams after it was evident that several big soccer powers would end up in the playoffs.

Changing the qualification format in mid stream to benefit top teams and players (principally Ronaldo) makes sense from a commercial standpoint. But it is a travesty for competitive fairness and further tilts an already uneven playing field against lower-ranked European teams, denying the world a look at some great players and some fantastic stories.

No one can plausibly argue that UEFA is not the strongest confederation in world soccer. There are, of course, some genuine minnows among its 53 member nations, but it goes at least eight deep in genuine contenders for the World Cup and its next tier of teams is also very strong. It clearly deserves the 13 World Cup places it gets and Germany, Spain, and England are obviously excellent teams and should be favorites to qualify for the Finals based on merit in any system.

The problem lies with the method UEFA chooses for qualification that is heavily tilted to the top teams at the expense of those in the middle. UEFA ranked all 53 teams according to the most recent FIFA world rankings and placed them into six pots based on those rankings, with the top eight teams in Pot A down through the bottom seven in Pot F. This means that a team in the fifth pot (Pot E) was guaranteed to face at least four teams ranked above them in competition for just one automatic berth in the World Cup. It’s remarkable that one team from that pot, Slovenia, has earned its way into the playoffs, an incredible achievement.

But now instead of going into a blind draw on equal terms with the other second place teams—as originally envisioned—Slovenia is once again disadvantaged and assured of facing one of the top teams in the world all because FIFA changed the rules in the middle of the competition. In its executive committee meeting on September 29, 2009, FIFA announced that it would seed the top four teams in the UEFA playoffs and that it would delay the October world rankings long enough to use that benchmark for the seeds.

There can be no doubt why they did this: in late September, France was almost certainly going to be in the playoffs, one of Russia or Germany would definitely be there, and Portugal needed a strong push just to get there. A France v Germany or France v Portugal playoff would have been an exciting matchup, but it would have removed one of the big soccer powers from the Finals detracting from the spectacle of the tournament. It chose to delay the October ranking specifically for Portugal (and Ronaldo) that would have been outside the top four and still not seeded if it used the results through the end of September. Portugal needed its last two wins to jump up in the rankings ahead of Greece, a needed hurdle if either Germany or Croatia had been put in the playoffs (something that looked likely at the time).

So after overcoming the odds just to be in the playoffs, Slovenia has to do it once more to make the finals. Anything can happen in a home and away playoff, but this format certainly favors the top sides. And while it helps to have top stars like Ronaldo make the Finals, it is shortsighted by FIFA to rig the system to get them in. Who could argue that little Bosnia making the World Cup Finals wouldn’t be a fantastic and compelling story that extends beyond the soccer field. The Bosnians have one of the world’s best players no one has ever heard of, Vedad Ibisevic, who scored 18 goals in 17 league games for Hoffenheim last season in the Budesliga before a torn knee ligament ended his season.

And it’s not just players you’ve never heard of that miss out. Welshman Ryan Giggs, clearly one of the best players of his generation, has never played in the World Cup. Wales didn’t perform well this cycle, but it was drawn in a group with Germany and Russia (both made at least the semis in Euro 2008), and a pretty game Finland side too boot. It would have been a herculean effort to overhaul those teams and just make the playoffs and criminal to then force them to face another top side.

Designing a qualifying system for UEFA is never going to be easy, with so many teams vying for so many places, it doesn’t break down into neat segments. But what UEFA and FIFA have come up with now is a transparently rigged system heavily tilted in favor of the top teams and big names. The governance of world soccer is a pretty shady business, but even by those standards, this is a travesty.

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One Response

  1. While I totally agree that changing things mid qualifying is shady, I disagree with a lot of the other points brought up.

    I think the way teams were initially seeded is totally fair, I’d hate to see a random draw make a group consisting of 3-4 traditional powers because we’d end up seeing someone who should go miss out.

    While it is nice to see a surprise team make the World Cup, it’s just a nice story and the story usually ends when they get 1 point in the group stage and get to go home. Personally I’d rather see the absolute best teams make the World Cup. It makes for more exciting matches and just a better overall tournament. I don’t think many people would care about the thing if it was full of tiny countries.

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