viernes, 27 de noviembre de 2009

To seed or not to seed

The Fifa World Ranking for November 2009 shows Spain back as global number 1 again, after their friendly victories against Argentina and Austria. However, Fifa have also said that the November list won't be used to seed teams at the World Cup, because those nations involved in play-offs this month had an unfair opportunity of getting more points than those who, already qualified, were playing only friendlies, which count for less in these rankings.

This makes some sense, as the gains made by the teams involved in play-offs are, as far as the world ranking is concerned, rewards for failure. However, all this matter is another element that adds to the perceived cloak-and-dagger style with which Fifa and Uefa tend sometimes to conduct their footballing organisation.

There will be eight groups in the World Cup, and therefore, eight seeds. One of them will automatically be the organisers, South Africa, and another one the current champions, Italy. But then, for the other six spots, we have as many as eight powerful candidates in Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Two of those just won't make it into the top pot and will be considered stray mines who could make the inevitable "groups of death" explode. Who will miss out? Apparently, having a look at the several ways of slicing and dicing it, those in danger are two out of England, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Spain look safe as one of the seeds, but so they thought before Italia 90, and that time, at the eleventh hour the goalposts were moved in favour of Belgium, who thus added insult to the injury of having eliminated the Spaniards at the Mexico 86 quarterfinals on penalties (how things have changed. When the groups for Euro 2012 are drawn this February, Belgium are likely to be in pot 4).

Back then, the protests centered on the fact that Spain had made it to Euro 88 and Belgium hadn't. Now, in 2009, Spain's chief merits lie again in their results in the European, not the world, game. If results from previous World Cups are counted, discarding the Euros and Fifa's ranking, Spain might find themselves out of a seed once more.

Let's remember: 2006, second round (eliminated by France), 2002, quarter-finals (eliminated by South Korea), 1998, group stage (finishing behind Nigeria and Paraguay), 1994, quarter-finals (out against Italy). This is less than stellar, and only Spain's consistency in qualifying for everything could save their spot by the skin of their teeth.

What will happen? Probably, Fifa will try out several criteria in private and then will choose the one which yields the seeds they prefer. Then they will announce and trumpet those criteria as The Fairest Thing That Ever Was. Or at least, that's what everyone seems to think Fifa will do.

On the one hand, if this is not true, it looks like it is, and on the other hand, at the end of the day, why shouldn't Fifa seed as they please? They organise the event. Wimbledon does it all the time in tennis, not really using the world rankings for their decisions. What really irritates everyone, I suppose, is Fifa's attempt to cover what is in fact a corporate decision (on who gets star billing) with a patina of alleged respectability and neutrality: look, we didn't cherry-pick the seeds, we followed such and such criteria, without bias. Yeah, right.

The same thing happened with the play-offs for the last four European slots: after knowing the identities of the eight teams involved, it was decided that the draw for the elimination games would not be open, but seeded.

I strongly support that it was the correct thing to do: a weaker team shouldn't get to the finals because the stronger teams were bunched up in the other side of the draw, made to eliminate each other way before time. France v Portugal at this stage of the tournament would have been unfair, two of the best 15 teams in the world being told that only one of them would make it into a showdown for the best 32. If Bosnia or Ireland wanted a second chance after failing against Spain and Italy, they should get one against stronger teams, if there were some left, as was the case, not as lucky losers against each other. I fail to see how some people call the dumb luck of an open draw fairness.

Will Fifa and Uefa ever address this, laying clear rules, with every nut and bolt decided beforehand, and lasting forever, from one qualifying phase to another, until people know it from memory? Probably not. Just when the World Cup looks settled at 32 teams and the Euros at 16, there could soon be a change in the number of finalists, and therefore in the format of the qualification phase.

Add to that the fact that sometimes you have organisers who have to be seeded even when they're hardly international powers (Austria, South Africa, Poland next), and you see why both bodies might want to let the door ajar to keep slipping in and out, daggers and cloaks at the ready. But just don't ask us not to notice, please. You're stading stage centre, in full view of a global audience!

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