So FIFA is killing soccer. That is the opinion of the Italian who now coaches the Republic of Ireland, Giovanni Trapattoni.
The immediate cause of Trapattoni's sinister accusation is an unexpected announcement from FIFA that it is going to seed the European teams that have to play off later this year for a place in next year's World Cup. He called that "a bit like killing soccer."
The seeding procedure will apply to the second-place teams from eight groups -- including, in all probability, Ireland, which currently lies in second place in Group 8, four points behind Italy, with two games to play.
The previous means of deciding who should play who among that group was a simple draw: all eight teams went into the pot, and were drawn out successively, with 1 playing 2, 3 playing 4 and so on. Very democratic.
Now, FIFA will seed the four best teams -- meaning the four teams with the highest positions among FIFA's world rankings -- and put them in a separate pot, thus ensuring that they do not have to play against each other. In the other pot will go the less likely four which will -- again, presumably -- include Ireland.
With his gloomy prediction for Ireland's fate, Trapattoni is of course jumping the gun. But things don't look good for the Republic. The bad news for Ireland is its 38th place ranking on the FIFA world list. This puts virtually all of the likely second-place finishers ahead of it, and almost certainly ensures that Ireland will go into the second pot with the minnows and will have to play a team ranked above it.
Only three groups have so far been decided, and they include Group 9, which has been won by the Netherlands, which is thus guaranteed a place in South Africa. Group 9's second-place team, Norway, is unlikely to finish among the top eight second-place teams that reach the playoffs.
Looking at the other groups, England has won Group 6 and Spain has won Group 5. Likely second-place finishers are Croatia or Ukraine in Group 6, and either Bosnia-Herzegovina or Turkey in Group 5.
Of those four, only Bosnia-Herzegovina (at 46th) ranks below Ireland. These are the second-place options in the other groups: it will be either Germany or Russia in Group 4; Group 1 is wide open - it could be Denmark or Sweden or Portugal or Hungary; in Group 2 Switzerland, Latvia and Greece are all possibilities, as are Slovenia, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic in Group 3. Group 7 looks like either France or Serbia, with Bulgaria the likely team in Group 8.
That makes a total of 19 possible teams. Alas, 14 of them are ranked higher than Ireland. Of the other five, Sweden (41), Bosnia-Herzegovina (46) and Hungary (47) are only slightly behind Ireland; the stragglers are Slovenia (54) and Latvia (58).
Statistically, then, Trapattoni's Ireland is highly likely to find itself playing a higher-ranked team, possibly even France or Russia, which are Top 10 teams.
Obviously, what Trapattoni really meant was that FIFA is killing Ireland's chance of World Cup qualification. But does he have a point anyway? I rather think he does. Actually, I strongly favor seeding -- but not at this late stage of the competition.
Preferably, seeding would be done at the beginning of qualifying. It has never made much sense to include teams like Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino (who is ranked 203rd, dead last in the world) in the these groups. Ideally, I'd like to see a preliminary round of qualifiers in which, say, Europe's 16 weakest teams (decided either on the FIFA rankings, or possibly on their finishing positions in the previous World Cup qualifiers) play each other. Four groups of four would produce four winners, who would then enter the main competition. One obvious advantage is that such a system would reduce the number of teams by 12, and therefore the number of games -- mostly meaningless games.
There is an objection to such a system. One that carries a lot of emotional weight. A preliminary round would deprive the 12 eliminated teams -- not of their chance of winning the World Cup, that's too absurd to contemplate --- but of playing a game or two against a top team, Spain or England or Italy, say. Now that is a big deal -- a rare chance to draw a big crowd and to make some money.
I am not sniffing at the commercial advantage here -- it is very important to the small countries, and why should they be locked out of the immense wealth circulating in the sport? Well, they needn't be. FIFA could quite easily offer financial compensation to those countries.
But once the small countries have been eliminated -- once we are down to the eight second-best teams in Europe, I don't see the need for seeding. Indeed, it seems downright unfair -- especially as it will be based on a team's rather artificial world ranking, rather than its immediate performance in the group games just played.