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The World Cup seeding puzzle
by Ridge Mahoney, December 1st, 2009 7AM

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[ANALYSIS] Now that FIFA has seen fit to pull rank, pun intended, to seed teams for the European World Cup playoffs based on its rankings of national teams, could it perhaps incorporate those rankings to group teams for the tournament itself on merit, rather than geographical and political considerations? Not likely. World Cup grouping is a numbers game, not a balancing act, and even though FIFA altered is seeding formula for the 2006 tournament to incorporate its rankings it probably won't take the process beyond determining the eight seeds to head the eight groups.

Yet maybe it should, or at least broaden its guidelines to reflect the disparate levels of World Cup performance shown by countries outside of Europe and South America in recent years. In the past, it has thrown African and Asian nations into the same pot, or combined Asian countries with those of Concacaf.

Prior to the last World Cup, FIFA abandoned its formula of seeding countries based on their performances in the previous three World Cups, which would have been the 1994, 1998, and 2002 competitions. Instead it adopted this formula to calculate scores for each qualifying nation:

Half of a national team's score consisted of points awarded for combined performance in the last two World Cups, with the 2002 competition counting twice as much as the 1998 final placing;

The other half of the point total incorporated the FIFA rankings as they stood at the end of 2003 and 2004, and after qualifying play concluded in November 2005. The year-end rankings are an average of the monthly rankings, which are computed by a team's performance in competitive matches. Each of those three rankings counted equally.

Let's take a look at how the groups might unfold if seeding was used to distribute the 32 World Cup teams into pots, mindful that regardless of what process it uses to determine the seven teams to be seeded along with the host, FIFA groups countries geographically to get a diverse distribution of confederations:

Pot A: South Africa (host), 1-Spain, 2-Brazil, 3-Netherlands, 4-Italy, 5-Portugal, 6- Germany, 7-France;

Pot B: 8-Argentina, 9-England, 11-Cameroon, 12-Greece, 14-USA, 15-Mexico, 16-Ivory Coast, 17-Chile;

Pot C: 18-Switzerland, 19-Uruguay, 20-Serbia, 21-Australia, 22-Nigeria, 26-Denmark, 28-Algeria, 30-Paraguay;

Pot D: 33-Slovenia, 34-Slovakia, 37-Ghana, 38-Honduras, 43-Japan, 52-South Korea, 77-New Zealand, 84-North Korea.

These are the final 2009 seedings computed after the completion of qualifying play Nov. 18. If used, they would comprise only a fraction of a team's score, yet they illustrate how different the process might be if only rankings were used to allocate teams into pots.

In the African qualifiers, Cameroon could have been be edged out by Gabon (No. 48), and in the playoffs Slovenia upset Russia (No. 13). Bosnia-Herzegovina (No. 51) could also have shaken up the lineup had it knocked off Portugal, which by virtue of reaching the semifinals in 2006 would justify receiving a seed.

Both Bahrain and New Zealand were well out of the top 50 when they met in a playoff and were destined to be placed in the lowest-ranked pot. In fact, three of the four Asian qualifiers -- now that Australia has moved into that confederation out of Oceania, which is represented by New Zealand -- are ranked in the bottom quartile anyway, so lumping them together in one pot can be justified on grounds of performance as well as geography.

The lowest ranked team in the field of 32 has been in place the longest. That would be host South Africa, ranked 86th . Ouch! That placing is several slots lower than Hexagonal also-rans Trinidad & Tobago (81st ) and El Salvador (82nd ), and not that far ahead of Cuba (96th ). For this World Cup, as was the case at the 2008 European Championship co-hosted by Austria and Switzerland, not many teams will fear being grouped with the host, no matter what the homefield advantage.

After it determines the eight seeds in Pot A, with South Africa, Brazil and Argentina likely to be joined by five European teams, FIFA will probably group the eight remaining European teams in Pot B. All it will need to do then is make up two more groups of eight, combining those regions with five qualifiers (Africa, Asia/Oceania) with those of three (Concacaf, three remaining from South America).

Logic would suggest the higher-ranking teams be "rewarded" by being placed in the same pot, with a greater chance to fall into a group with the lower-ranked Asian teams. But logic and FIFA aren't necessarily compatible.

Both Concacaf and Africa have two teams ranked in the second tier, so should the representatives from those confederations be potted together, with the South American trio mixed into the Asian quintet? Or do the five from Africa join those three from South America, with Concacaf and Asia making up Pot D?

On Wednesday FIFA is supposed to announce its allocation of countries into the four pots, and by what formulae it arrived at determining the eight seeds.


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