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Look beyond France for seeding explanation
by Ridge Mahoney, December 3rd, 2009 7AM



[WORLD CUP 2010 DRAW] Well, FIFA has fooled us again, or so it thinks. Four years after devising a complex formula to determine its eight World Cup seeded teams, it reversed course 180 degrees to fall back on stark simplicity.

In both cases, it - deliberately, I suspect -- rewarded at least one nation at the expense of another, and no, I do not refer to the alleged and utterly false notion that it hosed the USA in favor of Mexico to place our southern neighbor in the elite eight for the 2006 competition.

FIFA used 50-50 split of the past two World Cup results and rankings over the previous three years; when the numbers were crunched and the smoke cleared, Mexico was fifth and the USA sat in ninth, just behind Argentina. Had it used the last three World Cups, and not rankings, as had been the case in previous tournaments, France - despite winning the competition in 1998 - might not have been seeded, since it didn't qualify in 1994 and flamed out in the first round of the 2002 event.

That Mexico had been ranked seventh at the end of 2003, 2004, and 2005 and accumulated a higher score in the previous two World Cups (1998 and 2002) despite losing to the USA in the round of 16 of the latter competition escaped mention in the American press, yet exist nonetheless. By getting out of the first round while the USA was stumbling to the worst mark in 1998 it accumulated a larger head-to-head edge than did the USA in 2002, despite beating Mexico.

But that was then, and now, well, here we go.

Officially, FIFA determined the seven seeds to join South Africa strictly by its own rankings, but not those compiled last month at the close of qualifying, including playoffs. Instead, it reverted to the rankings of October, when all group play except that in Africa had concluded, using the rationale that all European teams in contention for a seed had played an equal number of games. Thus it disregarded the playoff results of the eight countries who met in the two-game series.

It decided on this scenario, supposedly, despite FIFA having devised pages and pages of formulas and weighting factors to compute its rankings, which are revised monthly based on competitive results, with good results against higher ranked teams earning more points than those against weaker teams. Games against teams in different confederations are also weighted differently, based on results of countries from those confederations in recent World Cups.

France, on the surface, is the team that got hosed, as its results against Ireland in the playoffs dropped its rank from seventh in October to ninth in November. Now, with all that complex mathematical calculations, surely FIFA could have devised a fair weighting system to value results of those teams that played extra games so as to not punish teams that played fewer. But it didn't have to.

The insidious Thierry Henry handball that led to France's vital overtime goal in the second playoff game is the smoking gun upon which critics have focused. Aha!, they deduce, FIFA punished that transgression indirectly by excising France from the seeded teams.

To buttress the claim, it can be pointed out that the decision rewards England in reverse, for in the October rankings, England is seventh; in the November listings, it is ninth. As a team that qualified directly out of group play, rather than a playoff, it would be logical for England to be ranked higher. (Don't be surprised if, as a makeup, France gets into South Africa's group, along with at least one creampuff, relatively speaking. Conspiracy theory? You bet!)

Let's look at the highest ranked teams to get a sense of another reason why FIFA did what it did, which has little to do with math and everything to do with politics. Remember, rather than use its latest rankings, it went back a month, when they stood like this:

October: 1-Brazil; 2-Spain; 3-Netherlands; 4-Italy; 5-Germany; 6-Argentina; 7-England; 8-Croatia (which didn't qualify for the World Cup); 9-France; 10-Portugal.

After the playoffs and the completion of group play in Africa - another wrinkle not addressed in FIFA's official explanation --- this is the top 10:

November: 1-Spain; 2-Brazil; 3-Netherlands; 4-Italy; 5-Portugal; 6-Germany; 7-France; 8- Argentina; 9-England; 10-Croatia.

Bit of a hard bump for Portugal, which jumped five places by beating Bosnia-Herzegovina in the playoffs. Nice job, sorry, never mind, you're out of the picture.

But which nation, besides England, also backed into the top seven? Uhh, hmmm, oh yeah!

Can you imagine the political firestorms and logistical snares that would ensue if Argentina wasn't seeded? The Henry outrage would be but a ripple compared to the stormy seas that separate Concacaf and UEFA; the Argentines are already incensed that FIFA suspended Diego Maradona for spouting off; and the snug array of teams neatly potted by region would be scattered across the stage in Cape Town. Not a pretty picture to present to the world, eh?

I can't say if Argentina also benefitted from the formula used in 2006, since by the computation formula used it scored 44.0, compared to the USA's 42.7. (Eighth place merited a seed, as host Germany sat fourth at 49.3., a bit better than South Africa's current rank of 86th.)

But for 2010, regardless of what else went on, Argentina got a very good bounce.


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