The timing was definitely odd. Usually in professional sport, the norm is that you have the rules of the competition laid out for everybody before it begins. That way all involved know exactly where they stand and any room for misunderstandings is minimised. Pretty basic stuff, right?
Well, if you are FIFA apparently not. Because, rather than get all the rules and criteria for World Cup qualification established early, Sepp Blatter and co waited until only two games of the European World Cup qualification group stages were left to announce that they will be using a seeding system for the European play-offs.
It took a recent meeting in Rio da Janeiro for FIFA President Blatter and co to finally get round to working out exactly how they will arrange the play-offs. “We have decided on seeding the teams into two groups of four, taking the FIFA world rankings into account, with the top four in one pot and the others in another pot,” Blatter told the world at the end of September.
“There will be a separate draw to decide home and away,” he added of the two-legged ties that will determine four European places at South Africa 2010.
An angry Trap
The decision to seed the play-offs will be seen by many as a conscious effort by FIFA to favour the traditionally strong nations that are currently struggling to make it out of their groups. The likes of France, Portugal and Germany all face the prospect of a play-off should they finish runners-up in their respective groups, and FIFA’s ruling makes it far less likely they will have to play each other for a place at the World Cup.
Instead, lesser nations who have fought hard to get to where they are, with fewer resources, have been denied the chance of a random draw and now face a daunting two-legged play-off against one of the highest ranked teams in the world. This infinitely hampers the chances of nations like Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ireland making it to the World Cup. Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni reacted furiously to the decision, describing it as “like killing football,” while Ireland keeper Shay Given called it “disgusting.”
“This solution is a bit like killing football,” Trapattoni told Italian media ahead of Ireland’s crunch game with Italy. “A few years ago the big European clubs thought about creating a ‘SuperLeague’, but they abandoned the idea because they saw the risks of this. This is a similar solution. Every national team has the same rights, and making a seeded draw goes against this principle. But of course, the business of the big teams controls everything.”
Manchester City goalkeeper Given also waded into the debate. “It’s incredible that FIFA has taken a decision like this precisely when the bigger teams are struggling to qualify. It’s actually disgusting,” he claimed. Ireland are four points behind Italy in second place of their group, so almost certainly face a play-off to go to South Africa.
Incompetence or a deliberate plot?
Unfortunately for FIFA and Blatter, both the decision and it’s timing open them up to accusations of favouring the larger nations. After all, the bigger nations provide more lucrative sponsorship deals and within the halls of FIFA Germany have far more influence than, say – Slovenia.
But, assuming for a moment that rigging the draw to aid the big countries’ chances of going to the World Cup was not the motive, why did FIFA wait so long to announce this decision?
The match schedule for World Cup 2010 qualification was determined on 6th January 2008. And in Europe, qualifiers began in September of that same year. So why did Blatter allow another year to pass before announcing the rules for the play-offs?
FIFA’s lack of transparency here smacks of a gross lack of organisation at best. At worst, it is a conscious and cynical decision to lubricate the larger nations’ path to South Africa. While the rules have not necessarily been changed (the 2006 UEFA play-offs were seeded too), allowing people to assume an open draw would take place and then suddenly announcing a seeding system just weeks before the end of qualifying will be taken by many as a sign of favouritism – accusations FIFA could easily have avoided with a bit more clarity and decisiveness.
What do you think? Is Trapattoni right? Can FIFA’s actions here be put down to sheer organisational incompetence? Or is there something more sinister going on behind the scenes?