By Wednesday night the make up of the automatic UEFA qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup finals will be known and it is at least possible, if not likely, that there will be one or two surprises amongst them. Serbia, for example, only need one win from their two remaining matches against Romania and Austria to condemn France to second place in their group, whilst it is almost certain that, in spite of having two comfortable home matches against Hungary and Malta as their final two fixtures, the “lottery of the play-offs” will be the best that Portugal will be able to manage and they might yet even lose out on second place to one of Denmark, Sweden or even Hungary. Even Germany may only finish in second place in their group, a scenario which will become considerably more likely should they lose to Russia today.
Are the play-offs still a lottery, though? At the end of last month, FIFA announced a U-turn and confirmed that, rather than being an open draw as they had previously stated, the UEFA play-offs for the 2010 World Cup finals will be seeded after all, meaning that, should they end up there, the likes of France, Germany and Portugal will avoid each other in the draw for the play-offs, significantly improving their chances of all making it to South Africa. The decision has been met with fury across Europe, most notably in the Republic of Ireland, where the Ireland coach Giovanni Trappatoni drily noted that, “I thought it was going to be an open draw and in the future, they have to think about the rankings and change the system. But business is business”.
His players could hardly mask their anger that the game’s authorities have decided upon such a volte face. Goalkeeper Shay Given said that, “”There are people high up in delegations and maybe their countries are needing a hand to qualify”, while midfielder Kevin Kilbane said that, “It is a joke, let’s be honest, because they always seem to bend the rules”. Ireland will certainly suffer under these changes. An open draw would have given them an equal chance of drawing, say Bosinia-Herzegovina or Slovenia to the chance of drawing France, Russia or Germany. Under the changes to the format, they will almost certainly have to play one of the latter.
The obvious criticism to be laid at the door of FIFA is that they are rigging the draw to ensure that the countries with the most attractive television profiles make it there, even if they can only do it by slipping and stumbling through the door. The fact that this decision has been made so late on leaves them prone to this criticism. Even the Irish players, as quoted above, seem unhappier at the fact that they have performed this about turn so late rather than because they don’t think that the play-offs should be seeded. If we take it as read that teams don’t perform consistently throughout qualifying campaign, might the Ireland players have performed differently in their eight matches so far. After all, they are unbeaten throughout their qualifying matches but they dropped points in Montenegro and Bulgaria. These matches might – just might – have ended up different had Ireland known that they would have ended up the bottom seeds in the play-offs should they make it there.
There are arguments that can be made for and against the very nature of seeding. On the one hand, the concern remains that teams probably shouldn’t be able to effectively qualify for a World Cup finals through the back door having had a lucky draw at the expense of better teams that have had an unfortunate one. On the other, however, the seeding of competitions can feel like the imposition of a hegemony upon the game. It is enough of a struggle for smaller nations to finish in second spot in a UEFA group (consider, for example, the cases of Slovakia and Slovenia, who have overcome Poland and the Czech Republic to be the top two teams in their group with two matches to play), only to find that they may be guaranteed having to play Russia or France in the play-offs). Why should France, who have had a wretched qualifying campaign by their own standards, have an easier play-off draw because of past results that, in all honesty have nothing to do with the 2010 World Cup finals. There is definite logic behind seeding the groups, say critics, less behind also seeding the play-offs.
This issue, however, isn’t really the issue that grates with the decision to seed the UEFA play-offs for the 2010 World Cup finals. It is the timing of it that has caused all of this criticism. It is not unreasonable to expect to know the exact rules of the competition are going to be before it starts, and anything less than that is selling countries that have entered these tournaments short. No-one can say for certain whether FIFA deliberately took a decision to change the rules as soon as it looked possible that some of the “bigger” (and therefore televisually more attractive) countries might struggle to qualify, but the fact that the decision was made at the end of September when some of the “bigger” (and therefore televisually more attractive) countries are struggling to qualify leaves them prone to this criticism, even if it is unfounded.