Why the World Cup draw is inherently unfair

In the lead-up to Friday’s World Cup draw, there has been plenty of speculation about the seeds, pots, and best- and worst-case scenarios.  While doing my best to take part in the guessing game, it dawned on me: the World Cup draw is an inherently unfair system.  Not just “kind of unfair”–the kind of unfair one could justify for the sake of geographical diversity–but really, blatantly, unforgivably unfair.  Which teams suffer most?  Those from non-European regions.

The current draw is organized in the following manner:  Pot 1 is composed of eight seeded teams–the host and seven others determined by a formula weighing FIFA rankings and past World Cup performances (which, in fact, is already a component of the FIFA ranking formula, but that’s another story).  This formula is not made known to the public until after the final World Cup qualifier is played (if at all), which conveniently allows FIFA to unseed the undesirables (see USA (ranked #4) in 2006, France (hand ball) in 2010).  The other three pots are determined solely by geography.  UEFA gets an entire pot to itself.  The other four or five regions are divided amongst the last two pots, keeping all teams from like regions in the same pot (for example, all CONCACAF teams are in Pot 2 and all CAF teams are in Pot 3).  This is done to ensure that no more than two European teams end up in a single World Cup group, and no teams from smaller regions are forced to play a team they already went through two years of qualifying with.  One team is drawn from each of four pots and presto! you have your group stage set.

On the surface, this may seem fair enough–the desire for geographical diversity in the group stage seems innocent enough, and I can’t pretend that ending up in Mexico or Honduras’ group wouldn’t be somewhat disheartening–but the de facto outcome of the draw is a seeding system based on region rather than merit.  In the case of the 2010 draw, a team that has accomplished much by FIFA’s standards–enough to earn them the ranking of #14 (USA)–is at a significant disadvantage to less accomplished team from a more favorable region, like Slovakia (ranked #34).  While FIFA might point to past World Cup performances as justification for grouping confederations as they have, the smaller regions have always had the cards stacked against them in these draws–the playing field is not level.

I’ll admit going in that the FIFA rankings are flawed and are not an ideal measure for comparison (for example, I think most people would agree that Cameroon (ranked #11) are not the strongest team in Pot 3, nor is Ghana (ranked #37) the weakest), but they do provide a rough gauge of strength and will do well enough to demonstrate my basic point.  With that in mind, let’s get to know the pots for the upcoming draw a little better:

POT 1 – Seeded teams
Best team: #1 (Spain)
Worst team: #86 (South Africa)
Average team: #14.9 (#4.7 if you exclude South Africa)

POT 2 – CONCACAF, AFC, OFC
Best team: #14 (USA)
Worst team: #84 (Korea DPR)
Average team: #43

POT 3 – CAF, CONMEBOL
Best team: #11 (Cameroon)
Worst team: #37 (Ghana)
Average team: #22.5

POT 4 – UEFA
Best team: #5 (Portugal)
Worst team: #34 (Slovakia)
Average team: #19.4

Pot 1 is by far the strongest, as it should be.  These teams were placed here based on merit and signficant home-field advantage (it remains to be seen if any team can handle the vuvuzela).  The problem is the rest of the pots are far from equal.  For all teams to have an equal chance, the non-seeded pots must have similar (technically, identical) average rankings.  In the case of this field, Pot 1 is effectively the first seed, Pot 4 is the second, Pot 3 is the third, and Pot 4 is a distant fourth.  Teams like Mexico, the United States, and Australia are at a significant disadvantage to teams of lower rank–like Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ghana–simply because we are from or grouped with unfavorable regions.  To clarify this point, let’s take a look at some possible draws:

TEAMS FROM POT 2
Best group (average team FIFA ranking, pot representative excluded): #52.3
Worst group: #5.7
Average group: #18.9

TEAMS FROM POT 3
Best group: 68
Worst group: 6.7
Average group: 25.8

TEAMS FROM POT 4
Best group: 69
Worst group: 8.7
Average group: 26.8

Our best-case, worst-case, and average draws are all significantly worse than the other pots’.  Our average opponent is ranked 7.9 spots higher than UEFA’s.  Even Uruguay–a team that had to beat CONCACAF’s fourth-place team just to make it into the World Cup–has a better chance at a favorable draw than we, the champions of CONCACAF.  Teams from Africa, South America, and Europe have a 50% chance of drawing an un-seeded team ranked below 40.  We have a 0% chance.  And not one of these teams is from our confederation.

So how do we fix this problem?  The way I see it, there are three possible solutions:

1. We seed every team in the tournament using a transparent formula that is established prior to qualifying.  Seeding every team in the tournament based on merit would ensure equal opportunity for teams with similar credentials (the top teams from the smaller regions are not at a disadvantage to the bottom teams from Europe).

2.  Seed only the top eight teams, draw everyone else from a common pot.  Yes, the Group of Death (no, not that Group of Death) gets taken to a whole new level, but every team, regardless of region or “strength” gets an equal opportunity with this system.

Neither of these systems takes into account confederation, but geographical diversity should never preclude giving all teams–not just the Europeans–a fair shake.  For those of you who just cannot bear to wind up in the same group as Mexico, option #3 is the one for you…

3. Create a complicated system that avoids regional repeats without arbitrarily linking the smaller confederations.  Let’s face it–the true crime here is that we have no chance of being drawn with the Asian and Oceanic countries.  (Devising this system seems simple enough, but it’s more difficult than you might think.  If you come up with an idea, please post it below–we’d love to hear it.)

What bothers me most about this draw is that it is conducted under the guise of complete fairness–only the eight most deserving candidates are seeded and everyone else has an equal opportunity.  The truth is, the draw is stacked to maintain the status quo.  And we all know if the roles were reversed–Pot 4 doomed to a tougher draw than Pots 2 and 3–FIFA would do something to fix it.  But since we, the non-soccer-loving countries, are the ones being tossed aside, everything is alright.

The USA is the #14 team in the world based on FIFA’s own criteria–the fifth highest of any non-seeded team–yet our draw is inherently more difficult than 20 teams ranked below us. FIFA either need to admit that this is a tiered system that is set up to favor the old guard (call me a pessimist, but I’m not sure the world would really care), or set up a balanced, fair system. Until that time, as much as I love the World Cup, it is quite simply a flawed tournament. And no, an “easy” draw for the US on Friday will not change my mind.

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