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. Continue reading