England’s Seeding

December 2, 2009

England have been confirmed as one of the top seeded teams going into the World Cup in 2010. Other “top seeds” are Spain, Italy, Holland, Argentina, Germany, Brazil and World Cup hosts South Africa.  England’s confirmation as a top seeded team means that they have a potentially easier route to the later stages of the competition…

Of course, England haven’t really been worthy of top seed status for a few years now, and despite an impressive qualifying campaign, you really have to question if England should be seeded ahead of France and Portugal. You remember France? They won it in 1998 and were Runner Up in 2006, as well as winning Euro 2000. And Portugal, I do vividly remember them beating England in 2006 and also beating England in Euro 2000.

With Portugal and France missing out on seeded status, it makes the group stages fairly interesting. England could well have to take part in the now seemingly obligatory “Group of Death” containing The United States, The Ivory Coast and…France.

So, why have France missed out on seeded status this time? Jerome Valke, Fifa’s General Secretary, has been forced to deny that the French are being punished covertly for Henry’s handball. That’s probably true, England’s qualifying campaign and performance in friendly matches in 2009 has certainly been far superior to France’s.  But there is no doubt that England’s selection as a top seeded team is certainly an eyebrow raiser.

I suspect that the main issue at play here is money. It’s in Fifa’s best interests to ensure that England stay involved in the competition for as long as possible. England fans are where the money is, we spend the most, it’s as simple as that. The South Africans need the English South African rand to soothe their battered economy.

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Oh how the sport’s governing bodies get on my nerves. First, we see UEFA backing down to the big clubs in the diving furore, and now it’s FIFA’s turn.

All the way through the World Cup qualifying, we were told that the draw to the play offs would be unseeded, an old fashioned winner-takes-all draw with no benefits to anybody. Now, FIFA notice that Portugal, France and Russia have missed out on first place in their groups so they move the goalposts.

What happens? The Irish get the most difficult available task of course: the French. Obviously, Ireland could have drawn France anyway but there was an air of inevitability about the draw being made from the moment Sepp Blatter made his seeding announcement.

There were two arguments given by FIFA as to why they took this decision. The first is a footballing reason. Blatter claimed a World Cup could not be the same without the ‘big guns’ of World football. Maybe not, but if the ‘big guns’ aren’t good enough to qualify that’s just hard cheese isn’t it? It’s not like the goal posts are moved so that Northern Ireland, Wales or the Faroes have a better chance, why should things change for Portugal?

The second idea is that it was a purely commercial decision. This theory seems to think that for some reason, sponsors will pull out without the likes of Ronaldo and co in the competition. Yeah right. This is the biggest tournament in the world’s most popular game. If one sponsor wants to pull out, let them. There will be about 20 others willing to take their place.

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni was quick in his condemnation for Blatter’s idea, urging him to reassess his priorities or face the ‘death of football’. Ireland keeper Given also criticised the plan, calling it ‘disgusting’. In a withering attack, Given raged at the timing of Blatter’s announcement, coming with just two games remaining in the qualifying stage.

“There are people high up in delegations, and maybe their countries need a hand to qualify. The rules should be laid out clearly before any ball is kicked and then there’s no dark cloud or whatever. It’s ridiculous how they can make a decision now when some of the big-name nations are maybe struggling to qualify. It’s totally unfair on the smaller nations. It’s pretty disgusting, to be honest. To change it at this stage is beyond belief. It’s crazy and I don’t know how they have got away with it or how the smaller nations like ourselves haven’t put up a bigger fight. All the nations should try to kick up a fuss, not just us, because I don’t believe it’s right.”

And of course, he’s right. For too long now have football draws favoured big nations, and big clubs. The Champions League, the greatest club tournament on Earth, is now also the most boring tournament on Earth as the last 8 (or even the last 4) is painfully predictable.

It’s time for a shake up. If you weren’t good enough to qualify for a major competition by winning your group, then the back door should be closed until you unlock it yourself. And for the sake of the game, Blatter must be made to see this. He’s announced he’s running for a fourth term in 2011, but federations should refuse to nominate him until he understands this fundamental error in his leadership.

And as for the Champions League, all seedings should be thrown out the window, along with country protection. Can you imagine a group featuring Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona? Now THAT’S European football.

As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.