World Cup - the aftermath

Towards 2006. Qualification conundrum. FIFA rankings. Some strange awards.

Last Word

Four years until the next World Cup but the scramble for places has started. Next time round only Germany as hosts receive automatic qualification. Brazil will have to pre-qualify. Strange, that when the World Cup finals had only sixteen teams that nobody questioned the right of the holders to defend their title without having to qualify, but now that twice as many compete, there is no room for the reigning Champions!

So how will the places be divided up. The 1998 and 2002 tournaments both had 32 finalists and they were allotted as follows: Oceania: half a qualifying place with the regional winners facing a play-off. Same in 2002 as in 1998. Africa and Concacaf (North & Central America) had five and three places respectively in both tournaments. In 1998 South America had four plus the holders Brazil. In 2002 they had 4.5 (Uruguay beat Australia in a play-off). Europe had 14 plus hosts France in 1998 then 13.5 and France as holders in 2002 (Ireland beat Iran in a play-off). Asia had 3.5 in 1998 and 2.5 plus the two co-hosts in 2002. Europe and South America effectively conceded half a place each in order to permit the two co-hosts to qualify automatically in 2002.

Logically, 2006 should pan out as follows: Oceania 0.5, Asia 3.5, Concacaf 3, Africa 5, Europe 13.5 plus hosts = 14.5, South America 4.5. Those of you quick with maths will realise that adds up to 31. In other words there is an extra qualifying place released thanks to the decision to exclude the holders from automatic qualification. Where should it go?

The biggest noises are coming from Oceania and Asia. And conveniently giving each of these federations an extra half place would ensure one automatic qualification for Oceania and four from Asia. But would that be the right decision? If it had been in place this year, the competition would have gained Australia and Iran while losing either Ireland or Uruguay plus (had France qualified) one other European country from this quartet: Belgium, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey.

That's right. We could have lost either the runners-up or the third-placed team in order to accommodate a team which finished behind China and Saudi Arabia in qualifying.

While Australia are currently fairly strong and ranked at 50 in the world, the same could not be said of their regional opponents. Closest rivals are New Zealand, ranked 88th, who have just been beaten by Dunfermline Athletic! If Oceania do get a full slot awarded it could be read as FIFA denying automatic qualification to Brazil and in effect awarding it to Australia.

As for Asia's claims - they are simply laughable. In a World Cup contested on Asian soil for the first time, the continent's performance was lamentable. Discount the two co-hosts and what do you have? Two teams - China and Saudi Arabia - supposedly the best in the continent who, in six outings, couldn't muster a single goal between them and with 21 goals against. And they want an extra place! The way FIFA works, they'll probably get it. 'Pigs' Blatter owes for his re-election and he'll gladly pay what's due.

So who does deserve the extra qualifier? After the generally modest performances of its teams, UEFA doesn't have a shout for another place. But with nine of its fifteen teams making the second round, it doesn't deserve to lose anything either. Of the five African entries only Senegal made it past the group stages so there's no real claim for a sixth place. And despite their poor showing, there's no way Africa will have its number of qualifiers reduced.

South America is already ridiculously over-represented. 40% of its members are guaranteed a place in the finals. As the South Americans are stronger than Oceania, they will usually take a fifth place via a play-off so that means HALF the Conmebol federation takes part in the World Cup. No other federation comes remotely near that percentage (Europe is under 30%, Africa is exactly 10%, Concacaf and Asia around 8.5% and Oceania's half place represents 5%). And since Bolivia and Venezuela are highly unlikely ever to qualify, in effect only three South American countries with real qualification chances lose out.

This is South America's chronic problem. They have two countries - Brazil and Argentina - that are genuine superpowers. But, whereas in Europe, their is a strong second tier of nations behind Italy and Germany (Spain, England, France, Holland, Portugal, Belgium etc), in South America there is only a third tier behind the big two. The likes of Paraguay and Uruguay are closer to countries like Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and (dare I say it) Scotland in European terms.

Even with this gross over-representation, Paraguay were the only Conmebol side apart from Brazil to make the last sixteen. And they only got there by the slimmest of margins - more goals scored than South Africa.

The smallest federation, Oceania apart, in terms of qualifiers is Concacaf - the North and Central American teams. Yet look at their performances in this World Cup. Mexico controlled their group from start to finish, winning twice against European and South American opposition (Croatia and Ecuador) and drew with Italy after leading with just a few minutes to play.

Costa Rica didn't repeat their heroics of 1990 when they beat Sweden and another European country whose name escapes me. But they were eliminated only on goal difference in a group where the qualifiers finished as Champions and third. They were the only team other than Brazil that Turkey played and failed to beat. And their two goals against the Brazilians was exactly half the total the Champions conceded in the entire tournament.

But the biggest revelation of the lot was the USA. They destroyed Portugal, managed a draw against South Korea despite having a penalty awarded against them. They were poor against Poland, true, but that was the only really bad game played by any Concacaf side in the competition. Having overcome regional rivals Mexico, they were desperately unlucky against Germany in the quarter-finals.

So if any federation deserves another place it is Concacaf. If any deserves to lose a place it is Conmebol. Of course it would be possible to combine the two and have a single pan-American qualifying zone with eight places up for grabs. It would allow for smaller groups and fewer games. At the moment the South Americans play eighteen qualifiers. It would reward Concacaf for the improvement in their performances.

It would even provide comfort for the South Americans. After all, surely they'd take four or five of the places on offer? And if they couldn't, then they don't deserve to have them now.

It would also allow Oceania a guaranteed qualifier and leave the present European system of four internal play-offs plus one against an Asian side intact.

This would be fair and logical way to go about the qualifying process and settle the wrangles over the 'extra' place. So don't expect it to happen.

It IS Rocket Science

FIFA's rankings continue to baffle. Admittedly, I do not possess the doctorates in pure mathematics, nuclear physics and advanced rocket science that appear to be necessary to understand the ranking system but it still seems strange to me that Scotland can drop two places in a month while our Euro 2004 opponents Iceland rise two and leapfrog us in the process.

Iceland are now ranked 53rd while we are 55th. Yet Iceland have lost 12.5% of the points they gained during good World Cup qualifiers last June while Scotland had no ranking points to lose over the same period. FIFA work out their rankings over an eight-year period with each month's points progressively declining in value.

The only reason I can think of for our decline ( I can't say fathom - that would imply I understood the system) is that the points we gained in Euro 96 which were three-eighths full value last month have reduced by 33% to a quarter full value and the solitary point gained during World Cup 1998 which was worth five-eighths full value last month is now worth half full value this month. (Is anyone still with me?) As Iceland were not present at either of these tournaments, our decline is proportionately greater than theirs.

I should explain here that a ranking point gained in a friendly counts as 1, a Euro or World Cup qualifier as 1.5, Euro finals as 1.75 and World cup finals as 2.

Other weighting measures also come into play, based on the strongest countries in each continent. UEFA and Conmebol (South America) countries are ranked as equal. Asia is ranked at 90% of these, Concacaf (North and Central America) as 86% and Africa and Oceania as 84%.

If you really want to know how they do it, have a look here.

Guaranteed to drive you crazy.

And the winner is..WHO????

Just because the tournament is over doesn't mean that the controversial decisions have stopped. FIFA's official world cup website has proclaimed South Korea the most entertaining team of the tournament. Yes, that's the same South Korea that scored six goals in seven home matches. The same team that spent 210 minutes in the quarter and semi-finals without scoring once and with scarcely a shot on goal.

The only real surprise here was that the Koreans only got 61% of the vote. Poor show, Sepp. If you're going to rig a ballot you could at least do it properly and give them something like 99.99%. As for Brazil, they got a measly 8%. That's right. For every vote for the World Champions, the South Koreans got 7.5.

Oliver Kahn admittedly did have a superb tournament but does anyone seriously think that he merited the 'Player of the Tournament' award ahead of Ronaldo and his eight goals, including a pair in the Final? Or was this another 'diplomatic' award? Like the fair play title given to the Belgians who had suffered from an outrageous decision in their game against Brazil. The team with the fewest fouls committed and bookings received - Nigeria - received nothing for their efforts.

And while we're at it, FIFA have issued their post-World Cup rankings. Where do you suppose those fallen giants Argentina and France are? Somewhere in the twenties? Teens, maybe? Think again. According to FIFA they are the second and third best sides in the world. So what was all that business in Korea and Japan about then?

The place to gain all this incredible information is FIFA's official website which is rapidly becoming the Pravda of the internet.

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