Going to seed

Scotland captain Darren Fletcher. Image: i.eurosport.com

Next month will see the close of another round of qualification for a major international football tournament, as the final participants for Euro 2012 are decided. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re Czech), Scotland failed to qualify for their seventh major tournament in a row. This being a blog whose topics are, for the most part, based in Scotland, I thought I’d explore why Scotland struggle so much to qualify for major tournaments these days. A generous  appraisal might be that the problem is with the qualification system, as opposed to the Scotland team. Could it be that the UEFA qualification system is unfair?

Taking Scotland as a case-study, since failing to qualify for Euro 2000, the national team has been in something of a rut. Qualification groups are drawn up based on seeding which is configured by contemporary world ranking, and for Scotland, this has meant something of a cycle of failure. Since failing to qualify in 2000, Scotland’s FIFA world ranking tumbled, and as a result, at the next qualification tournament, for the 2002 World Cup, Scotland were no longer considered a top seed team, subsequently facing a tougher task in qualification. Faced with a tougher qualification group, Scotland again failed to qualify, and again suffered a fall in their world ranking. This cycle repeated in 2004, following which, Scotland slumped to their lowest ranking in their history, to 88th in 2005.

It was in the midst of this cycle that Scotland played some of their best football ever. Placed in a qualification group for Euro 2008 which featured Italy and France – the reigning World Cup champions and defeated finalists respectively – Scotland pushed both teams to their limit, beating France twice and seriously challenging Italy at their second meeting. Scotland would have required a minor miracle to qualify for the tournament from that group, and though they nearly achieved that feat, it is not surprising that they didn’t. The deck was most certainly stacked against not only them, but the other lower ranked teams in that group who were given a near impossible qualification task for no other reason than that qualification groups are drawn in such a way to ensure the safe passage of the elite teams.

Scotland are not the only team to have fallen victim to this cycle. Like Scotland, Austria were a part of the World Cup in 1998 but failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and were punished by a dramatic plummet in the FIFA rankings. At their historical high in 1999, at 17, they slipped up in 2000 and fell to 44. Again like Scotland, they have not since qualified (at least not on merit) for a major tournament, and hit an all-time low ranking of 105 in 2008. Going in to the qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, Austria have the deck stacked against them once more, having to tackle Germany, Sweden and Ireland to reach the tournament or contest a playoff birth. They have been put in a group designed to not allow them to qualify.

UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying draw. Image: static.guim.co.uk

An obvious retort to this complaint is that in order to qualify for the World Cup, you have to be good enough to do so, and that Austria clearly are not. But the fact is that, because of the structure of qualification, based on seeded tiers of world rankings, certain teams who, objectively, are skilled enough to play in the World Cup will have to face an inordinately difficult task to qualify. There will be 31 teams besides hosts Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, but in order to qualify these teams will not have to prove they are one of the 31 best teams in the world. In Austria’s case, since they are guaranteed to face an elite team in their qualification campaign, they will instead have to prove they are the third best team in the world to qualify, by taking good results from their matches against Germany, who currently hold that position in the FIFA world rankings. This wouldn’t be an issue if Austria were drawn against Germany by sheer chance. That would be the luck of an unlucky draw. The problem is that Austria, and teams like them, are guaranteed to face one of the best teams in the world at every qualification attempt.

At the other side of the spectrum, the elite teams never face this problem. Of course their talent means that most teams they face will be weaker than them, but when it comes to qualification, top seeds never have to prove themselves in the same way; because of systematic bias, they are never asked to defeat the very best teams in the world in order to qualify. While Austria will have to beat the third best team in the world, Germany will only have to beat teams ranging from 25 at the highest to 132 at the lowest. Indeed, intentional or not, the current qualification system offered by UEFA is favourable to the top seeded, or elite teams. They are caught in the opposite cycle; a cycle of success. Because they are guaranteed groupings with weaker teams, they are protected from any real challenge in their campaign, and so almost guaranteed a safe passage to the finals.

 So far, this appears to be just a systemic problem, but could there be a more human bias in play? Controversy surrounded the qualification playoffs for the 2010 World Cup when FIFA made a last-minute decision to seed the teams in contesting the playoff matches, despite indicating at the start of the tournament that seeding wouldn’t be a factor. Some higher ranked teams like France, Portugal, Russia and Greece, who had played below their potential, were seeded higher than Ireland, Ukraine, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia, in spite of the fact that Ukraine and Slovenia had achieved more group points than some of the higher seeded teams. After the decision was made to add seeding to the process, Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given spoke out against FIFA’s move:

“We deserved to finish second, Russia and Portugal deserved to finish second,  so I do not see how it should be different for them and for us. You would just like to think it would be fair for everyone. Why should these teams get preferential treatment?”

 Given obviously has a vested interest here, but his point is fair. The teams were divided at the start of the tournament according to rankings, giving the higher ranked teams an advantage, and the teams were again divided at the playoff stage to again give the advantage to the elite teams. All the teams which finished second in the group stages achieved the same thing, so why were the lower ranked teams deliberately given a harder draw? Could it be a case of all teams being equal, but some being more equal than others? There were certainly claims that FIFA were protecting world football’s big names while wanting to keep them in their high-profile tournaments. Of course the World Cup should be an exhibition of the best football the world has to offer, but if a top seeded team doesn’t perform well enough to qualify, they don’t deserve to be part of that exhibition. Not only that, but the tournament can definitely ‘survive’ not having an elite team or two there; in fact, it would surely only help to add more unique character to that particular tournament.

Thierry Henry’s handball in France’s World Cup 2010 qualifying match against Ireland. This indignity was heaped upon the original indignity of FIFA’s rush decision to make the qualifying play-offs seeded. Image: newsimg.bbc.co.uk

Though this article is focused mainly on UEFA, almost every other continental confederation employs seeded tiers in their qualification processes. The only example of a confederation that pays no heed to world ranking is found in South America.  CONMEBOL confederation uses a truly fair system. Because only ten teams contest qualification, every team can play each other twice, in a round-robin system, without necessitating too many games. World ranking means nothing here and so each team has the exact same opportunity, with the top four teams gaining automatic qualification and a fifth entering the CONMEBOL/CONCACAF playoff for another spot. It wouldn’t be feasible for every team in Europe to enter in to one big round-robin tournament, simply because, logistically, the 53 teams involved would have to play 104 games. But there is no reason why the UEFA qualification groups can’t be drawn without world ranking playing a part. Instead of groups being drawn tier by tier and consisting of teams from each of the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth tiers of quality (an inexact science in itself), any team should be drawn from the same pool, and have an equal chance of being drawn with every other team in Europe. No systematic bias, just qualification based on the luck of the draw and the subsequent performance; and if that breaks the footballing status quo, so be it.

In all likelihood, these changes would make little difference to the teams that qualify for major tournaments, or at least to whether or not the top teams qualify. What they would achieve is a feeling that these nations qualified from an even playing-field, and not one which already favours them. The top seeds deserve to play in major tournaments, and should be able to qualify no matter what group they are assigned. If proving this is not the point of qualification, I am not sure what is. To purposefully protect elite nations from challenges makes a mockery of FIFA’s tournaments, and of the ranking their success stories have earned.

by David Jackson


One response to “Going to seed

  1. interesting article. I’ve got a suggestion on how to make the world cup qualification and final tournaments fairer (and much more exciting).

    1. The new world cup will be a knockout tournament from start to finish. You take the highest rated team in the Fifa ranking and get them to play the lowest placed team, the second highest against the second lowest, third highest vs. third lowest and so on and so forth. So under the current ranking Spain would be drawn against San Marino, Netherlands against Samoa, Germany against Montserrat.

    2. These ties will take place over seven games. With the higher seeded team playing four games at home and three away. And the tie will be decided on aggregate score over the seven fixtures.

    3. If the higher seeded team win they will, in the next round, face the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition, whereas the lower ranked team will face the next highest ranking team remaining in the competition. So if San Marino manage to defeat Spain over seven legs they will be rewarded with seven games against the Netherlands. Whereas Spain will face Samoa assuming that the samoans defeat the dutch in the first round.

    4. The final will be played over seven legs in seven neutral venues in a country which is inconvenient for both teams. So if its Spain vs. Netherlands they can play in Central African Republic. If its Brazil vs. Tahiti, they can play in Malta.

    5. No other football can take place whilst the tournament is on.

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