Is Geography killing the FIFA World Cup?

The Republic of Ireland is out of the World Cup, defying the general pattern established over the decades following Italia 90 wherein the Irish team generally failed to qualify for the competitions that were located close to home (France 98, Germany 06) while qualifying for competitions taking place on the other side of the world (USA 94, Japan/South Korea 02). The ‘hand of Henry’ may have have been part responsible for this, but perhaps more insidious was the ‘hand of Blatter’ and the dodgy FIFA decision to seed the European play-off matches (undoubtedly to protect countries such as France and Portugal), thus rewarding the big countries for under-performing in their qualifying groups while punishing smaller countries such as Bosnia, Ireland and Slovenia for having the temerity to rise above their stations in performing above expectations in their qualifying groups. Seriously folks, don’t get me started…

It also begs the question why countries like Ireland, Bosnia, Russia and Ukraine in Europe, Gabon and Egypt in Africa and Costa Rica in North America ended up having to navigate through tough qualifying campaigns only to narrowly miss out, while a country such as New Zealand (the “All Whites”) got through by beating…er…Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Bahrain. It is important that – as it’s a World Cup – all the continental regions are represented but surely there has got to be more to qualifying that beating a small Gulf state and a few small Pacific Island states (and the “All Whites” did end up losing one game to the mighty Fiji) – who are more renowned for their rugby prowess? With it proving very difficult to qualify from Europe (or well nigh impossible if you are not a seeded country) or Africa,  just how fair can the current qualifying process be? Is Geography killing the World Cup???

Now that the French and Portugese – as well as the “All Whites” – are safely through and the Irish and Bosnians out, FIFA is now moving on to the draw for the finals. There will be 32 countries taking part, with a certain number of countries qualifying from the different continental federations, and these will be divided into eight groups of four countries – Groups A to H – with the hosts, South Africa, as top seeds in Group A.  Countries will be drawn from four pots – one of which contains the seeded countries based around current FIFA rankings (South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and England). The remainder of the pots are organised on a geographical basis, but this results in some real differences in quality between the teams that can be drawn from certain pots.

Pot 2 is a good case in point – this contains teams from North America, Asia and Oceania and means a seeded country could get a difficult draw here in terms of the USA or Mexico (or in the case of Italy, either North Korea or South Korea!!!) just as easily as being drawn against the aforementioned and already maligned Kiwis. Pot 3 (Africa and rest of South America) in fairness does not contain such extremes in terms of footballing quality – African teams such as Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana offer as difficult a prospect as the South American teams (Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the generally perceived ‘easy team’ in this pool, Algeria, has already knocked out the African champions, Egypt, as well as having a proud World Cup history that involves a victory over Germany in Spain 82! Pot 4 contains the rest of the European countries and – like Pot 2 – this involves a decidedly mixed group of teams, including World ‘giants’ such as France and Portgual on the one hand (albeit ‘giants’ that were not good enough to win their qualifying groups unlike most of the other teams in this pot) and lesser lights such as Switzerland, Slovenia and debutants, Serbia and Slovakia, on the other hand.

Further adding to the geographical flavour of the draw;  the FIFA website notes that when it comes to the actual draw, “geographical criteria will also be respected, meaning that no two teams from the same confederation will be drawn in the same group (except European teams, where a maximum of two will be in a group). For example, South Africa cannot play the African teams from Pot 3 and Argentina and Brazil cannot be drawn against the three remaining South American teams”. Thus South Africa are now 33.3% certain that they will be playing Paraguay or Chile or Uruguay in their one of their opening group games.

With these various geographical stipulations, the draw on Friday (4 December) is likely to result in one or two real “groups of death” – where a seeded team such as England finds itself drawn in a group involving teams like Mexico, Cote d’Ivoire and France – and a few ‘groups of sleep’ – where a seeded team such as Brazil ends up with a much easier draw involving New Zealand, Algeria and Slovakia. Some seeded teams will get the chance to slowly build up momentum, while others will be invovled in a bitter fight just to get past the group stages. With one or two hotly tipped teams’ campaigns likely to end prematurely (when it comes to the World Cup, one of these teams usually tends to be Spain!) and another four years until the next competition, is this another case of Geography killing the FIFA World Cup? You could claim it as just a case of the luck of the draw? Perhaps. But then again, as we’ve seen, the luck of the draw seems to tend to favour some countries more so than others… Maybe to make it a fair playing field, it’s time to think of detaching geography from the process.

PS: Following on the hot tip in the “Jedward” post that Lucie Jones was the one to back, this blog suggests that hard pressed readers should consider putting a few bob on Brazil or Argentina or Uruguay – South American teams always win when the competition is outside Europe and the team that wins the World Cup usually tends to be a team that has won it before! So we can reduce the list of ‘usual suspects’ down to these three!!! 

PPS: And yes, this hot tip was ultimately as useful as the Lucie Jones hot tip, as none of the South American countries even made the final. Not alone was Spain not one of the hotly tipped countries to make an early World Cup exit, but the Spanish went on to win the competition for the first time and become the first European country to win the competition when it was hosted outside of Europe. I’m beginning to lose faith in my predictive abilities… 😦 

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