Fifa seeding ‘fix’ another blow for fairness

This blog risks becoming an an anti-Fifa rant – but the football governing body’s latest decision heaps more ridicule on their independence and role as protector of all things football.

In late September they announced that the play-offs for the European section of the World Cup qualifiers would be seeded.  They tried to hush it up as much as possible, hiding amongst debate about the current hot topic of the time – Olympic sports.  Farce-fiddler in chief, Sepp Blatter, wibbling on about ‘soccer’s’ place as an Olympic sport – as talk moved on to rugby sevens and golf as the latest Olympic money-wagons.

The timing was also critical as well.  Left any later the cries of ‘fix’ would have been deafening.  With two fixtures left in most of the World Cup groups they tried to sneak it under the radar.  At the time the list of teams that may have ended up in the play-offs included: France, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic – amongst others.

A tournament without the majority of those teams, with the likes of Slovakia and Serbia having the audacity to qualify ahead of the ‘big boys’.  Lille’s Robert Vitek just isn’t as ‘sexy’ as va-va-voom Thierry Henry – and won’t appeal to nearly so many sponsors – sorry, ‘Fifa family’ members.

Teams like the Republic of Ireland, having already battled through their seeded group – bravely overcoming Bulgaria and running World Champions Italy close – face another seeded draw.  It’s just plain unfair.

Put it this way.  How would you feel if one of those many plucky Brits at Wimbledon – someone who’s not Andy Murray – battles their way to the Grand Slam’s semi-finals.  They managed to beat the number three seed early on in the tournament and raced through heroically to the last four.  Then, with dreams of a thrilling final against a Federer or a Nadal in SW18 – the All England Club say: “Ah, hang on old chap – can’t have you wrecking our lovely, planned Rafa v Roger final… we’ll just re-draw things so you face the toughest possible opponent.”

The outcry would be huge – and fully justified.  Fifa are effectively doing the same to the likes of Ireland, Bosnia and England-conquerers Ukraine.

If the groups end up, as expected the eight play-off teams will be: Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Russia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Ukraine, France and the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa will now fix, sorry ‘seed’ the draw according to the Fifa rankings – oops, sorry, the Coca-Cola World Rankings (I kid you not, look).  So: Russia (ranked 6th); France (10th); Greece (12th); and Portugal (17th) cannot be drawn against one another.  Slovenia (54th), Bosnia (46th), Ukraine (25th) and Ireland (38th) will have to take their chances.

The fact that in order to finish second in their group Slovenia have already overcome four teams ranked in Fifa’s top 50 is neither here nor there.  Nor that Ireland battled through a group including two of the top 20 ranked teams.

This is motivated by money, power and greed – pure and simple.  Look at the size of the seeded nations and therefore the size of the wallets of those country’s TV stations.  Look at the heavily sponsored stars in each of those teams.  Fifa run the unthinkable risk of a tournament without the likes of Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Ribery, Andrei Arshavin etc.

Sean St. Ledger and his Ireland team-mates will just have to jump through another hoop to have any chance of qualifying.  And if they don’t?  They miss the tournament and their Fifa ranking is damaged again.  The vicious circle is spun once more and Fifa twiddle their fingers and get hearty slaps on the back from the power-brokers of the Football Associations of the big-hitters.

Football lives for the upsets, the battles of David v Goliath.  Think of the most exciting matches you’ve seen, of the most famous cases of a plucky underdog thrilling a horde of fans.  The sad truth is, David doesn’t pay as well as Goliath so the tournament ‘bouncers’ Fifa put up a “Sorry, no trainers” policy as they usher their ragged and tattered mates in through the side door.

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Rio’s blues could cost Green

Rio Ferdinand is currently being hauled over the coals after his chronic lapse in the match against Ukraine.   Many are questioning his place in the team if not the squad – at least until he’s 100% fit, both physically and mentally.

However, Rio’s lapse which resulted in Rob Green’s red card (the first England goalkeeper to be sent off) – and it’s the West Ham man who may end up paying the price for Ferdinand’s all too familiar lapse in concentration.

Green was just starting to establish himself in the England team.  Having been picked ahead of the returning David James, Green lined up against Ukraine for his sixth consecutive England cap.  His run started back in June, away to Kazakhstan and quadrupled Green’s caps – from two to eight.

After the much trumpeted Ben Foster has flattered to deceive for both club and country Green found himself in the box seat to be James’ understudy for the World Cup in South Africa.

Indeed, by picking Green ahead of the fit-again James, England boss Fabio Capello had sent a clear message that even the seemingly inked in James’ place wasn’t safe.  James had lost his place through injury and Green, stepping into the breach had performed well – he deserved to keep his place.

It was a smart bit of management by Capello – the message being: “Take your chance when it comes and World Cup places are still up for grabs.”  With the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Owen, Gabriel Agbonlahor and many more setting their sights on South Africa this was a great carrot dangled by the gaffer.

Thirteen minutes into the action in Dnipropetrovsk, Artem Milevskiy was in a heap and Green’s World Cup dreams hang by a thread.   Ferdinand stood, statue-like watching as Milevskiy darted past him, exposing Green horribly.

James was called on from the bench (also denting Aaron Lennon’s World Cup hopes as he was sacrificed) and Green is now suspended for the only remaining competitive match before the World Cup.  The errant Foster has been recalled to the squad for the match against Belarus.

Portsmouth ‘keeper James is still the most likely to start between the posts when England’s World Cup campaign kicks-off.  However, as recent knocks have shown James is becoming more injury prone as he ages – and as we all know only too well every knock seems to take longer to heal with every passing year.

Green position as first alternative looked assured after some steady performances in James’ absence.  However, the Hammers’ stopper still lacks top level experience – not helped by his dismissal and subsequent suspension.  Assuming he makes Capello’s squad he’ll have only eight caps – plus any more he can glean in the meaningless friendlies before the tournament.

Should the worst happen and James pick up a knock during the tournament would you pitch in a relative novice against the likes of Brazil or Germany?  The prospects of the much improved (and 40-capped) Paul Robinson are looking healthier by the day.