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.