Monday, December 05, 2005

The Leipzig List

Back on October 11, I noted that because of FIFA’s silence, fans of England’s national football side had been reduced to speculating on the yet-to-be-manipulated seeding rules for the 2006 tournament.

“We asked FIFA if we would be seeded or not and what are the rules and they did not answer,” said manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

The answer comes tomorrow in Leipzig, with FIFA’s announcement of the privileged top-eight teams. Each seeded team is assigned its own group in the competition, ensuring that the seeds cannot face each other until the knock-out phase.

Typically, just one of the eight seeds faces serious opposition in a “Group of Death,” while the others get a free-pass. England bucked its destiny in the last tournament, advancing with Sweden against Group F opponents Argentina (the seed) and Nigeria. France bucked its destiny as well. Served up Senegal, Denmark and Uruguay, the defending champions choked, failing to score a goal in their three matches.

While those results were momentarily satisfying (at least until David Seaman strayed from the goal line in the quarterfinal), England can’t rely on beating the system every time. The best strategy for tournament success is to be seeded. With host Germany guaranteed a place, seven spots remain open.

In any other sport, we’d already know where England placed, based on an objective and transparent system. But FIFA is notoriously secretive about the “formula” behind its seedings, if indeed a formula exists. For the 2002 Cup, it was described simply as a “composite” of results from previous two tournaments and FIFA rankings. How these factors are scored and weighted is confidential.

Will the secret formula reward England? Sepp Blatter has already dropped some pointed hints about tomorrow’s outcome.

“I think the national teams of Holland and England have reason to be worried,” he said. “Even Italy might not get a place.”

Even Italy? Blatter presumably intends this as a gesture of evenhandedness – evidence that FIFA is not driven by a pro-Continental bias. But it is a false comfort, because Italy is in no way deserving of a place. Its team hasn’t ranked higher than 10th in the world in over a year, and last cracked the top-eight in May of 2002. A seeding spot would be based solely on four- and eight-year-old tournament performances.

On the flip-side, an exclusion of the Netherlands would be shameful. In 34 of the past 36 months the Dutch have ranked 6th in the world or better, and have placed ahead of England, Italy and the USA for virtually the entire inter-cup period. The only strike against them is the failure to qualify for Korea/Japan, after defeats in the qualifying tournament against Portugal and Ireland. Four years on, it seems unreasonable for this to be used against them.

If the seeds were based on the November world rankings (which are themselves derived from a problematic formula), tomorrow’s outcome would look like this:
A. Germany (host)
B. Brazil (841 world ranking points)
C. Czech (796)
D. Netherlands (791)
E. Argentina (774)
F. France (772)
G. Spain (771)
H. Mexico (768)

On the outside looking in would be USA (766), England (757), Portugal (754), Turkey (749) and Italy (741).

The best argument against using the world-rankings is that teams in weaker conferences (Mexico, USA) are better able to rack up ranking points than the powerhouse European sides. This is a fair point, and one faced by other sports such as US college football. It also seems reasonable to look at the rankings over the whole inter-cup period, rather than base the seeding on a snapshot in time.

On both those grounds, England could have a chance. The team mustered a 14 month run in 6th – 8th place from mid 2004 to mid 2005, before a recent fall to 9th. And while facing tough European competition, it nearly equaled Mexico’s world point totals.

But could England displace a red-hot Mexican side? Led by El Zorro del Desierto, the Tricolours scored 67 goals in qualifying – nearly twice as many as the next most prolific team, the Czechs. Mexico then went on to defeat Brazil at the 2005 Confederations Cup, allowing only 1 goal in their preliminary round matches against Brazil, Japan and Greece, before losing a scoreless semi-final on penalties to Argentina. That’s a better record against world class competition than what England has compiled recently.

Based on their understanding of the formula, the BBC picks Mexico, England and Italy to make it through tomorrow, at the expense of the world’s #2 and #3 teams, Netherlands and Czech Republic.

That sounds optimistic to me. The English press found justifications for their side to make the grade last time, and it didn’t happen.

My money’s on Mexico to make the Leipzig List. If FIFA gives strong weight to past tournament results, then England’s quarterfinalist status from 2002 (and the Dutch absence) will see Sven’s squad seeded. But if the seeding is meant to recognize the best teams in the world today, and promote a strong tournament, then a more honest outcome would reward the Dutch and Czechs.


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