Paul Marcuccitti


 
Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The World Cup's "Super Bowl" Final



    I don't know a lot about American Football. But I can tell you this much - teams in its National Football League are members of either the American Football Conference or the National Football Conference. Each year, the winner of the AFC meets the winner of the NFC in the Super Bowl.

    I find it a strange system. If the two best teams in the competition both happen to be in the NFC, they simply can't meet at Super Bowl.

    This system also means that a team from one conference rarely plays a team from the other one. You'd expect there might be a healthy rivalry between the New York Giants and the New York Jets but, since 1970, they've met on only nine occasions. The Giants are in the NFC; the Jets are in the AFC.

    Can you imagine Liverpool and Manchester United only playing each other once every three or four years? Or AC Milan and Inter, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Rangers and Celtic, etc? The Old Firm derby is more likely to happen once every couple of months!

    Of course, American sport has a slightly different culture and the leagues of most major US sports have a set up similar to that of the NFL. Maybe they think we're strange.

    Mind you, I'm starting to wonder if FIFA has organised next year's World Cup in a way that gives us our own Super Bowl Final in Yokohama on June 30.

    I know what you're thinking and, no, Australia's hot December sun hasn't been getting to me. At least, I don't think it has. It's just that I've recently been contemplating a subtle change FIFA made to the knockout stages of the World Cup draw - a change that has significant consequences.

    In 1998, the two teams that advanced from a group went into opposite sides of the draw for the remainder of the tournament. France and Denmark, for example, advanced from Group C. France reached the Final and won while Denmark went out after its quarter-final against Brazil. But had the Danes beaten Brazil, they would have faced the Netherlands in the semi-final and, if they'd won that, they would have played France in the Final.

    So, Denmark and France, having been in the same group, could have faced each other again in the Final (or the Third Place match) but could not have played each other in a knockout match before then.

    For 2002, France and Denmark have again been drawn into the same group.

    But this time, the two teams that advance from a group will stay in the same half of the draw for the knockout phase. Therefore, France and Denmark can't meet in the Final - they could only meet in one of the semi-finals.

    In fact, FIFA has effectively given us two "conferences". Groups A, C, F and H form one conference and Groups B, D, E and G make another. One of the teams that reach Yokohama on June 30 must come from A/C/F/H; the other must come from B/D/E/G.

    Before we knew which teams were playing in which group, a lot of bookmakers had made France and Argentina their joint favourites for the World Cup. They are still regarded as the two most likely winners by most pundits but if France v Argentina was (or is) your dream Final, forget it - you ain't getting it. If they meet, it will be in either the Round of 16 or one of the semi-finals.

    Brazil and England find themselves in A/C/F/H as well. So you can also forget an Argentina v Brazil Final or one between England and France. And, of course, there's now no prospect of a repeat decider between France and Brazil.

    The best teams in B/D/E/G include Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Croatia. The Final won't be between two of those teams either.

    It sounds like Super Bowl to me. Effectively, two conferences of 16 teams are each providing a Finalist.

    The conferences have been blurred superbly by FIFA. No, I'm not suggesting anything sinister (yet). But groups A, B, C and D play in Korea while E, F, G and H play in Japan.

    Brilliant! That means each conference has two groups playing in one country and two playing in the other. FIFA made a big song and dance about the two CONMEBOL seeds, Argentina and Brazil, playing in separate countries (and for no apparent reason). They're in the same half of the draw though.

    So why has FIFA made this change to the organisation of the tournament? On the surface, it may not seem a big change but it has resulted in:

  • The amount of possible World Cup Final combinations being reduced from 496 to 256.
  • A number of potential "dream Finals" being taken away from us over six months before a ball is kicked at Korea/Japan.
  • The impossibility of two teams from the same group meeting in the Final if they were both good enough to make it.

    For us - the fans - the anticipation is slightly dampened. When we go through the draw to try and predict the outcome, there are half as many permutations.

    The amount of World Cup Final combinations is, of course, purely mathematical. The 496 potential Finals of France 98 included, for instance, USA v Jamaica. Similarly, punters can, fairly quickly, draw a line through the majority of the 256 possible combinations for the Final in Japan.

    But the normal (and just) thing to do is to have a system that allows any combination of the 32 teams to play in the Final. The European Championship is certainly organised in a way that gives an opportunity for any two teams to meet in its Final. Other confederations' championships are as well.

    In any case, the amount of realistic combinations is nearly halved just as the amount of theoretical combinations is. If, four years ago, you thought there were only 12 teams that had any real hope of making the France 98 decider, you would have been left with a potential of 66 different Finals. If you now think there are 12 teams with any chance of surviving until June 30, you are left with a maximum of 36 different pairings for the Final.

    If you hadn't really looked at the structure of the draw and reading this column destroyed the "dream Final" you might have wanted, I apologise. But don't shoot the messenger! France v Argentina is not necessarily the Final I want and, in any case, one or both of the two most fancied teams often fail to make it that far. It's just the best example to use because they're the favourites.

    Obviously, it could be argued that France and Argentina are likely to win their groups and, even with the 1998 system in place, they would be drawn to meet in a semi-final anyway.

    But as World Cup history shows, the big guns often don't win their groups. In fact, the '98 World Cup Final was the first in 28 years to feature two first phase group winners.

    The Argentinians could easily finish second in the frightening Group F. If they do, the 1998 system would then send them to the opposite side of the draw from France (if France won its group). Unfortunately, the 2002 arrangement has fewer variables. If the two World Cup favourites play each other, it will be in the Round of 16 or in a semi-final. End of story.

    Surely FIFA doesn't think that it's best to have a system which guarantees that the two Finalists didn't meet earlier in the tournament? It's happened only twice in World Cup history anyway - and famously.

    In the 1954 Final, West Germany defeated Hungary 3-2 just two weeks after the Magical Magyars had defeated the Germans 8-3 in a group match. Admittedly, the Germans fielded a weakened team in that five goal loss but Hungary was still the red-hot favourite for the Final.

    It's a story. Whether you think 1954 is a triumphant story or a tragic one, West Germany's against-the-odds victory is the stuff that World Cup legend is made of.

    In 1962, Brazil defeated the gallant Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the Final having drawn 0-0 with the Czechs earlier in the tournament. Until that 0-0 draw, the Brazilians had won every international they had played for nearly two years. Indeed, in the decisive match, Brazil didn't take the lead until the 68th minute - a statistic that suggests the Czechs were more than worthy of their place.

    One of the other by-products of the 2002 arrangement is that we're almost certain not to get a match between the co-hosts, Korea and Japan. Not only are Korea and Japan in separate halves of the draw, they will be playing all their matches ... at home ... now, wait a minute ... that's why FIFA has done it! It's all about the co-hosts, isn't it? The Koreans won't play a match in Japan unless they make it all the way to the Final. And the Japanese players won't need to find their passports unless they end up in the Third Place match.

    FIFA has arranged the entire tournament in a way that keeps the co-hosts at home knowing that neither country is likely to progress far enough to need to cross the sea that separates them. And, while the rest of us might be interested in seeing them play each other, it's the last thing the competition's organisers want. The pretence that this is a completely "shared" tournament simply can't be unhinged by, say, Korea needing to play Japan "away" in the Round of 16.

    Perhaps this is yet another example of how the decision to award the tournament to both countries created more problems than it solved - problems that started way back when the Asian Football Confederation realised there were less places on offer from its qualifying tournament because two Asian teams were getting automatic entry.

    FIFA probably thinks that having this "conference" system is no big deal. There will still be a World Cup Final; it will still have two excellent teams in it. Does it really matter if the tournament's glorious uncertainty is reduced?

    It should matter - a lot. The World Cup Final occurs only once every four years and, with an estimated audience of over two billion people, it's our sport's biggest showpiece. We have already been denied a Final between the two teams that are widely believed to be the world's best and a host of other combinations were also blown out the window when the contents of the plastic balls were revealed in Busan.

    There's too much predetermination. Maybe that's OK for Super Bowl but the World Cup is better off without it.


 

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