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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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.
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
of many of the most influential players in history.
An A-Z collection
of strange and different stories in World Cup history.
A big collection
of various statistics and records.
since it was introduced in 1966.
knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information
on who keeps this site available.