Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
Read earlier columns
Food for thought
great times? Teams from Oceania have been slaughtering teams from South
America; Australia continues to win; and there's a great match to look forward
to this weekend.
OK. OK. If you really have to, you can pull me up on one very minor
detail - I've been talking about the Rugby World Cup not FIFA's.
But you can't really blame me. Australia is currently hosting the tournament
and, yeah, I'm enjoying it. I've attended three matches and watched plenty
more on television.
If you don't know much about rugby, its World Cup might seem to be an oddity.
This is a world where there is no debate about whether or not Oceania should
get a spot - at the RWC finals, we've got 5; a world where the Uruguayans
atoned for their crushing defeat at the hands of Samoa by scoring an "upset"
victory over Georgia; a world where New Zealand is a superpower while the USA
and Japan are minnows. Perhaps most frightening of all is the fact that
Scotland has never failed to successfully make it through the group phase of
Mind you, there are some similarities between Rugby's biggest tournament and
FIFA's showpiece. The French are still "les Bleus" and the Italians are
still "azzurri"; even when they're doing well, the English are criticised for
their style of play; and the governing body and the referees are accused of
favouring the stronger nations. (Before any rugby fans write in and complain, I
agree, in many cases the weaker nations' grievances are quite legitimate.)
The Rugby World Cup, of course, isn't as good as ours. If I thought it was, I'd
have found a rugby website to write for in my spare time. This tournament has
exposed the gulf that exists between the great and the not-so-great and it has
lacked upsets. The 4 quarter-finals were contested by the 8 founding members of
the International Rugby Board and, if you'd put money on Australia, New
Zealand, England and France being the 4 contestants in last weekend's
semi-finals, your payout would not have made you rich.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about it. More
importantly, we can look at the competition's structure and organisation and
compare it with FIFA's. Is there anything we can learn from the IRB? Maybe
there is. For instance, the pools (groups) at the Rugby World Cup are far more
even than the groups at the FIFA World Cup are. FIFA's questionable method is
to ensure that each group is comprised of:
Now that means that, in theory, you could get a group as strong as
Argentina-England-Nigeria-Sweden. Oh, hang on, that happened last year.
- 1 of the 8 seeded teams (which are rather dubiously calculated/decided)
- 1 non-seeded team from Europe
- 1 team from either CONCACAF or Africa - a strange pairing
- 1 team which is either a leftover European team, a non-seeded South American team or an Asian team
Or you could get a group as weak as Japan-Belgium-Tunisia-Russia ... oops ... I
remember that one too.
The Rugby World Cup also seemed to get things right with its qualifiers. There
is little doubt that the 19 best international rugby teams qualified for the 20
team tournament. Namibia also qualified but I can't imagine anyone really
believes that it's currently one of the world's top 20 rugby nations. Yet the
presence of the Namibians ensured that we've seen two teams from Africa.
Indeed, every rugby zone (i.e. what we would call confederations) has a minimum
of 2 representatives.
Does anyone seriously think that the best 32 teams qualify for the FIFA World
Cup? Of course not. And while FIFA's spinners maintain that some quality can
be sacrificed so that every confederation is adequately represented, it's a
line of argument that is conveniently forgotten at times.
You could say that international rugby is far less competitive than
international football so it's easier for the IRB to get its qualifiers right -
and you'd have a point. But the structure of the IRB also makes it easier to
organise its biggest tournament without the kind of political mayhem caused by
FIFA's competing confederations.
Ironically enough, the IRB is really a bit of an old boys' club. No less that
16 of the Executive Council's 21 members are from the IRB's 8 founding
countries. Surely FIFA is more democratic you say?
Well I'm not going to write a thesis discussing that matter. However, the
effect of the old boys running rugby (excuse the pun) is that they don't have
to deal with the other nations trying to use political clout to outmanoeuvre
each other. (Plus the founding countries are far too strong to be in danger of
failing to qualify for the World Cup finals so they can make quite unbiased
decisions about the qualification set-up.) Needless to say, FIFA could hardly
adopt a structure similar to the IRB's but is it realistic to think there is a
way of structuring FIFA so that it can avoid the all-too-common confederations'
dogfight? I don't have the answer - but it's definitely worth thinking about.
Now, I'm certainly not being utopian about the IRB. The old boys might have got
the World Cup qualifiers and tournament pools right but there are other things
they get wrong. I mentioned that the weaker nations (which are disenfranchised
on the IRB Executive Council) accused the governing body of favouring the
stronger nations. One of the main complaints at this tournament is the
scheduling - in many cases, the weaker nations have been given fewer rest
days between games and have been expected to complete their program of
matches in a shorter time period than the big guns were allowed. And some
nations (especially the competitive Pacific islanders) weren't able to pick
their best teams because European clubs made it difficult for players to go
and represent their country. To international football fans, that may sound
distressingly familiar but at least when the FIFA World Cup finals roll
around, the club v country issue usually ceases to be a big problem.
So whether or not you're interested in other sports and other competitions, at
an organisational level, they can present an array of different ideas - good
and bad. This can sometimes apply to the playing field as well. Rugby adopted
the yellow and red card system but there's one interesting difference - when a
rugby player gets a yellow card, he is sent from the field for a period of 10
minutes (or to the "sin bin" as it's popularly known) and he can't be replaced.
Food for thought? Could it act as an extra deterrent against cynical fouls and
diving in our sport? Maybe. Admittedly, I'm a little more worried about the
lack of consistency in the issuing of yellow cards than I am about the
FIFA can also look in its own backyard for organisational ideas. There's
another governing body in our sport which, on a number of fronts, outpaces
FIFA. Yes, I'm talking about UEFA.
Again, UEFA doesn't have to deal with warring confederations like FIFA does
(UEFA is, after all, one of those confederations). But, irrespective of that,
when you consider the big interests it has to deal with, UEFA runs its
competitions quite smoothly. At a club level, the new Champions League
format still gives a fair bit of ground to the powerful clubs but not too
much. It's a fairly good balance.
A traditionalist like me would prefer to go back to the days when it was a
full knockout tournament and you could only qualify by winning your domestic
championship or being the defending European champion. (In fact, why stop
there? Let's also go back to the days when mighty Nottingham Forest won the
thing.) But the Champions League is a reality of the modern market and -
especially now that UEFA has dumped the soul-destroying secondary group
stage - it's a great competition.
The structure of the Champions League gives Europe's elite a pretty good
ride into the lucrative 32 team group phase. But they still have to do well
enough in their domestic competitions. (Note: no Barcelona or Liverpool this
season.) And UEFA's intelligent seeding and qualification processes - along
with an upper limit of 4 teams from any country - also give us the chance to
see, among others, Partizan Belgrade, Sparta Prague and no less than 3 teams
I especially look forward to the return of knockout football when the Champions
League reaches the last 16. One of the other bonuses of UEFA's decision to
dispense with a secondary group phase is that it took a bit of pressure off
Europe's rather congested football calendar.
UEFA also runs the European Championship - the best international football
tournament after the FIFA World Cup. No other confederation arranges the four
year international cycle better. Two years of European qualifiers; two years of
World Cup qualifiers; virtually no overlap between the two; and the formats for
both are intelligent.
As the Euros are held every four years (and given that the only two
non-European teams to win the World Cup in modern times are Brazil and
Argentina), becoming the champion nation of Europe is nearly as prestigious as
winning the World Cup. You have to wonder why the other confederations don't
follow UEFA's example.
In terms of competition format (whether it's club or international
competition), UEFA does a few things differently to FIFA; things that may seem
trivial but, in fact, can make significant differences:
You may not agree that some or all of these UEFA methods are better than FIFA's
but there are sound arguments for doing things the UEFA way.
- in group phases, UEFA uses match result ahead of goal difference to separate teams that are level on points (FIFA uses goal difference first).
- if teams are level on points, match result, goal difference and goals scored, FIFA would just be happy to pull balls out of a bag to decide which team finished ahead whereas UEFA has other criteria for separating teams including rewarding the team with the better fair play record.
- UEFA has dispensed with FIFA's golden goal and has introduced the silver goal which allows teams to get back into the game if they concede a goal in extra time.
Putting match result ahead of goal difference, particularly in groups of four
to six teams, means that the top teams are more likely to be separated by their
performance(s) against each other, not by how many goals they scored against
Andorra or San Marino. Plus it can add that extra edge to big clashes in tight
groups. Even the possibility that (in groups where teams have played each other
home and away) the away goals rule might come into play makes the contest just
that little bit spicier.
I doubt that anyone would suggest that UEFA shouldn't use extra ways of
separating teams that can't be separated by the normal methods: points,
match result, goal difference and goals scored. The idea of using fair play
as the next tiebreaker may seem a bit lame but it must be better than just
drawing lots! (Come to think of it, getting the respective teams to decide
a winner by playing each other at backgammon is better than drawing lots.)
FIFA has had to draw lots at the World Cup before - I have previously written
about the infamous Group F in 1990 where positions 2 and 3 were separated by
lot (in fact all 4 positions almost were). Fortunately that didn't eliminate
anybody because, at the time, 3rd place getters were able to qualify for the
tournament's knockout phase.
One day, FIFA will look for extra ways of breaking ties and may adopt this
UEFA method - but it won't be before the inevitable outcry that will occur
after a team is eliminated from the World Cup finals by lots. (And just think -
FIFA emblazons the words "Fair Play Please" on its banners...)
The debate about the merits of "golden goals" and "silver goals" will be around
for a while yet because the concepts are still relatively new. I'm sure you
know what each is but, just in case you don't: golden goal extra time means
that the match ends when the first goal in extra time is scored while silver
goal extra time allows a team to get back into the game because the match will
only finish at the end of the first 15 minute extra time period if a team is
in the lead.
In "golden goal" extra time, play is often quite negative because teams are
usually far more desperate not to concede the golden goal than they are to
score it. It also kills off the opportunity for a team to make a comeback. And
the main (if not only) reason for the introduction of the golden goal is that
it might reduce the number of penalty shootouts which, we are frequently told,
are a lottery. Like most fans, I prefer that matches are not decided by
shootouts but the idea that they are a lottery is utter nonsense.
UEFA's silver goal is far better. There is the opportunity for comeback
(thereby lessening the paranoia about conceding first and losing) and, as
there are a maximum of two periods of extra time, the match can only finish
after 15 or 30 extra minutes. Indeed if a "silver goal" match is level after
the first period of extra time, it effectively becomes normal (traditional)
extra time because the match won't end in the second period irrespective of
goals scored in it.
I would prefer no golden goal or silver goal but, given a choice, I'd
definitely take silver. (As a side note, one of the most famous matches in
World Cup history is the 1970 semi-final between Italy and West Germany where
the score was 1-1 after full time and 4-3 to Italy after extra time. Why
wouldn't you want the possibility of seeing something like that again?)
So there you have it. Alternatives FIFA can consider on and off the playing
field - some from another sport and some from another governing body in our
sport. I sincerely hope that FIFA's operatives look to see if there is anything
that can be learned elsewhere ... but, unfortunately, I'm not awfully confident
that they do or that they will.
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.