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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Food for thought



    Aren't these 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 the RWC!

    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:

  • 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
    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.

    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 punishment.

    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 from Greece.

    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:

  • 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.
    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.

    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.


 

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