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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Looking ahead to Leipzig



    What are the groups going to be when next year’s World Cup finals are played in Germany? Who is your team going to face?

    We can’t know exactly how each group will look until the final draw occurs in Leipzig on 9 December. But with history as a guide, we can certainly get a good idea of which teams might face each other in the first round and which teams are unlikely to play each other unless they keep winning through to a meeting in the knockout phase of the tournament.

    I say might because FIFA doesn’t have to stick to previous practice. But it would be a surprise if much changed. FIFA likes to ensure that each of the 8 groups has countries from different continents so no teams from the same confederation will face each other in the group stage. The exception is UEFA which has 14 countries at the finals and that means that 6 groups will have 2 European teams in them.

    So let’s proceed as if the arrangements are effectively the same as they were for Korea/Japan four years ago.

    The 32 nations will be placed into 4 pots. Each pot would, ideally, have 8 teams in it so that each of the 8 groups has a team from each pot. As we shall see, it doesn’t quite work out to 8 teams per pot.

    The first pot is the seeded teams. Again, if previous practice is followed, the seeds will be:

    Brazil, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, England and France.

    None of those teams will face each other in the first phase as each will be seeded at the head of one of the 8 groups.

    The other pots are based more on geography than strength.

    Pot 2 is the non-seeded UEFA teams. There are 9 of them so one of the 8 groups has to contain 2 countries from this pot. Otherwise, each will be in a different group:

    Netherlands, Sweden, Croatia, Czech Republic, Portugal, Poland, Serbia & Montenegro, Switzerland and Ukraine.

    The group that ends up containing 2 of these Pot 2 teams will be one of the groups with a non-UEFA seed (Brazil, Mexico or Argentina).

    Pot 3 is CONMEBOL and Asia (including Australia). Now Australia is in Oceania but joins Asia on 1 January 2006. Irrespective of whether it’s considered an Asian team or an Oceanic one, I’m certain it will end up in the same pot the other Asian teams are in. Pot 3 has 7 teams to compensate for the fact that Pot 2 has 9. So all of the groups (bar one) will have a Pot 3 team:

    Paraguay, Ecuador, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Australia.

    Remember that, with the exception of UEFA, teams from the same confederation can not be drawn in the same group. So the two South American teams here – Paraguay and Ecuador – will be kept out of the groups that Brazil and Argentina are seeded in.

    Pot 4 is CONCACAF and Africa. It has 8 teams:

    USA, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Angola.

    The CONCACAF teams – USA, Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago – are not going to be in the group that Mexico is seeded in.

    Unlike Korea/Japan, there is a distinct lack of teams that you’d really want to avoid outside the 8 seeds. In the 2001 draw, England loomed in Pot 2 and Mexico in Pot 4. The traditional African powers, Nigeria and Cameroon, were also in Pot 4. Those arrangements contributed to Argentina, England, Sweden and Nigeria being drawn together in the “Group of Death”.

    But this time England and Mexico should be seeded and most of the Africans are playing in their first World Cup finals. The main danger team outside the seeds is the Netherlands.

    That’s not to say that the other 23 non-seeds are no good – they’re just less likely to create grave anxiety for potential opponents. The UEFA pot (Pot 2) always has quality but if you remove the Dutch, the rest are fairly even. Pot 3 contains Paraguay and Ecuador but non-seeded South American teams continue to fail at the World Cup finals. You have to go back as far as the Peru team in 1978 for the last time a CONMEBOL nation, that wasn’t called Brazil or Argentina, reached the last eight. We’re also entitled to be a little sceptical about whether South Korea and Japan can repeat their 2002 heroics on foreign soil.

    The African teams in Pot 4 are largely unknown quantities. They’re obviously good sides because they qualified – and at the expense of some of Africa’s traditional powers. But otherwise we have little information about how they’re likely to perform on this stage. The team with the greatest pedigree in Pot 4 is the United States.

    What would be the toughest possible group? It’s a matter of debate. You could get the best two UEFA non-seeds (Netherlands and perhaps Sweden) together in a group with Brazil. Throw in the US and you’d have 2 teams that played a Euro quarter-final against each other last year, the World Champion, and a quarter-finalist from Korea/Japan.

    It is possible that the pots will be arranged differently. But I’d be surprised if that happened. It’s not that I think these arrangements are ideal – I don’t. However, using the 2001 system makes more sense now than it did then.

    In 2001 there were terrible imbalances. This was partly because, as hosts, South Korea and Japan were seeded. Pot 3 had the feeble Saudi Arabia and China together with 3 more competitive South American teams. Pot 4 included Mexico and some stronger African teams.

    Now Pot 4 is looking weaker – and more even. Mexico leaves it and the Africans lack standout teams. Pot 3 also looks more even because it has 5 Asian teams (counting Australia) and they include South Korea and Japan. Combined with 2 South American teams, that’s a much better balance.

    So FIFA probably won’t see any compelling reason for change. Indeed, on top of the greater imbalances in 2001 there were also more complexities. Then, with South Korea and Japan seeded as hosts, Pot 2 contained 11 UEFA countries and Pot 3 had just 5 teams. So 3 groups would have 2 European non-seeds and, of course, they had to be groups where the seeded team was not from Europe. Also, with half the tournament taking place in each host nation, FIFA tried to ensure (as far as possible) that each confederation had half its teams playing in Korea and half in Japan.

    I see no problem with FIFA trying to keep teams from the same confederation away from each other in the group phase. However, I do question the way they go about it. Should CONMEBOL always be in the same pot with Asia? Should CONCACAF always be paired with Africa? Asia and Africa are normally the weaker continents so it would probably be better if they were paired with each other. It would be a pot of 10 (leaving just 5 teams in a COMEBOL/CONCACAF pot) but that hardly presents an insurmountable problem.

    The consequence of Africa and CONCACAF always being in the same pot is that you don’t get Africa v CONCACAF matches at the World Cup finals. In the history of the tournament, there has been just one Africa-CONCACAF meeting: Tunisia’s 3-1 win over Mexico in 1978.

    Ironically, Mexico’s likely seeding should guarantee it a match against an African team as its Pot 4 opponent will not be one of its CONCACAF buddies. (And, hey, I hear the Mexicans are already hoping they’ll get their long-awaited chance for revenge over the Tunisians.)

    You could arrange Pots 3 and 4 differently so that one is CONMEBOL/Africa (7 teams) and the other is CONCACAF/Asia (8 teams). At the last World Cup finals, CONCACAF and Asia outperformed CONMEBOL’s non-seeds and Africa so there would be some logic to this move. But things might have been quite different if Japan and South Korea did not have home advantage.

    All will be revealed at the final draw in Leipzig on 9 December. If you want to get some ideas about the best and worst outcomes for your team before then, the arrangements I described from the outset will probably be used.

    FIFA isn’t likely to change anything. If it does, the draw will offer a whole new set of permutations … and we’ll write more columns about it.



 

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