The Beautiful Game's Ugly Draw Procedures

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The Beautiful Game's Ugly Draw Procedures
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images for the NHL)

I am in some desperate need of clarification by FIFA. The methodology that FIFA uses to seed and group clubs in international tournaments is, for me, quite perplexing.

Take a look at the two groups competing in this year's Confederations Cup. For those of you not familiar with this tournament, it is an eight-nation tournament, comprised of the current champions of the six soccer federations (Spain, Brazil, USA, Iraq, Egypt, and New Zealand), the current World Cup champion (Italy), and the host country (South Africa).

Each nation plays one match against each opponent in their group. The top two teams in each group move on to the semi-finals, which is a single-elimination match. The two semi-final losers play one match for third place, and the two winners play one match for the championship. 

The group pairings are as follows:

Group A: Spain, New Zealand, Iraq, South Africa.

Group B: Italy, Brazil, USA, Egypt.

Now, these groups at first glance hardly seem even. I mean, Brazil and Italy are soccer powerhouses, they've won the last two World Cups, so why are they in the same group? The United States have been much more formidable on the international level than Iraq, New Zealand, and South Africa combined. Yet, for some reason that I don't quite understand, it seems that three of the four best nations in the tournament are in Group B.

So I went to FIFA's website to find some answers on how they determined these groupings.  I was hoping there would be a semi-logical explanation. Perhaps FIFA group clubs based on region, or perhaps FIFA's groupings are fair, and I'm just ignorant to the talent that is present on Iraq, New Zealand, and South Africa's clubs.

It's neither.

You see, here's what FIFA did when they organized the tournament in November 2009. They placed the host South Africa automatically in Group A. Then, they placed the top three internationally ranked teams (Italy, Spain, and Brazil) in one pot, and the other four countries in the other pot.

Then they had a lottery. Like the NBA draft. But not weighted. Just a straight up lottery. The only stipulation was that two nations from the same federation could not compete in the same group. So Italy and Spain couldn't be in the same group, nor could South Africa and Egypt.

So this random lottery produces the groups seen above.

Want to see how uneven these groups are?  Look at each clubs' FIFA ranking in October 2009, the same rankings that FIFA used to determine the lottery pots.

Group A: Spain (1st), New Zealand (54th), Iraq (77th), South Africa (85th)

Group B: Italy (2nd), Brazil (4th), USA (21st), Egypt (22nd)

The three worst-ranked nations in the tournament are in the same group, and the middle four ranked nations have to struggle against each other in the other group. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I'm sorry, this system makes the members on the NCAA men's basketball tournament committee look like geniuses.

Basically, Spain will coast through group A (which they've already done with two wins), and a formidable country like Italy, Brazil, the United States, or Egypt will get snubbed out of the second stage.

This is not rocket science, FIFA.  I mean, why not pair the groups simply by their international rank? Take the eight qualifying teams, and seed them first through eighth based on their international ranking. Place the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth seeds in Group A, and the second, third, sixth, and seventh seeds in Group B. 

Then the Confederations Cup groupings would look like this:

Group A: Spain, USA, Egypt, South Africa

Group B: Italy, Brazil, New Zealand, Iraq

How easy was that! And look at how much more even the groups look! No lottery, no crazy drawings, no randomness.

But while on FIFA's website, I saw this similar lottery system being used to determine groupings in another international tournament. The exact same random, nonsensical, lottery which can cause such uneven groups and unfair tournament results.

This tournament? Only the World Cup.

The World Cup, the mecca of sporting events. It is the most watched, most followed, single most important sporting event in the entire world. And the qualifying nations are grouped randomly. Well practically randomly, let me explain.

In December 2005, more than six months before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, FIFA did "seed" all 32 qualifying nations for the tournament. But the seeding was based primarily on each nations past performance. 50% of the seeding was determined by each nations past performance in the last two World Cups.  Not how each qualifying nation is playing right now, at the end of 2005. But how they played in the summers of 1998 and 2002.

The other 50% was based on each nation's international ranking in November of 2003, November 2004, and their current rank in November 2005. Under this system, the current play and success of a nation is only 17% of the calculation for their "seed" in the current World Cup.

So after FIFA "seeded" the nations for the 2006 World Cup based on their past performance, they placed the top eight "seeds" in a separate pot so that none of these nations would be in the same group. The rest of the field of 24 were placed in three other pots. Then, FIFA drew names out of a hat, pot by pot, and randomly selected the eight groups for the World Cup.

This is the most illogical, poorly thought out, ridiculous tournament setup I have ever seen in my entire life. And we're talking about the World Cup! My little sister's Catholic grade school volleyball tournaments were better organized and more logical than this debacle of a system.

First and foremost, why is 83% of the calculation for a nation's seed in the World Cup based on past performance? Once again, imagine the NCAA men's tournament. If FIFA organized it, UCLA, UNC, Kansas, and Kentucky would always be the No. 1 seed! And all the other qualifying 61 teams would be thrown into a lottery and paired up randomly with each other.

Seriously, picture it! "And in the West bracket, the computer selects the no. 3 seed as Villanova, and the no. 14 seed as Memphis. Wow! Between that and Duke vs. UConn, the West has become this year's 'bracket of death.'"

And also, what is it with FIFA and lotteries? This isn't Powerball. Tournaments shouldn't be selected at random. The determination of groups should be well thought out, and fair to all the competing nations.

What really bothers me is how plain and simple the solution is. In December, right before the summer of the World Cup, take all 32 teams, and based on the one logical ranking system FIFA does have, seed the teams based on their international rank. Then start grouping them up based upon their seed, in a serpentine fashion.

It's all about fair play, and considering how much FIFA preaches it on the pitch, you would think they would preach it to their tournament committees as well.

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