The World Cup seeding fiasco – Isn’t being blown out of proportion?

The announcement of the top seeds for the World Cup draw has been met with a significant amount of distain by a large chunk of the footballing world – but are they really the grave injustice we are being led to belief?

At this early stage we should outline that the world rankings system is someway off a perfect method, however the ranking of international sides is not exactly a straightforward science. For starters the format of fixtures is vastly different across the continents, as is the quality of opposition that sides are facing. Further to that friendly matches are hardly a key indicator of where a side is at given the manner at which they are played – rightly so the ranking system therefore values competitive games far.

So for all the criticism of FIFA, this is one area where their job is challenging to say the least. The rankings will always be criticised because of the historical view than fans have of football, for there is a perception of how things should be. Seeing the likes of Colombia, Belgium and Switzerland ahead of traditional superpowers like Italy, The Netherlands and England for some is simply not right – even if they might well be justified to hold this position. Generally there is naivety amongst fans when it comes to international football, with little attention being shown to what is going on around the globe – leading to this disbelief we have seen in reaction to these seedings.

The outcry after the Dutch not being seeded has been by far the biggest – with many wondering just how the runners up from 2010 cannot be rated amongst the best. The rankings though rightly or wrongly only account for fixtures played within the last 12 months. Four years is a huge amount of time in football, meaning drawing upon such results would likely lead to just as disjointed of a system. Highlighting how things change considerably is that at Euro 2012, Holland were eliminated meekly in the group stage – a failure which has been ignored when stating why le Orange should be seeded.

Italy perhaps have the most reason for upset, they were finalists in that 2012 tournament and have coasted through their qualification group. Although again forgotten when proclaiming their place in the top seven is that they did not even escape the group in South Africa – contradicting the Holland argument. England, in truth, have little to complain about, with past tournament history hardly stacking up in their favour. You could actually say that Roy Hodgson’s men are slightly flattered by being placed in the top ten. France are another side to bemoan their position but again their recent history hardly does anything to justify a high ranking, although they unquestionably a better side than the 21st slot they currently occupy.

So what of those sides who have taken the seeded slots from the historical big boys. Colombia finished second in the South American qualification zone, widely regarded as the most competitive region. They have lost just once in ten qualifiers, which is no mean feat – particularly taking into account how tricky away fixtures are in South America.

FIFA gives a greater reward for victory against superior opposition, which is where South American sides benefit – given there are no true whipping boys within their set up. This is where European sides are hampered considerably. Italy’s status has been hampered by what has turned out to a relatively weak group, the second highest ranked side Denmark are down in 26 (anyone who has seen them recently will not argue that is not justified) whilst in Malta and Bulgaria they competed against two of Europe’s poorest sides. Similarly, England have suffered by facing four fixtures against Moldova and San Marino, it is hard to justify that beating these sides is a sign of your quality. The Netherlands have also been victims in such a way, as have France who beside Spain were tasked with a group whose third side Finland are a lowly 63rd.

Switzerland in contrast were benefactors of playing in a slightly more competitive group – facing four sides in the world’s top 60. Undoubtedly they have benefitted from a kind draw and it is hard to argue that against say Italy or France they would not be underdogs, but to completely right them off as some have done is ignorant – this is actually a strong Swiss outfit who could cause a stir in Brazil. Belgium are not so unknown and therefore little has been made about their rise, with their vast Premiership contingent influencing that. They have again been boosted by a tight group, with Croatia and Serbia both inside the world’s top thirty and Scotland and Wales both rising.

Finally it is also worth noting that due to the rankings, only account for a years’ worth of games, it means sides during that time sides might have played minimal games against competitive opposition – perhaps the biggest flaw of the system and you are at the mercy of how your fixtures fall. Whilst it is difficult to get around it, surely the seedings should take into account the qualifiers as a whole or at least over a two year period which would allow more rounded results.

Perhaps fans have a point bemoaning the Swiss being ranked at seven in the world, even if few have seen them play since the last World Cup – the stats though suggest that there might not be such a gulf between them and those sides mentioned above. Yes as we stated earlier they would more than likely lose to The Netherlands and co but it is near on impossible to interpret that into what has to be a data based system and the Swiss’ data stands strong.

The ranking system is unquestionably not without fault, but they are not as corrupt as people might think. Yes their anomalies, such as quite how Croatia have been so high for so long or how a Mexico side who have won just twice in ten qualification games can sit in the top 25. It is also impossible to produce a genuine argument for Uruguay’s position despite finishing fifth in the South American qualifications.

Improvements could clearly be made such as increasing the time frame of results, but even then similar debates would probably unfold. This is not a sport like tennis where everyone competes on a same scale where opponents meet numerous times a year across endless tournaments – of which can be broken down in terms of importance. This is what makes things so tricky, international football does not lend itself well to sides being ranked, cricket struggles to form a suitable system with just ten sides to decipher between so it is no great shock that it is so tricky to form a seamless model. This is not an article to defend FIFA, far from it for they deserve much of the criticism they get, however calculating world rankings is no easy task.

In the long term this dismay around the seedings might actually not matter, with those in the know when it comes to Brazil suggesting that where and at what time you play your games is likely to be even more important than who you actually play given the climate and possible travel time.