How not to run a sporting competition

As a citizen of the country that enacted Obamacare and came up with the BCS to determine the college football champion, I shouldn’t criticize the way foreigners organize things. But that hasn’t stopped me in the past, and it’s not going to stop me now that the team groupings for the 2014 World Cup have been established.

It should be easy to divide 32 teams into eight reasonably balanced qualifying groups. Just divide the field into quartiles based on demonstrated quality and then place one team from each quartile in every qualifying group. If you don’t want three teams from one continent in a single group, tweak accordingly.

Using this method, one might get groups like the following: Argentina, France, Japan, Honduras. Or: Germany, Belgium, Ecuador, Algeria. Or: Brazil, Portugal, Greece, Iran.

Such groups might turn out to be particularly strong or particularly weak; one never knows in advance how teams will perform at the World Cup. But no one could look at these hypothetical groups before hand and say they are much stronger or weaker than average.

Unfortunately, FIFA, the corrupt bureaucracy that runs the World Cup, has a different method. Of its four buckets of teams, only one is defined by alleged quality — the eight “seeded” teams. The other buckets are formed based on geography. The groups are then filled, FIFA says, based on the luck of the draw.

To make matters worse, FIFA’s selection of the eight top teams doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Switzerland is in the top eight. This isn’t watch-making or banking; it’s soccer. The Swiss are decent at it, but certainly not top eight material. Yes, Switzerland won its European qualifying group. But that group (Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania, and Cyprus were the competition) was also a scandal.

FIFA’s system always produces a “group of death” and a “sisters of the poor” group. But this year, most of the groups fall into one or the other of these categories. Indeed, I don’t believe FIFA has come up with a single group that can be viewed as obviously containing one team from each quality quartile.

The U.S. landed in a ridiculously difficult group. The other three teams are Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

I would argue that all four teams in this group are among the tournaments top 16. We breezed to first place in North American qualifying and made the top 16 at the last World Cup. Germany made the semifinals at the last World Cup and at Euro 2012.

Ghana is the best team in Africa. They made the final 8 at the last Cup, missing the semis when a deliberate hand ball by Luis Suarez deprived them of a goal at the very end of extra time. Portugal made the final 4 at Euro 2012, losing on penalty kicks to Spain, the eventual champion.

Does the U.S. have a chance to emerge from this group? Of course. Portugal struggled through the qualification stage. And, Cristiano Ronaldo notwithstanding, this Portugal team may not be much better than the team we beat out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. As for Ghana, we took them to extra time at the 2010 World Cup before losing in the round of 16.

Still, going into the tournament, we will correctly be considered the least likely team to emerge from our group despite being arguably one of the best 16 teams in the tournament.

England didn’t fare very well either. They are in with Italy — finalists at Euro 2012 — and Uruguay — semifinalists at the last World Cup and reigning South American champions. Costa Rica, the number two North American qualifier is the fourth team.

Fortunately, Uruguay may be past its sell-by date, having struggled mightily to qualify. Unfortunately, star striker Luis Suarez is back and better than ever. Maybe he’ll be suspended for biting again before England plays Uruguay.

Compare either of these groups to this one: Switzerland, France, Ecuador, Honduras. Or this one: Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria.

What a joke. But par for the course from an outfit that awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where temperatures reportedly reach 130 degrees during summertime when the Cup is supposed to be played.

The NCAA has finally ditched the BCS as a means of determining its football champion. But FIFA just keeps getting worse.

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