Friday, March 31, 2017

The expanded World Cup – what’s in it for Oceania?

News that the Bureau of the FIFA Council had agreed on a proposed slot allocation for the 2026 World Cup Finals that would mean an automatic Oceania slot, was generally met with great excitement by my fellow New Zealanders, with very few notes of caution among the comments I read on social media.

A few people noted that qualifying for the World Cup Finals isn't the same when it's virtually handed to you on a plate. The excitement and twists of turns of the epic fifteen-match marathon in 1981 resulted in a whole new segment of New Zealand football fans. Likewise, most of the country would remember Rory Fallon's headed winner and Mark Paston's penalty save against Bahrain at the Cake Tin in 2009.

To be honest, from a purely footballing perspective based on the playing of important international matches, I fear that the outcome will be worse for Oceania than the status quo.

Currently, the Oceania World Cup Qualifying process is split into a number of different phases:

1. The four weakest nations (American Samoa, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga) play a round robin tournament in a single location, with the winners advancing to Phase 2 and the losers eliminated.
2. The OFC Nations Cup. The Phase 1 winners (Samoa have always won this mini tournament to date) are joined by the remaining seven nations (New Zealand, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu). The teams are divided into two groups of four. The top three teams in each group progress to Phase 3 of World Cup Qualifying. The top two in each group progress to the semi-finals of the Oceania Nations Cup with the eventual tournament winners qualifying for the Confederations Cup. (New Zealand defeated Papua New Guinea on penalties in the 2016 Final.)
3. The six remaining nations (Samoa and Vanuatu were the two to miss out this time around) are divided into two groups of three, playing home and away matches against each other. The group winners progress to Phase 4. The remaining four teams are eliminated.
4.  The Phase 3 group winners play each other over two legs. (New Zealand have already won Group A. The Group B winners are yet to be determined). The winners advance to Phase 5. The losers are eliminated.
5.  The Phase 4 winners play against a team from another Confederation over two legs. The winners qualify for the World Cup Finals. The losers are eliminated.

Assuming New Zealand are the eventual winners of Phase 4, they will move on to meet the fifth best team from CONMEBOL. That could be any one of a number of teams, including, but not limited to, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru. Matches against any of their prospective opponents would be hugely attractive and would guarantee a sold out stadium for the home leg. In all likelihood, this would also be the end of New Zealand’s attempt to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia.

So at the end of the qualification attempt, New Zealand would have played:

3 OFC Nations Cup group matches that double as World Cup Qualifiers versus Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. The official attendances for these matches played in Port Moresby were 378, 520 and 1925 respectively.

The OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final versus New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea respectively. The attendances for these matches were 1379 and then 13,000 for the final against the hosts. Technically neither of these were World Cup Qualifying matches.

4 Phase 3 matches home and away against New Caledonia and then away and home against Fiji. The attendances for these matches were 8131, 2000, 7000 and 10,133.

2 Phase 4 matches, home and away against the yet to be determined Group B winners which could be any of Tahiti, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

2 Inter-Confederation play-off matches, home and away against the yet to be determined fifth place CONMEBOL nation.

So that’s a total of eleven World Cup Qualifying matches, three of which also counted as OFC Nations Cup group stage matches), plus the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final.

Only two of these matches will have been against higher ranked opposition.

So far, the combined attendance of the seven World Cup matches played is approximately 30,087, plus another 14,379 for the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final. That's a grand total of 44,466. There's a good chance that the away leg of the Inter-Confederation phase will attract more spectators than all nine matches New Zealand have currently played combined.

Should New Zealand somehow manage to prevail against their South American opponents, they would be guaranteed at least three more high level matches against strong opposition in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup.

What would change if the 2026 format were used today?

Presumably phases 1-4 would remain the same, to determine the Oceania winners and runners-up.

The winners would now no longer play Inter-Confederation play-off matches. Previously the opponents have been Bahrain and Mexico, and this November it will be a high quality South American team. So that's two matches lost against very good opponents, with one of them played at home probably in front of a sold out stadium, and one away in what would also likely be a sold out stadium.

However, the Oceania automatic qualifiers would be guaranteed two Group Stage matches at the expanded Finals. So they could face Brazil or Spain or Argentina or England in one of them. Or they could face Bulgaria and El Salvador, or Latvia and Burkina Faso.

Should they avoid coming last in their group, they would then advance to the knock-out phase, beginning with a match in the Round of 32, Presumably they wouldn't last much longer.

The Oceania runners-up, meanwhile, would advance to a six-team play-off held in the host nation probably in November 2025. Almost certainly the Oceania nation would be the lowest ranked of the six competing teams, meaning they would have to beat one of the other lower ranked teams for the chance to play against one of the two higher ranked teams for the right to qualify for the Finals. It's difficult to see an Oceania nation ever qualifying for the Finals using this method. In all likelihood, they would lose their first game and return home.

Neither of the top two OFC nations would play inter-Confederation play-offs on home soil, either, further reducing the likelihood that the All Whites will ever play in front of a capacity home crowd again.

What's worse is the very real possibility that the new six-team qualifying tournament will be used by the hosts as their practice run for hosting the actual Finals tournament, resulting in the scrapping of the Confederations Cup. Should this happen, the winners of the OFC Nations Cup will lose the three high quality matches they have come to rely on and look forward to every four years.

So whereas now the top OFC nation in all likelihood plays 16 competition matches every four years, under the new format that might well be reduced to 13. The second best OFC team would most likely increase its competition match tally from 11 to 12.

So much for expanding the game and increasing excitement, Mr Infantino. If anything, from a purely footballing perspective, the new format is a step backwards for Oceania nations.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What Gianni Infantino inadvertently admitted during his World Cup Finals expansion press conference

I listened keenly to Gianni Infantino's post-FIFA Congress press conference where he answered questions about the expansion of the World Cup Finals to 48 teams from 2026, because I was waiting for some sort of acknowledgement that the FIFA Congress members weren't given proper in-depth analysis of the ramifications of each of the proposed formats prior to the vote being taken.

My suspicions were only increased when I saw the leaked image below, apparently from FIFA, regarding key findings in the sphere of 'Sporting Balance' (whatever that means).

My attention was immediately drawn to the very last word in the graphic. While penalty shoot-outs may help reduce the number of situations where teams can manufacture mutually beneficial results in the last round of group games, they are not a solution for the problem of rest days. Assuming a proper in-depth analysis was indeed carried out, apparently FIFA has some other solutions in mind to deal with these issues. Yet the only hint of these solutions is the word "etc." which certainly gives no clue as to what these solutions might be.

If the analysis was done, and solutions to these problems do actually exist, then those solutions should be spelt out in the analysis. The fact that they aren't leads me to believe that FIFA has no solutions for these problems and that they attempted to gloss over this fact by using "etc." to falsely suggest that they have looked at the issues and they have solutions that are so obvious they needn't be detailed.

And so to Infantino's triumphant press conference.

At 17:11 of the video, in response to a question from 'Sports News Germany', Infantino stated, "An in-depth analysis has been made... We think we have come to a format which brings benefits without negatives."

He stated this, despite numerous negatives being raised by various commentators, myself included. Among them:

1. Because three-teams groups require teams having byes, there is huge scope for the teams playing the third group match to manipulate the result to ensure they both qualify at the expense of the team with the bye.

This point was neither raised, nor addressed, in the press conference.

2. There is a high likelihood that teams in some groups will have identical records and there is no obvious way to determine how to rank them.

This point was somewhat raised by Martin Ziegler of The Times (14:09) with regard to the suggestion of penalty shoot-outs being used to determine the winners of drawn group games, although the quite real possibility of all three teams winning one game 1-0 or winning one penalty shoot-out each after all three matches end in draws wasn't mentioned

Infantino's response was less than convincing. He noted that it is better to have the rankings decided by action on the pitch (which I agree with), but that doesn't help solve the two scenarios I raised above.

He then talked about the possibility of using pre-tournament rankings as tie-breakers. Surely this would favour the bigger countries and hinder the smaller countries? It seems unfair that an under-performing higher-ranked team xould progress past the group stage at the expense of a lower-ranked team over-performing team..

It also means FIFA would need to have complete trust in the FIFA Rankings, a system I have frequently criticised as being invalid and borderline racist.

3. The first twenty days will require four matches per day to be played consecutively. That is a lot of football, perhaps too much for even the biggest fan. In addition, this would require matches to be played throughout the day. A country like the United States has four major time zones (plus Hawaiian time) which would help alleviate this problem but it would still require matches in the middle of the country to kick-off in the heat of the American summer which would be extremely difficult on the players.

The first part of this question was asked by Martin Fernandez (35:44) and Gianni Infantino's response (36:34) was extremely concerning. He stated, "Four matches per day is something that already happens now for many days. It will just be a few days more."

That is at best misleading, and at worst an outright lie. Under the current format there is only ONE day when four matches are scheduled consecutively. For Russia 2018 that day is June 16th, with matches scheduled for 11:00 (C1-C2), 14:00 (D1-D2), 17:00 (C3-C4) and 20:00 (D3-D4).

There are four additional days when there are four matches scheduled (the last round of group matches) but on all four days, each group's matches are played concurrently rather than consecutively to avoid result manipulation, so there are only two kick-off times on these days, not four.

For Infantino to say with a straight face that twenty days is just a few more than one day (or even five) takes either unbelievable chutzpah or worrying ignorance of the current format.

An additional relevant point to note is that under the current format there are no more than two knock-out matches played on any day, whereas the 2026 format will require the Round of 32 matches to be played four per day. With the possibility of these matches going to extra time or penalties there will be even less time to spare between matches than at present.

4. There could be a possible negative affect on the Qualifying competitions, especially in CONMEBOL but also in other Confederations.

This point was raised by Jamir Chade (25:23) and Infantino's only response was that the qualifying competition format hasn't been and cannot be decided yet because the number of slots for each Confederation isn't yet known.

5. There is the possibility that the Spanish Federation will sue FIFA for the lack of consulatation and the potential negative affect on Spain's domestic club leagues.

Infantino's only response to this question (31:57) was a glib smile.

6. The potential negative outcome of countries spending two years attempting to qualify for the chance to play just two matches in the Finals.

This point was raised by a Saudi Arabian newspaper journalist whose name I didn't catch (Al-Harbi Khaled?) (33:05). Infantino's response was you should ask the sixteen additional teams whether they are happy to play two World Cup Finals matches rather than not compete.

However Infantino then seemingly attempted to suggest that having qualified, these supposedly weaker teams would have a reasonable chance of progressing to play a third game because "Football is the only sport in the world which is unpredictable and where anything can happen on the pitch." Clearly the man is unaware of Ireland's recent World Cup cricket exploits, although his point still stands that football is somewhat unpredictable.

7. Prior to the Round of 32, some teams will have had a full week of rest while others will have had only three days' rest (potentially including a day spent travelling). This seems unfair.

This extremely valid point, raised by 'Etienne from L'Equipe' caught Infantino unprepared. Without a ready, predetermined answer to fall back on, first Infantino responded, "If you have seven in 32, the rest days will figure out the same," which is obviously incorrect given that some teams would be starting their matches a full seven days after others, resulting in the possibility that they could play seven matches in 24 days. Then, perhaps unconvinced by his own argument, he started babbling about FIFA's "competition experts" and how they would ensure that everything fits in to place. 

If FIFA indeed has 'competition experts' you would think that they would have already taken care of such important details as equal rest time as part of their much hyped 'in-depth analysis'. But of course, the truth is, that no such analysis was included in the report FIFA circulated to the members of the FIFA Congress. Indeed, in a format where there are groups of three teams and one team has a bye in each round, no solution is possible. The reason is, as President Infantino apparently knows all too well, “This is simply the laws of mathematics which as you know are not an opinion but are facts," a seemingly rehearsed answer he himself gave to a question about which regions would benefit from increased development (13:55).

It was at this point that Infantino inadvertently admitted that my suspicions that he was being economical with the truth and that the entire process was a sham were confirmed; either FIFA did not undertake the in-depth analysis that Infantino claimed, or worse, that 'analysis' deliberately ignored any factors that reflected negatively on Infantino's preferred option for expansion. I don't know for sure, but I strongly suspect the latter was the case.

FIFA wouldn't be the first organisation to carry out one-sided analysis that only looked for evidence that supported a desired outcome while ignoring all contradictory evidence. The George W. Bush administration set up an entire department (the Office of Special Plans) that was apparently designed solely to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the considerable evidence to the contrary,

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that expanding the World Cup is anywhere near as bad as sending thousands of people off to be killed and/or injured or to kill even more thousands of innocent civilians in a desert on the back of dishonest intelligence; just that the method employed to reach a predetermined conclusion was the same.

Indeed, I actually have no problem with increasing the number of teams and players that get to experience international competition. There are ways to do it reasonably, whether by using some variation of MatchVision's pot format, or adding a second tier 32-team World Trophy, or of course by offering women the same opportunities as men.

The important thing is that expansion should not result in a format that is unfair or provide potential for result manipulation or matchfixing. And while I find the chosen format annoying, it is nowhere near as annoying to me as the charade that FIFA underwent to ensure it was selected.

So there we have it. Dishonest analysis, spin, outright lies, glossing over important details that don't fit the narrative, a complete lack of transparency, and an executive President who gets what he wants 'unanimously'. 

'Twas ever thus at FIFA.