Tuesday, November 24, 2015

More on Future World Cup Expansion, Inequality and General Disgruntlement

Prior to the last FIFA Presidential election it seemed that the candidates were competing to hand out as much money as they could to the 209 national football federations, in a vain attempt to out-Blatter the then incumbent FIFA President.

There has been a shift of emphasis in the current election cycle, however, with the issue of the best World Cup Finals format for future tournaments being raised more than a few times over the past few weeks, most often by some of the candidates for the upcoming FIFA Presidential election.

Now that Blatter's days are clearly numbered, some of the election candidates seem to have switched their vote-gathering proposals to increasing the number of teams in the World Cup Finals from the current 32, to 36, in the case of Prince Ali, and 40, in the case of Michel Platini and his last-minute UEFA-backed replacement, Gianni Infantino.

As for the other three candidates, Jerome Champagne appears to favour a rebalancing of the 32 teams rather than expansion, Tokyo Sexwale merely hinted at the possibility of an increased number of finalists without providing specific numbers or details, while Sheikh Salman has not addressed the issue at all, his sole manifesto item apparently being that while various Bahraini athletes may have been arrested and tortured in 2011 and a committee was set up to investigate them, with he himself named as the leader, that committee never actually met. If he has any other proposals on his manifesto, I don't recall seeing them.

I've already outlined the numerous reasons why a 40-team World Cup, in eight groups of five, as proposed by Platini and endorsed by Infantino, is a terrible idea. I won't rehash the numerous points, other than to note it would add at a minimum seven to ten days to the length of the tournament, not a mere three, as suggested by Platini, which would have a further detrimental effect on club football, with the most affected leagues being the big five in Europe, which are, of course, the ones based in the very same countries whose interests you might expect the current UEFA President and Secretary-General to protect.

A quick look at Inafantino's twitter feed shows only one tweet where he hints at his potential ideas if he were to be successfully elected. Clicking on the provided link brings up the 40-team World Cup Finals suggestion and no other plans at all.

Whatever the requirements are to be nominated by five national federations as a possible FIFA presidential candidate, or indeed to be someone given the opportunity to nominate candidates, it seems clear that the ability to think critically or carry out any sort of detailed analysis is not among the criteria.

Indeed, any discussion about increasing future World Cups is practically a moot point, considering it is probably too late to do so in time for the 2018 tournament (think of the wrangling over the breakdown by Confederation of the additional four or eight teams), and with the 2022 tournament scheduled to now last just 28-days, thanks ultimately to the votes cast almost five years ago by a group of 22 men who have for the most part either resigned, been suspended, or been banned by FIFA, therefore being too short to realistically allow for any increase in the number of participants.

This would mean that at the earliest, expansion couldn't occur until 2026, by which time whoever is successfully elected in February next year will already have served two terms when the first expanded tournament is played.

It is for this reason that the whole discussion about an enlargened tournament during this election campaign strikes me as pandering of a type that is every bit as obvious as the time in 1972 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai agreed to donate Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the National Zoo in Washington DC as a gesture of goodwill to First Lady Pat Nixon.

If the candidates are serious about expansion, perhaps they should take a look at the table below, which shows the breakdown of teams by gender in the upcoming four-year cycle of worldwide FIFA tournaments. Here's a clue. Whenever there is a number in red there is a good opportunity for expansion.

In every single instance, the men's tournaments include more teams than their female equivalents, or worse, there is no equivalent women's tournament. This also means, of course, that there are no qualifying matches for the non-existent tournaments.

Why is there no FIFA Women's Confederation Cup, Club World Cup, Futsal World Cup or Beach Soccer World Cup? At a time when women are crying out for an increased share of the administrative table, it seems obvious that they should also have the same opportunities to play in FIFA world tournaments as men do.

This seems a simple way of increasing the participation numbers and standard of women's football worldwide.

But instead, it seems for the most part, the presidential candidates are focused on the men's game. The women's game remains an afterthought.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why a 40-team World Cup is a bad idea

So Gianni Infantino, mojust like his boss, the beleaguered Michel Platini, wants to expand the World Cup Finals to forty teams.

“Look at qualifiers now where some teams who have never qualified did and some teams which have always qualified didn’t make it," he was reported as saying. The first half of that statement is true, although there's an argument that Iceland, at least, would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. The second part, though, as well as being factually inaccurate, is patently absurd. Sure, the Netherlands didn't qualify this time, but this isn't the first time this has happened, and it's hard to make the case that they would have under the sixteen-team format.

An expanded World Cup isn't going to prevent the powerhouses from qualifying, unless of course, they are so bad that they don't deserve to. If a team can't manage to finish in the top two out of five or six teams of varying strength in qualifying, it's hard to make the case that they are likely to have a shot at winning the World Cup, nor that they deserve to.

There is no word, as of yet, as to what geographical breakdown Infantino would favour, but his remarks in 2013 when he argued for expansion of the European spots in the 32-team tournament, based partly on the dubious logic that European nations have won the last three tournaments and ignoring the fact that only five European teams have ever won the World Cup, of which only three have managed to when not hosting, it's fair to assume that he envisages a decent chunk of the extra eight available spots going to UEFA.

Whatever the final make-up of the forty teams, however, if, like Platini, he favours a traditional round-robin format with the teams split into eight groups of five, there are numerous reasons why this is a bad idea.

1. Additional time required to complete the tournament.

Michel Platini wrongly claimed that adding one extra match for each team would only add three extra days to the tournament, ignoring, or perhaps being intellectually incapable of understanding the fact that in addition to playing the extra game, each team would also require a bye while the other four teams in their group play each other. This means, at a minimum, six extra days would be required, though given that under the current format teams usually have four to six days between games, arguably at least an extra week to ten days will be needed. As well as adding extra demands on the players at the end of a long season, this would also reduce the recovery time before the next season. Already we see players whose teams reached the latter stages of the Finals showing obvious signs of fatigue and missing the first matches of their club seasons. A change to forty teams would make things even worse.

2. The last teams to have a bye would be at a disadvantage.

With five teams per group, five rounds are needed, with each team having a bye in one of them. This would mean that four teams in each group would enter the last day of the group stage knowing what is required to progress to the second round, while the remaining eight teams would already have completed their games and be at risk of being eliminated through the teams that are playing manipulating results. There's a reason the final group games have been played simultaneously since 1986. West Germany 1 Austria 0 in 1982.

3. Suspensions

The team that has a bye in the first round will have an unfair advantage in the second game, because it is likely that some of their opponents will have picked up yellow cards in their first match and will be at risk of suspension if they pick up a second card. The team that had a first round bye will not be playing under any such psychological disadvantage.

In the third set of group games, two teams will not have any yellow card suspensions because they'll only have played once, whereas two teams could potentially be missing players who have received yellows in both their opening matches. To be fair the two teams who hawe played once should face each other in the third set of games.

However, there is no way of making the fourth round of matches fair. One team will already have played three matches, and the other three will only have played two. Naturally the team that has played three will be more at risk of having players suspended.

4. Injuries

All the arguments about some teams being more likely to have players suspended can also be applied to the likelihood of injuries.

5. Reduction in the number of potential hosts.

Numerous countries could host a Wold Cup with sixteen teams. That number of potential hosts is reduced every time the tournament is expanded, to 24 teams, then to 32 teams, and then to 40 teams. When we reach the inevitable 64-team World Cup Finals, presumably, like the Gold Cup, it will always be held in the United States.

If a forty-team tournament were to eschew the traditional first round groups and instead adopt the format favoured by Leandro Shara and Match Vision, some of these issues could be avoided. However, given that Gianni Infantino claims to share a lot of his philosophies with Michel Platini, this seems unlikely.

One other point is worth noting. It seems likely that the next FIFA President will be allowed a maximum of three terms. Infantino has already admitted that it would be almost impossible to expand the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, so at most he could only preside over one expanded tournament, assuming he were to win two more elections in addition to the one this coming February.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Why Gianni Infantino was Wrong about World Cup Allocations

I fully understand the recent announcement that Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s Secretary-General, is in the running to become the next FIFA President. Once it became clear that there is every chance that the previous preferred UEFA candidate, the embattled UEFA President Michel Platini, will be suspended and unable to run, it was no surprise that UEFA would look for a Plan B.

Infantino always comes across as an affable chap when hosting the live draws of UEFA’s various competitions, and unlike, for example, Sheikh Salman and Tokyo Sexwale, he appears to be a genuine football fan.

I am, however, not convinced of the credibility of Infantino’s claim that his upcoming manifesto will be “for a FIFA that genuinely serves the interests of all 209 national associations, big or small,” as he announced on deadline day.

Contrast this statement with the comments he made on the allocation of World Cup Finals places for the various confederations.

These comments strongly suggest a European bias. In addition, they don’t actually reflect the reality of what has been happening over the past World Cup tournaments.

The truth is that the performance of Europe’s participants has been on a steady decline over recent tournaments.

In the 1954 and 1958 tournaments, 75% of the competing teams were European, and at least this percentage progressed past the group stage.

Since then, the percentage of the teams progressing past the group stages that came from Europe has dropped roughly in line with the overall percentage of European teams in the tournament. By the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties the European make-up of the teams that progressed was generally 62.5%, but it dropped to 56.3% in 2002 and in the last two tournaments has fallen away dramatically to just 37.5%, while CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, and African teams along with Australia have become much more likely to progress.

These numbers do not support Infantino’s claim that Europe deserves more spots.

It also seems a non sequitur to suggest that because the last three winners came from Europe, a 14th, 15th or 16th European team should be added to the tournament. The truth is that since the FIFA Rankings began in 1993, the only European team ranked outside the top five European nations that has won the World Cup was France, who won as hosts in 1998. This hardly suggests that a 14th European team would be capable of winning the tournament.

I found Infantino’s comment about the Olympic Games being about participation and the World Cup being about winning contradictory to the idea that Europe deserves more places.

Here are the cold, hard facts: Since 1930, twenty World Cup Finals tournaments have been held. A total of five European countries have been victorious. Just five. Of those, only three have managed to win the tournament when not hosting.

In total, Europe has won 55% of the tournaments while providing 54.8% of the competing teams. This hardly suggests Europe has won more than its fair share of times. By way of contrast, South American nations won the remaining 45% of the tournaments while only comprising 18.9% of the total competing teams.

All this suggests that what some people might call the European Football Superiority Complex is alive and well.

I strongly suspect there are still many Europeans who base their view of African, Asian and CONCACAF football on a small sample of historical results, such as:

Yugoslavia 9 Zaire 0 in 1974
Poland 7 Haiti 0 in 1974
Belgium 10 El Salvador in 1982
Russia 6 Cameroon 1 in 1994
Argentina 5 Jamaica 0 in 1998
Germany 8 Saudi Arabia 0 in 2002

While at the same time writing off as aberrations results such as:

Algeria 2 West Germany 1 in 1982
Morocco 3 Portugal 1 in 1986
Cameroon 1 Argentina 0 in 1990
Costa Rica 2 Scotland 1 in 1990
Saudi Arabia 1 Belgium 0 in 1994
Nigeria 3 Spain 2 in 1998
Senegal 1 France 0 in 2002
United States 3 Portugal 2 in 2002
Ghana 2 Czech Republic 0 in 2006
Australia 2 Serbia 1 in 2010
Costa Rica 1 Italy 0 in 2014

I didn’t even mention Joe Gaetjens or Pak Do Ik.

Too many Europeans don’t treat football outside of Europe and South America seriously. All too often the ‘expert’ pundits don’t do the necessary background research on teams with which they are unfamiliar.

It’s the same attitude that caused so many pundits and publications to write off New Zealand’s chances in the 2010 World Cup, based purely on their defensive frailties displayed in the 2009 Confederations Cup, when a modicum of serious research would have revealed that none of their three best defenders (Ryan Nelsen, Winston Reid and Tommy Smith) were unavailable for the 2009 tournament.

There’s also a tendency from certain Europeans to treat alleged corruption by the likes of Amos Adamu, Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, Worawi Makudi, Ricardo Teixeira, Julio Grondona or Nicolas Leoz as being somehow typical of the regions they represent, whereas alleged corruption by Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini or Jerome Valcke or matchfixing in Italy or Finland is seen as being a case of a few bad apples.

So I suspect that Gianni Infantino may be guilty of overestimating Europe’s importance in world football and underestimating the importance of other continents’ football.

Perhaps he was just making an argument to suit his constituents. But if so, how do we know that his claim that he would represent all 209 nations if he is elected FIFA President is not a similar empty argument?

Surely he should know that the World Cup Finals aren’t just about winning. Teams such as Honduras, Angola, Japan, Peru and Northern Ireland, while never winning the World Cup, have nevertheless added colour to the tournament, as would, no doubt, Venezuela, Cape Verde Islands, Panama or Uzbekistan.

Some of the greatest memories fans have of the World Cup were goals scored by countries who didn’t win, such as Saaed Al-Owairan’s winner against Belgium in 1994, Yordan Letchkov scoring for Bulgaria against Germany in 1994, almost any of Brazil’s goals in 1982, Dennis Bergkamp’s last gasp winner against Argentina in 1998 or Archie Gemmill’s goal for Scotland against the Netherlands in 1978.

If the World Cup were to truly be only for winners, perhaps it should be limited to just each Confederation’s Nations Cup winners, plus the hosts and the holders.

We could call it the Confederations Cup.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On Platini's Failure

I admit that watching Michel Platini’s career self-implode over the past few weeks has left me feeling a little smug.

Although I had nothing against the man personally, I always wanted and expected him to fail.

There’s no doubt that he was a fantastic player, easily one of the best ever and possibly for a time the best of his generation.

While my only memories of Platini in the 1978 World Cup were secondhand, the result of reading what a great talent he was, such was the limited TV coverage available in New Zealand at the time, like many others I fondly recall his fantastic performances leading the great French team in 1982 and 1986, and am fully aware that perhaps his greatest performance in a major tournament fell midway between these two World Cups, when he top-scored on his way to lifting the 1984 European Nations Cup.

Of course the other players in those French teams were hardly unskilled. Players like Trésor, Genghini, Giresse, Six, Rocheteau and Stopyra would have graced any team in those tournaments. Put Platini in the 1980 All Whites that lost 3-1 to Tahiti and 4-0 to Fiji in the 1980 Oceania Nations Cup and he may not have looked so good.

But fortunately he was French, at a time when they had a wonderful national team. What a player!

My initial problem with Platini’s burgeoning career in football administration was the attitudes and views expressed by so many that somehow a former top player would, unquestionably, make a first class football administrator.

It’s an idea that hasn’t lost its popularity. As recently as the run-up to the last FIFA Presidential election, there were numerous people supporting Luis Figo or David Ginola, purely because of their notable playing careers.

This view made as much sense to me as the logically equivalent idea that to play at the top level and lead your team to international glory, you should first have had a career as a successful CEO.

We already know that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches (Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst are two prime examples). Nor, I suspect, would great players necessarily make great referees, or great physiotherapists or great groundsmen.

So why would anyone believe that someone highly skilled at manipulating a football, making penetrating forward runs or arriving unmarked at the far post in a World Cup Quarter-Final against Brazil on his birthday, would automatically be top class at analyzing reports, pushing through legislative changes, creating budgets, overseeing multi-million dollar international development programmes or know where to begin to clean up an egregiously corrupt organization?

Even the fact that he played at the top level doesn’t necessarily aid his cause. The vast majority of past, current and future players, coaches, referees and administrators for whom FIFA is the worldwide body have been and will be involved in levels of the game far below those that Platini was involved in. They can relate much more to the footballing experiences of a skilled office manager or administrator who once played ten to fifteen years at grassroots level, coached a youth team, refereed high school level games or organized bus transportation for the team or fans than they can to Platini’s experiences in the game.

When is the last time Platini:

- Joined a club and had to pay for the privilege, rather than receiving numeration?
- Suffered a serious ankle injury while playing and drove himself home and then had his wife drive him to the emergency room?
- Drove himself and his wife five hours to an away last sixteen cup-tie, spent the night in a youth hostel, got up ridiculously early (in winter) to view penguins on a windswept beach, then drove to the match and played a part in a 2-0 victory against the fourth best team in the country, before winning a box of groceries in the clubroom raffle for good measure?
- Had a player try to sit on his lap while he was on the bench watching his team of six year-old girls play?
- Refereed five tournament matches in a row without even a single assistant referee?
- Placed the ball for a corner-kick on a cold winter morning, took three steps back and felt his foot break through the ice and into the freezing stream that ran alongside the pitch?
- Organised fixture lists so that parents who helpfully agreed to coach two of their children’s teams would be guaranteed to be able to watch both teams play every match?

While I played a number of years at a reasonable level, but never at the highest possible, my international career consisting of a single second half appearance for NZ Universities in a meaningless match against the Waikato Under 23's in 1990, those are some of my experiences in football and I’m sure there are tens of thousands of participants around the world who can relate. I doubt Michel Platini is one of them.

Platini has always struck me as someone who is happiest handing out the medals at major finals, hobnobbing with footballing royalty or eating a meal in a top class restaurant.

Even before his current fall from grace, in which he appears to have received a ‘disloyal payment’ from Sepp Blatter and then spent the following ten days (so far) giving increasingly unlikely explanations for what the payment was for and why it took nine years to receive it, his actual record at UEFA has been questionable.

Platini it was who increased the Euros from sixteen to 24 teams, partially, no doubt, to aid his own presidential campaigns. The idea, ostensibly, is to allow more nations the opportunity to play in the Euros. The logical extension of this idea is surely to allow all 54 European nations to play in the Finals, thereby allowing the luxury of scrapping the qualifying matches. This would free up time for the first round of matches to be played in a home and away group format so that every single UEFA-based international team could host Euro matches, with the best sixteen progressing to the later rounds, which could perhaps be held in a single country.

Yes, I’m being facetious.

It was also Platini who opposed the introduction of goal-line technology, insisting it was a slippery slope and that accurate decisions could just as well be made by the addition of extra officials on the goal-line. Discussing the disallowed goal scored by England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup Second Round, it was Platini who said, “If an official had been beside the goal that day, he would have spotted that Lampard's shot crossed the line. “

Two days later his words came back to haunt him in the Euros when a shot from Ukraine’s Marko Devic looped off Joe Hart and crossed the goal-line right in front of one of Platini’s goal-line judges, before being hooked out by John Terry. Despite it being his main job, the goal-line judge did not signal a goal.

Anecdotal evidence from multiple seasons of European club competition suggests that the extra officials rarely make any decisions that aren’t made by referees. To anyone with experience in refereeing, this should come as no surprise. My own experience is that the more referees there are in a match, the less likely it is that any one official wants to make a decision that seemingly disagrees with the referee’s decision or non-decision.

Platini it also was who promised the United States he would vote for the 2022 World Cup to be held in America, before meeting with Nikolas Sarkozy and the Emir of Qatar and then switching his vote to Qatar. When asked how the players would cope with the excessive heat he replied that he always thought the World Cup should be held in winter, thereby severely negatively affecting the big leagues in the UEFA countries he is supposed to represent. Meanwhile his son picked up a nice little gig in Qatar, completely unrelated to Platini's vote, of course.

Platini also promoted an increase to 40 teams in the World Cup Finals, in eight groups of five. It would only add three days, he argued, forgetting that each team would now have to play one extra match and also have a bye while the other four teams in their group faced off. He would surely be unable to explain how this format would fit into the 28 day Qatar 2022 World Cup that has now been foisted upon us. He's a man for ideas, not practicalities or details. If asked about this he would no doubt smile and shrug, as if that somehow constitutes the basis of a decent argument.

And as recently as this month, Platini it was, acting as one member of a three-man panel (the others being his close supporters, the two Sheiks Salman,of Bahrain, and Ahmad, of Kuwait), who agreed with Saudi Arabia that they shouldn't have to play their World Cup Qualifying match in Palestine, unlike the United Arab Emirates who apparently managed to do so without incident. The reasons for the Saudi request and Platini's panel's agreement were, to use a phrase Platini himself recently used, astonishingly vague.

So now we have discovered that in all likelihood, Platini has received a massive payment in 2011 in return for supporting Sepp Blatter in the 2011 FIFA Presidential election rather than running for that office himself or supporting Mohammed bin Hammam. The way things look he'll be found guilty and receive a ban or very long suspension.

But in my mind, he was already guilty of being at best a mediocre UEFA President and FIFA Exco member.

No doubt if he eventually loses support from the fawning UEFA members, some other ex-player will come along and take over the role.

People have very short memories.

Monday, September 28, 2015

You can't have it both ways, Monsieur Platini

Last week FIFA announced the dates for the Qatar 2022 World Cup Finals. The tournament will begin on November 21st with the Final scheduled for December 18th. The entire tournament will therefore last 28 days. This is three days shorter than the 2018 World Cup Finals being played June 14th to July 15th.

I had a look at how the tournament could be scheduled, using the same basic format as that being used in the 2018 World Cup, while still allowing every participating team reasonable breaks in between matches. It wasn’t too difficult to come up with a schedule that seems to be fair, although it does require four Group Stage matches to be played on each of the first twelve days of the tournament, including the opening day, which would be a departure from tradition.

In the already announced 2018 and likely 2022 schedules, the 32 teams have the following average breaks between matches:

The shortest interval between matches for any team in both schedules is three days. The longest is six days in the 2018 schedule and five in the 2022 schedule.

Holding a 28-day World Cup Finals under the current format is therefore possible without causing any great disadvantage to any given participating team.

So far, so good.

But let us remember that Michel Platini, whom it has been confirmed voted for the 2022 World Cup Finals to be held in Qatar, has reportedly been advocating for a 40-team World Cup Finals, split into eight groups of five teams, beginning in 2018.

This appears to be a key part of his FIFA Presidential election platform. Permitting an additional eight countries to participate in the World Cup Finals is obviously an attractive proposition to voters.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that it can possibly work within the confines of a 28-day tournament. Adding a fifth team to each group requires the addition of two extra match days in each first round group; one for the game against the extra team and one for the bye round.

This looks like just another example of Platini pandering to voters rather than thinking things through. Does he want a 40-team World Cup Finals, or does he want a 28-day Winter World Cup Finals in Qatar?

He can’t have both.

Friday, September 4, 2015

FIFA Rankings - Both Flawed and Discriminatory

(Originally posted on this blog on Friday, January 9, 2015 as part of my longer Debate on Football in response to Jerome Champagne.)

The FIFA rankings are not well understood by fans, and even many coaches and players seem to be at a loss to comprehend them. Part of the problem is that people don't realise that they are intended to be reactive (ranking teams' past performances) rather than predictive (identifying which teams are likely to win future matches).

Many may feel that the FIFA rankings are not important; just a meaningless exercise to rank teams for the sake of it with no actual consequences. However, this is not the case.

The FIFA rankings are often used to seed teams in international competitions, including, crucially, the pots used for making the draw for the first round groupings at the World Cup. Teams drawn into a tough group are much less likely to progress than teams drawn into an easy group. International pride is at stake to be sure, but so are coaching careers, winning bonuses for players and prize money payments to national associations.

In addition, certain countries will not permit players to be given work permits if they play for a national team that is ranked too low. This means that excellent players from lower ranked nations are not given the chance to improve by playing in stronger leagues, thus further hindering the nation they play for.

Another factor to consider is that national teams ranked higher are more likely to be invited to play friendly matches than teams ranked lower. This means countries with lower rankings are given less opportunity to play against strong opponents.

Higher ranked countries can also demand a higher match appearance fee than lower ranked countries.

Some coaches may even have a rankings goal built into their contract, meaning their job can theoretically be lost (or retained) based on FIFA Rankings.

All of these points show that the calculations used to determine the rankings must be fair and should attempt to reflect reality as closely as possible.

I see four major problems with the rankings that need to be fixed.

a) For each nation, the total of their points accumulated throughout the year is divided by the number of matches they have played. However, where a country plays fewer than five matches, the total points are divided by five. This means that if a country only plays once in a year, the points gained would be divided by five, meaning that country loses 80% of the points it has gained. I understand the concept that national teams should be encouraged to play matches. However, there are certain regions in the world where nations find it particularly difficult to play five matches.

In particular, the eleven nations that belong to the Oceania Football Confederation rarely play five matches in a calendar year. By downloading the list of full internationals played from 2010-14 from the FIFA website it was easy to see the negative affect on the Oceania nations.

Analysis of Nations Playing Fewer than Five Full Internationals, by Confederation, 2010-14

A quick glance shows that almost all UEFA nations played at least five matches every year during the period 2010-14. The only exception was Faroe Islands, which played four matches in 2012 and 2014, thus losing 20% of any ranking points won.

Similarly, of the CONMEBOL nations, only Bolivia in 2010 failed to play at least five matches.

By contrast, 2011 was the only year that more than half of the Oceania nations played at least five matches. Mostly these matches were played in the South Pacific Games in New Caledonia, and are officially classified as friendlies, the lowest ranking of the match categories. Even New Zealand, which was the only Oceania nation that played at least five matches in 2010, as a result of qualifying for the World Cup Finals, and also in 2014, only played three full internationals in 2011.

Oceania faces the major problem of a very small land area located in a huge area of ocean. Even distances between neighbouring nations can be large. There are no buses, trains or ferries. Every away match requires an expensive flight, for nations already lacking funding.

While nations belonging to other Confederations play an extensive series of World Cup and Nations Cup qualifying matches, often the Oceania teams are limited to a few qualifying matches for the Oceania Nations Cup, and because this tournament evolves into World Cup Qualifying, having failed to finish in the top four, they are excluded from the World Cup and don't play any more matches.

Because of its location, it is a difficult and expensive exercise for New Zealand to arrange friendly matches, especially at home. Because New Zealand's players are spread throughout the world, in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and now South Africa too, whatever location they play their matches requires a huge logistical effort and financial cost.

As a result, while the national teams of Vanuatu, Fiji or Papua New Guinea are by no means world beaters, they are probably actually much better than their respective FIFA rankings suggest.

I would like to see a way that the minimum number of matches calculation can be adjusted for nations that find it difficult to play matches a s a result of their isolation. Alternatively some development funding should be made available for these nations to play more matches.

b) In a league system three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. This is a fair and equitable system, because each participant in the league plays every other participant an equal number of times. Where teams are level on points, goal difference is generally used to rank the teams.

However, the FIFA Rankings are not a league system. It is impossible for every nation to play every other nation. If countries could somehow play one match a week, it would still take four years for each team to play every other team once.

Therefore, the ranking system needs to be capable of comparing the results of teams that play completely different opponents. It is for this reason I think that, for losing teams, the strength of the opponents and the losing margin need to be taken into account.

Consider these two hypothetical results in World Cup matches:

Germany 4 Panama 3 after extra time.
Tahiti 6 Panama 0.

In the current FIFA rankings calculations, Panama would receive the same number of ranking points (zero) for their narrow extra time loss to Germany as they would for their thrashing at the hands of Tahiti. It is immediately apparent that this cannot be right. A team that loses 4-3 to Germany is clearly much stronger than a team loses 6-0 to Tahiti. In a league system it is fair enough that both losses earn zero points, but in a ranking system where every team plays different opponents, the strength of those opponents and the margin of victory should be taken into consideration. I do not know what calculation SHOULD be used, but I am sure there is someone out there who can do for the FIFA Rankings what Messrs Duckworth and Lewis did for rain-affected one-day cricket matches.

c) The location of matches is not taken into account.

An away win gained by Venezuela against Bolivia at altitude in La Paz is surely worth more than a home win against the same opponents in Caracas.

An away win earned by Canada against Mexico in the heat, humidity, noise and altitude of the Azteca Stadium is surely worth more than a home win on a cold February evening in Toronto.

d) And now to the most egregious injustice of all: the Confederation Coefficient. This is an artificial number based on the number of victories achieved at recent World Cup Finals tournaments by countries from each Confederation. The theory is that Confederations that achieve more victories at World Cup Finals tournaments are stronger than Confederations that achieve fewer wins, and therefore wins against countries from stronger Confederations should be worth more ranking points.

It is absolutely unjust. It is discriminatory. It smacks of colonialism. It is a concept favoured by those who imagine that UEFA and CONMEBOL nations are much stronger per se than nations from the other Confederations. These people appear to base their opinions of the four 'weaker' Confederations on the performances of El Salvador 1982, Zaire 1974 and Haiti 1974, tournaments played thirty of forty years ago.

Let's imagine some scenarios.

i) Two hypothetical World Cup Finals matches:

Chile 2 Uruguay 1.
Costa Rica 3 Uruguay 1.

Uruguay are currently ranked 10 in the FIFA Rankings.
World Cup Finals matches are given an Importance Value of 4.
The Confederation Coefficient is 1.0 for CONMEBOL and 0.85 for CONCACAF.

Using the current formula, Uruguay would receive zero points for both games, because they lost both.

For winning teams, the current formula is Match X Importance X Opposing Team X Confederation Coefficient.

Chile would receive 3 (Match) X 4 (Importance) X 190 (Opposing Team, based on 200 minus the rank of the opponents) X 1 Confederation (because both teams are from CONMEBOL) = 2280 points.

For achieving the same outcome (actually slightly better because they have a larger winning margin), you might expect Costa Rica would receive the same amount of points. But no.

Costa Rica would receive 3 (Match) X 4 (Importance) X 190 (Opposing Team, based on 200 minus the rank of the opponents) X 0.925 Confederation (the average of 1.0 for CONMEBOL and 0.85 for CONCACAF) = 2109 points.

So Costa Rica would receive 171 fewer points than Chile for beating the same team. This is obviously unjustifiable.

ii) Two hypothetical friendly matches:

Romania 1 Austria 0
Algeria 1 Austria 0

Current rankings are 15 (Romania), 18 (Algeria) and 23 (Austria).

Romania would receive 3 (Match) X 1 (Importance) X 177 (Opposing Team) X 0.99 (Confederation) = 525.69

Algeria would receive 3 (Match) X 1 (Importance) X 177 (Opposing Team) X 0.92 (Confederation) = 488.52.

Algeria are in effect punished because UEFA nations won more World Cup Finals matches than CAF nations did, even though Algeria actually won one match in the 2014 Finals, tied another, progressed to the second round and only lost in extra time to eventual champions Germany, whereas Romania didn't even qualify for the 2014 World Cup Finals, much less win a game.

iii) Two hypothetical friendly matches:

Tajikistan 2 San Marino 0
Liechtenstein 2 San Marino 0

Current rankings are: 135 (Tajikistan), 132 (Liechtenstein), 179 (San Marino)

Tajikistan would receive 3 (Match) X 1 (Importance) X 50 (Opposing Team Minimum) X 0.92 (Confederation) = 138.0

Liechtenstein would receive 3 (Match) X 1 (Importance) X 50 (Opposing Team Minimum) X 0.99 (Confederation) = 148.5.

Why should Tajikistan receive fewer points than Liechtenstein for achieving the same outcome? How are wins in World Cup Finals matches relevant to lower ranked countries that will probably never qualify for the World Cup?

If you still think the Confederation Coefficient is fair, consider the fact that sometimes nations change which Confederation they are affiliated to.

In 2002, Kazakhstan left the AFC and joined UEFA.
In 2006, Australia left the OFC and joined the AFC.

Imagine if Guyana, Suriname, Panama or Mexico decided to leave CONCACAF and joined CONMEBOL. Each win or draw they achieved would suddenly be worth 8.85% more, not because they are suddenly a better team, but simply by way of being affiliated to a Confederation with a better Coefficient.

This makes absolutely no sense.

Why do countries from the CAF, AFC, OFC and CONCACAF tolerate this obvious injustice? It is based on a form of colonial thinking that believes that somehow achievements by Europeans are worth more than the same achievement by Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders or Central Americans.

What if FIFA World Cup Finals match points were awarded in a similar way. If Italy received 0.995 points for drawing with Paraguay, but New Zealand only received 0.925 points for the same result?

If FIFA wants to stamp out discrimination, eliminating the Confederation Coefficient might be an excellent place to start.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Africa is Not A Country. So Why Would It Vote As One?

From time to time we hear, in response to ignorant comments made by various westerners who are either geographically challenged or lacking in their understanding of the African continent's wide diversity, the quite reasonable rejoinder that Africa is not a country.

The culprits have been numerous, among them reportedly former American Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and current US Vice-President Joe Biden.

And of those who do understand that Africa consists of over 50 distinct countries, many are apparently of the perception that the entire population lives in mud huts while dodging lions, elephants, giraffes and zebras as they go about their daily, ongoing struggle against malaria, ebola and famine.

I cannot recall how many times I read that June is winter in Africa in the comments section on various World Cup 2010 articles on the internet.

For decades we were told every four years by football pundits that Africans lack discipline.

The truth is, of course, that as the second largest in the world, the African continent contains incredible diversity, not only geographically and meteorologically, but also culturally, linguistically, religiously, gastronomically, in fact in regard to just about every adverb you may wish to name. In this it is just like every other continent.

It has a mix of large, medium-sized and small countries (e.g. Algeria, Burkina Faso, Djibouti), intensively populated and sparsely populated countries (e.g. Nigeria, Mauritania), landlocked, coastal and island countries (e.g. Chad, Mozambique, Seychelles), Arabic-speaking, French-speaking and English-speaking countries (e.g. Tunisia, Cote d'Ivoire, Namibia), among hundreds of other languages, dictatorships and democracies (e.g. Zimbabwe, Botswana) and countries that have been very successful at football, moderately successful at football, and generally unsuccessful at football (e.g. Cameroon, Togo, Eritrea).

This is what makes it all the more surprising to me that in matters of football politics, there is a feeling that the CAF members need to vote as a bloc. It is hard to see how in a confederation the size of Africa, what is the right thing for one country is automatically the right thing for another country. Is what is best for Senegal, Morocco or South Africa necessarily what's best for Mauritius, Sierra Leone or Lesotho? Surely each country has different needs and aspirations. Would not the Seychelles have more in common in football terms with the Maldives, or even Fiji or Barbados, than with Egypt, DR Congo or Mali?

I understand that the continent as a whole was delighted and proud when South Africa was awarded the 2010 World Cup Finals.

I understand that many of the national football leaders have been the happy recipients of FIFA 'development' money or plum postings on various FIFA committees that endow prestige upon the recipients, along with the small matter of US$500 per diems.

But can the various national leaders not be trusted to figure out themselves who or what they want to vote for? What is to say that even more funding and hosting rights cannot come to Africa under another FIFA President than was achieved under Sepp Blatter? Simataa Simataa, a former president of the Zambian FA, certainly saw the downside of the way Blatter won the CAF vote.

It was in 2002 that Lennart Johansson was expected to win the FIFA Presidency, but lost partly because, "He made a mistake to think Africa would vote as one," George Weah of Liberia, the 1995 world soccer player of the year and his country's ambassador for sports, said of Johansson. "There are a lot of different peoples, different cultures."

I wonder what changed.

Each of the leaders of FIFA's 209 members has risen to a position of great power and respect, but also responsibility. It is their duty to use their vote wisely, fo the good of both their own country and the game internationally. I don't understand why they would allow themselves to be told how to cast their votes by a single individual. This is the mentality that resulted in Jack Warner having unchecked power in CONCACAF.

Although I have used Africa is my example, I could equally have used another Confederation such as Asia, CONCACAF or Oceania. Just substitute Jordan, Iran, Tajikistan, Bhutan, Japan, Cambodia and Guam as the list, or the USA, Suriname, Guatemala, Haiti and Montserrat, or New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Tahiti.

It was bad enough when 13 votes secured the hosting of the World Cup Finals. Now that the hosting rights will be decided by the entire FIFA Congress rather than just the Exco members, if voters defer to Confederations and vote as blocs, potentially two or three people's votes will be enough to win the bid. What a sorry state of affairs that would be.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Some Questions for Michel Platini

Michel Platini has confirmed what I have long feared and put himself forward as a candidate for FIFA President at the upcoming election. To me he has always come across as someone who enjoys the trappings of his position. He appears to like the limelight, the stadium box seats, handing out the medals at Euros and Champions League finals, basically everything associated with the game at the very highest echelons.

I wonder what his credentials are in regard to other aspects of the game. Here are some questions I would like him to answer.

1. You have been a member of the FIFA Executive Committee since 2007, during a time in which, as we have known for a long time, corruption has been rampant in the upper levels of the organisation. What steps have you personally taken to identify or prevent FIFA corruption? When did you suddenly become a 'reform' candidate?
2. Why were you a long-time supporter of Sepp Blatter, even though he presided over a corrupt organisation? Why did you refuse to stand against him in 2011 when asked by Mohammad Bin Hammam. Was it because you supported Sepp Blatter or because you were afraid you would lose the election, face and potentially your chance to become FIFA President as some later date?
3. Why did you vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup Finals? Were you unaware that Qatar is very hot in the summer? Why did you then start pushing for a winter World Cup that would cause huge disruption to the European leagues and competitions that you were supposed to represent as President of UEFA? What role did your meetings with French President Nikolas Sarkozy play in your vote for Qatar?
4. You have released a generic candidacy announcement full of the usual platitudes about reform and the type of organisation FIFA should be. When can we expect to see a detailed manifesto?

In particular, what are your thoughts on the following issues?

5. You opposed the introduction of goal-line technology, instead suggesting that fifth and sixth officials should be used. In the light of Ukraine's disallowed goal against England in the 2012 Euros, have you changed your mind?
6. You have called for a 40-team World Cup Finals with eight groups of five teams, suggesting that it will only add three days to the tournament. How would that work given that it will require two extra rounds in the group stages and eight teams would be disadvantaged by having byes on the last playing day for each group?
7. Do you agree with Gianni Infantino that because European nations have won the last three World Cups, Europe deserves an extra World Cup Finals place? If so, how is the performance of the top two or three European teams relevant to whether Europe should have a 13th or 14th representative? Wouldn't it be more logical and objective to look at the performance of the lower ranked European qualifiers to determine whether an additional spot is merited? What should be the make-up of the Finals of all the FIFA tournaments by Confederation?
8. You have been a major force in the introduction of Financial Fair Play. How well has that reduced inequalities, given that a few big European clubs such as Manchester City and Paris St Germain continue to pay exorbitant amounts in transfer fees for some of the world's best players?
9. You have also suggested that the imposition of salary caps may be needed. In the light of this, would you be willing to tell us what your salary is, both as UEFA President and as a member of the FIFA Exco?
10. Given that you support the FIFA membership application of Kosovo, where do you stand on the issue of admitting Gibraltar to FIFA, given that neither has full recognition as a nation from all FIFA members, and recognising that every other territory on the United Nations List of Non_Self-Governing Territories that has applied for FIFA membership has been accepted?
11. As UEFA President, what policies have you introduced to combat matchfixing, doping and discrimination, and how successful have those policies been?
12. How important are the FIFA Rankings and what changes would you advocate to ensure they are an accurate reflection of the relative strength of national football teams?
13. What are your thoughts about international player availability and teams being deducted points after winning matches on the field? How could instances of this be prevented from happening?
14. What laws of the game would you like to see introduced, modified or removed?
15. How much development money should be made available to each FIFA member? How should this funding be distributed? What criteria should be used to determine which projects and member nations should be funded?
16. What should be football's responsibility for ensuring the welfare of its players, coaches, referees, etc. during and upon the completion of their careers? Is it acceptable that many participants go unpaid or end up homeless? What should FIFA do about this?
17. What are the biggest issues facing the members of the Oceania Football Confederation? What will you do to alleviate these issues?
18. With regard to women's football, what will you do to increase or improve tournaments, equality, prize money, development and participation? How many women's matches have you attended since becoming UEFA President in 2007?
19. What is your background in data visualisation? How should FIFA make available and present useful data on the FIFA.com website?
20. How should World Cup hosting rights be determined? What are the most important factors in ensuring a fair and transparent method of choosing the hosts? Which factors are critical in ensuring the selected hosts are suitable?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

An Update on my Proposed Combined Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifying Format

One of the reasons that the David Chung-led OFC continues to support Sepp Blatter is because they appear to think he will support them in gaining an automatic OFC place in the World Cup Finals. I happen to believe that President Blatter won't actually do anything concrete to make this happen, particularly as a fifth term in office would surely be his last (wouldn't it?) and he would no longer be in need of any votes, but more importantly, I think that the OFC nations are misguided in believing that this is what they actually want.

Let's think this through.

Currently, the four lowest-ranked OFC teams play a small round robin tournament in the first round of OFC Qualifying. The winners progress to the next round, along with the remaining seven OFC members. In the last edition, this doubled as the Oceania Nations Cup where some of the teams played a frankly ludicrous five matches in nine days in the excessive heat and humidity of Honiara.

The top four teams progressed not only to the Nations Cup semi-finals, the tournament eventually being won by Tahiti, but also to the third round of World Cup Qualifying. A six match home and away mini-league was played, in which New Zealand comfortably came out on top, only to lose to Mexico in the Intercontinental play-offs.

So the upshot was:

i) three minnow teams played three matches against fellow minnows (Tonga, American Samoa and Cook Islands) and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

ii) one minnow team (Samoa) played three matches against the above three minnow teams, and then three matches against stronger opponents (Tahiti, New Caledonia, Vanuatu) and were then eliminated, and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

iii) three medium strength teams (Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea) played three matches against teams varying in strength from Samoa to New Zealand and Tahiti, were eliminated, and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

iv) the four strongest teams (New Zealand, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti) played three matches against teams varying in strength from Samoa to New Zealand and Tahiti, progressed to the semi-finals assuring them of two more matches in the Nations Cup plus six matches in the third round of World Cup Qualifying. Tahiti also went to the Confederations Cup, and New Zealand were soundly beaten by Mexico over two legs in the intercontinental play-off. And then, the South Pacific Games for three of these, and for New Zealand.... nothing meaningful.

Giving an automatic World Cup Finals spot to Oceania wouldn't change much. It would result in two fewer intercontinental play-off games and a guaranteed three World Cup Finals for one team, so potentially in total one more match but also potentially two fewer matches.

Such a format would do little to improve the outcomes for any of the Oceania nations.

It is also extremely hard to justify what would in effect be an automatic spot for New Zealand, a team usually ranked outside the top 100 (I know Tahiti won the last Oceania Nations Cup but I would argue that was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances all coming together at once).

Why not combine OFC qualifying with AFC qualifying? I believe it would be a win-win for both confederations.

My current favourite format is as follows:

Phase 1: 57 nations

OCEANIA (11 members)

Nation with highest FIFA ranking receives bye into Phase 2
Remaining ten nations play round-robin in two groups of five teams (could be part of South Pacific Games)
Top three from each group progress to final group
Top five qualify for Phase 2

ASIA (46 members)

14 nations with highest ranking receive bye into Phase 2
Remaining 32 nations play round-robin in eight groups of four teams
Top two from each group qualify for Phase 2

Phase 2: 36 nations as follows:

1 Highest ranked Oceania nation
5 Qualifiers from Oceania Phase 1
14 Highest ranked Asian nations
16 Qualifiers from Asian Phase 1

Round-robin played in six groups of six teams
Each group includes five AFC teams and 1 OFC team
Top two from each group progress to Phase 3

Phase 3: 12 nations (winners and runners-up from Phase 2 groups)

Round-robin played in two groups of five or two groups of six, depending on configuration of Phase 2
Winners and runners-up in each group qualify for World Cup Finals
The third-placed teams play each other home and away to decide the fifth qualifier

Imagine if this format were used for World Cup Qualifying. Now in addition to all the preliminary games against their Oceania brethren, which would in effect act as warm-up matches, six Oceania nations would play a minimum of ten matches against quality Asian opposition, greatly enhancing their prospects to gain invaluable experience and play meaningful matches against stronger teams than they are used to.

Let's just recall that it is very common for the Oceania nations to not even play the five international matches a year that are the minimum to maximise any FIFA Rankings points won. Oceania stands out from all the other Confederations in this regard.

If they are good enough to progress to Phase 3, they would enjoy another ten matches against strong opposition.

Sure, for one Oceania nation, the chance of qualifying for the World Cup Finals would be diminished, albeit not greatly, given the current play-off system that could see them playing CONMEBOL, CONCACAF or strong AFC opposition, but for six teams this format would be hugely beneficial from a development perspective, and presumably would also provide opportunities for vastly improved broadcasting revenues.

Here's the table of the data for the last five years.

This shows that in four of the last five calendar years, the vast majority of Oceania nations haven't even played five meaningful matches. No other Confederation comes close to matching these depressing numbers.

The combined AFC-OFC format would be a win for Asia too, because currently in reality only four of the 4.5 places available to AFC teams are filled, but this system would usually allow five AFC teams to qualify.

I should note that I would only use this combined system for the men's World Cup. Women's tournaments, age-group tournaments, Beach and Futsal World Cups and the Club World Cup would continue to be run as they currently are, with separate qualifying competitions for AFC and OFC.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the costs of sending all these teams across such a large area would be horrendous, and secondly, I believe the OFC has won its Finals spot on merit in all of these other tournaments.

On the subject of costs, there would be additional travel expenses for teams that reach the second phase. Asia is already the biggest area geographically, and adding a potential trip to Tahiti from Lebanon or Jordan would make it even bigger. I envisage that development or other money could go towards defraying some of these costs, and in addition, as already alluded to, increased broadcasting revenues may also help defray some of these additional expenses for at least the Oceania nations involved. Indeed every FIFA member just received $300,000 officially to help defray the costs of competing in FIFA national team tournaments, so there is obviously plenty of money available.

I did a test draw to see how the groupings may look in Phase 2 using this format. I like what I see.

Teams are listed in the order of the Pots they would have been placed in, based on FIFA Rankings. For this draw New Zealand was placed in Pot 4, New Caledonia in Pot 5 and the remaining four Oceania nations in Pot 6.

This entire idea isn't actually that radical. I clearly remember the 1982 World Cup Qualifying format which saw New Zealand qualify after first winning the Oceania Group (which included not only Australia and Fiji but also Indonesia and Chinese Taipei) and then playing China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the final round, eventually qualifying after a one-off play-off against China played in Singapore after the two teams had finished second equal in the group.

Thinking back to 1974, Australia qualified after seeing off New Zealand, Indonesia and Iraq in Subgroup D and then Iran and finally South Korea in the later rounds.

The Asia-Oceania concept officially ended in 1986, although the Oceania group actually consisted of two Asian, but unwelcome in Asia, nations (Israel and Chinese Taipei) in addition to Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

FIFA GOAL Projects Approved 1999-2014

I downloaded all the GOAL Project data into Excel from the FIFA website, one country at a time, using a macro, and then spent quite a bit of time reworking it into a usable format. FIFA doesn't make it easy to mine data from FIFA.com.

I then imported it into Tableau and created some rudimentary dashboards and visualisations. Forgive my beginning Tableau skills.

The blogger.com site doesn't display it properly, so you should view it on the Tableau Public website.

I added a second sheet showing Total Approved Payments by Country and Year, based on a four-year grouping ending in World Cup Finals years. I was surprised to see two quite wealthy countries in the top five recipients of GOAL and FAP funding, with Bahrain in first place overall and the United Arab Emirates in fifth.

You can click on different parts of the dashboards to see some of the underlying data, If they aren't working, the Tableau Public site is probably down.

The different colours in the first dashboard relate to different Project Categories (Headquarters, Technical Centre, Football Pitch, IT Projects, etc.) There is quite a lot of overlap in the way they are recorded on the FIFA website. You can see which is which by hovering over different segments of the chart. If you click on a segment it acts as a filter for the table below (be patient, it may take a few seconds).

The total budget amount includes both GOAL Project funding and FAP (Financial Assistance Project) funding.

The projects with NULL years are actually apparently the pilot projects approved in 1999.

I included the FIFA three-letter Trigramme because it is useful to know if you want to look at one of FIFA's webpages for just one country. For example, to see a PDF in English about Kazakhstan's GOAL Projects through 2010, enter this URL in your browser:  http://www.fifa.com/mm/goalproject/KAZ_eng.pdf 
To change to another country, just change the trigramme. For example, replace the KAZ with NZL to see the equivalent New Zealand page.

One thing that surprised me is how much GOAL Project support UEFA countries have received over the past five or six years. When you throw in the funding from other non-FIFA sources, UEFA receives much more than any other confederation (not shown on my dashboard).

From looking at the second dashboard, I noted that the total amount approved for all African countries combined across all fifteen years is about US$105 million. To put that in perspective, FIFA paid more than a quarter of that amount to fund the self-aggrandizing box office flop, United Passions, in 2014.

Indeed, FIFA spent more on United Passions than it gave to the top ten African recipient nations combined across the entire 16 years since GOAL Projects were introduced. Maybe that puts FIFA's commitment to Africa under Sepp Blatter's presidency in context.

Of course, the dashboard relies on the data on FIFA's website being accurate, complete and up-to-date.

If anyone would like the underlying data for their own visulalisations, tweet me @NextFIFAPres and I would be happy to send what I have. I can foresee additional data such as number of players, population and GDP being included.

I would also welcome ideas for better visualisations.

Hope you find this useful. Would love to see what a true pro Tableau user could do with this.

Friday, January 30, 2015

8 Areas of the Laws of the Game that the IFAB should Clarify

In an earlier blog post, The Debate on Football, I listed seven areas of the game that I believe are not well understood by players, coaches, supporters, media and even referees, even those at the highest levels, let alone those at youth and grass roots levels, and which I think need clarification. The longer the game is played without the International Football Association Board addressing these issues, the longer we will allow controversy to rage.

I will go into more depth on each of these areas below, using screenshots from the Laws of the Game section of the FIFA website and example videos from Youtube.

1. Handling

For the most part it is understood that handling the ball is only an offence if it is deliberate. The problems arise in defining deliberate.

It is very rare that a player deliberately handles the ball. We can think of the occasional premeditated or instinctive handling offence, where a defending player deliberately moves their hands towards the ball to prevent a goal being scored, such as Luis Suarez in the 2010 World Cup Quarter-Final against Ghana, that are obvious to everyone watching and no-one disputes that an offence has occurred. More on that incident later.

After that we get into grey areas where there is not complete agreement between people who see the offence.

The general understanding now is that in addition to deliberate infractions, handling is an offence if the player who handled either had his or her arm in an unnatural position or was making himself or herself 'big'.

What is an unnatural position?

In general most people would agree that having an arm out parallel to the ground or raised above the head would be unnatural. But what about a player who is running a a few yards from a player who crosses the ball and attempts to block the cross? This is, in itself, a natural action by a defender, and it is very difficult to control where the arms will be when trying to legally block the ball. There is definitely some overlap with the concept of making yourself big.Sometimes defenders can be seent to make a concerted effort to keep their arms behind their bodies. Is this necessary? Should we punish players who don't go these lengths if the ball strikes their arm?

What about a player who is sprinting back to help out defensively and is unable to avoid contact with the ball with the hand that is raised as result of sprinting?

What about a player who is falling over in a challenge and in going down accidentally plays the ball with a hand? In general, having a hand on the surface of the pitch is not a natural position for a footballer, but it is natural for a player who is falling over.

At youth level, what about a player who is standing a few feet from the goal and has an easy chance to score with a header, but closes his eyes and as a result the ball makes contact with his hand instead of his head and then goes into the goal? It is not deliberate, his hands were in a natural position, yet he has gained an obvious advantage from his own poor play.

Finally, how is making yourself big defined?

A player standing on the goal line with arms outstretched is clear-cut enough, but what about a player attempting to close down an opponent who is about to play a fifty yard pass? As the player approaches the player with the ball, how much leeway is given to move their arms out to the side, thus potentially blocking the pass?

Personally when I referee, I try to determine whether the handling incident was reasonably avoidable. If I determine that it was, I will award a free-kick. If I determine that it wasn't, play will continue. This method leaves much to the opinion of the referee, though I would note that the way the laws of the game are written, that is the intention - to allow the referee to decide.

I don't know the answers to all the questions I've posed above, but I would like to see some consistency, which is why I think Handling needs clarification from the IFAB.

Sometimes it doesn't even appear that there is consistency within the same game by the same referee. The video below from the 2014 Scottish Cup semi-final includes a penalty awarded to Hearts 6:00 in, and then at 8:45 a similar incident at the other end not resulting in a penalty for Celtic. Perhaps the referee saw a key difference between the two incidents but to the average fan it is not clear what that difference is.

2. Foul Recognition

There is so much to discuss here.

Firstly, we need to note the key differences between the first seven offences and the last three offences. The last three are ALWAYS deemed to be offences, with the proviso that the referee can invoke the advantage clause to allow play to continue. The first seven are only deemed to be offences if the referee considers that they were committed in a way that was careless, reckless or using excessive force. People who are unfamiliar with the nomenclature may well be wondering about fouls that are deliberate but not careless, reckless or using excessive force. Trust me when I say they are included in this definition.

Anyone who has played the game is aware that there is a lot of contact during a game and that a large percentage of that contact is purely incidental. If the referee were to award a free-kick every time contact occurred, the game would be ruined as a spectacle as it would be constantly stopping and starting. No-one wants to see that, not players, referees, coaches, nor spectators. This applies most often to pushing, tripping, kicking an opponent (accidentally rather than violently) , jumping at an opponent or charging an opponent, although it's hard to imagine that striking an opponent would be anything other than deliberate. The exception to all of this is holding (e.g. grabbing part of an opponent's body or holding an opponent's shirt, however briefly) which is designed to arrest momentum, the theory being that this is always a deliberate action.

So it's clear the way this Law is worded that there is leeway for referees to make a judgement call as to whether to ignore certain types of contact while punishing others. This is why I get so annoyed when I hear a commentator justifying a player diving by saying, "Well, there WAS contact." Maybe, but a lot of the time the contact is so insignificant that it wouldn't cause a five year-old to fall over, let alone a fit and strong footballer. If that same sort of contact happened in a busy shopping mall it wouldn't be enough for the player to fall to the ground and then justify it on the basis that "there was contact."

A second factor to consider is that quite often the contact is clearly avoidable but deliberately initiated by the player who goes down. I've heard professional players justify this action by saying the opponent shouldn't have put themselves in a position where the player with the ball can run into them. I say this is utterly wrong, against both the spirit of the game and the intent of the Law, and is actually a form of cheating.

The example below shows just such a case. Ashley Young of Manchester could easily avoid Sunderland's Wes Brown, but instead chooses to start going down before any contact is made, knowing his momentum will carry him into his opponent.

Time for a clarification please, IFAB! And remember, the LOTG apply to all football, including youth and grass roots.

3. Stoppage Time

The amount of stoppage time added to matches is laughable in its inconsistency. Let's have some sensible guidelines so the amount of additional time is somewhat transparent. How much time should be added on for lengthy goal celebrations, substitutions, injuries or deliberate delays of the game?

Once upon a time it was suggested that each substitution should result in an additional thirty seconds being played. This suggestion did not take into account that replaced players from teams that are winning tend to leave the field much more slowly, often going out of their way to 'sportingly' shake hands with the referee as they slowly leave the field, than players from teams that are losing. Nevertheless, a well-known BBC radio commentator persists in repeating this myth every time he commentates on a friendly international in which each team has made six changes, sneeringly saying there should be at least six minutes just for the substitutes, when the board held up by the fourth official shows three minutes.

I have seen two back-to-back Premier League matches which both had three minutes added to the second half, in which the first match saw five second half substitutions, four goals, a two-minute injury break and three bookings, while the second half of the second match had no goals, no injuries, no bookings and just four quickly carried out substitutions. How on earth can both matches have the same amount of stoppage time?

Part of the problem is that there are no clear guidelines and referees probably estimate how much time to add rather than actually keep track, which would be an additional difficult task on top of everything else they are trying to do.

Another problem is that players who delay the restart of play are often not punished with a yellow card, so additional time continues to be unnecessarily wasted throughout the course of the match until action is finally taken. Below is a list of possible yellow card infractions for what used to be known as time-wasting.

A further consideration is that typically referees won't end the game unless the ball is in neutral territory. Very often they will let a team take a corner to see if they can score, but on a goal-kick as soon as the ball is kicked and has left the penalty area, the final whistle will blow with the ball in mid-air.

Stoppage time is also typically reduced if one team has an unassailable lead, such as when ten minutes are lost to injury but only two additional minutes are played because a team is winning 7-0. But this actually seems a little unfair in a competition that could be decided by goal difference.

Here's an example from an MLS match in 2013 of the referee finishing a match when New England, leading 2-1, are about to score a third goal. If DC United, losing 2-1 at the time, had been about to score an equaliser, would full-time have been whistled? The incident in question begins with a corner to DC United 8:40 into the video.

If referees would ensure a fair amount of added time, maybe we wouldn't see these ridiculous confrontations after a goal is scored when a player from the team that has scored rushes into the goal and tries to grab the ball off the goalkeeper or a defender who is holding it.

"Provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play" is a yellow card offence and the team that has just scored has no more right to the ball when their opponents will be restarting the game with a kick-off from halfway than they do if their opponents will be restarting the game with a goal-kick, free-kick, corner or throw-in.

Finally, there have been studies done that indicate that certain teams ('big' teams, home teams, etc.) are given more time to score when they are losing than 'small' teams or visiting teams.

In the interests of fairness and transparency, the IFAB needs to clarify how stoppage time should be calculated.

4. Offside

Although many people do not understand the Offside Law well, for the most part, referees, players, coaches, TV pundits and commentators and knowledgeable fans have no problem with most of it.

Interfering with play, despite what Bill Shankly may have said, is now defined as actually touching the ball. That's easy to understand. There is an objective criterion which leaves no leeway for the referee to make a subjective decision.

Interfering with an opponent is also spelled out. It involves a little leeway for the opinion of the referee to come into play. Note that a player is in an offside position who may be distracting the goalkeeper or defenders is not considered to be interfering with an opponent, unless the player either obstructs the vision of an opposing team player (which would presumably usually be the goalkeeper, but could theoretically also be a defender) or challenges an opponent for the ball.

An article about the winning goal scored by Tom Huddlestone in a Premier League game between Fulham and Tottenham discusses this point. The then Fulham manager, Mark Hughes, surely had a point when he said, "Mark Schwarzer has to hold his position until the ball actually reaches where Gallas is, because he is thinking that at some point Gallas may stick out a toe and deflect it. To say he is not interfering and not in the goalkeeper's eyeline is completely at odds with the truth."

Now we come to the third part. What is meant by gaining an advantage?

A ball that rebounds off the posts or crossbar is easy to understand. Again, there is no room for subjectivity here. Either the ball rebounded off the frame of the goal or it didn't.

The confusion and subjectivity arises when a player who was in an offside position when the ball was last played by a teammate, receives a ball via a touch by an opponent. The law, as written, divides this scenario into three different situations:

i. The ball merely rebounds of an opponent who made no attempt to deliberately play it. In this situation, the opponent counts the same as a post or the crossbar, and the attacking player is ruled to be offside.
ii. The ball rebounds or deflects to the attacker as the result of a deliberate save (usually by the goalkeeper, but again theoretically it could be by a defender). In this situation the attacking player is again ruled to be offside.
iii. The ball reaches the attacking player via a touch from an opponent who made a deliberate attempt to play the ball. This could be, for example, intercepting a deliberate pass back to the goalkeeper, or it could be from a defender attempting to intercept a pass intended for the attacking player, who only manages a slight contact and doesn't prevent the ball reaching its intended target. In situations such as these, the player is NOT deemed to be offside.

This means that if a defender is unsure as to whether an attacker is going to be called offside, there is a risk in attempting to intercept a pass:

- If he is successful, fine. The offside decision becomes moot.
- If he doesn't manage to touch the ball, he's lost nothing. His opponent may still be called offside.
- But if he touches the ball but not enough to prevent it reaching the attacker, he's ensured that his opponent is now definitely onside, when there's a chance he would have been offside if he hadn't attempted the interception.

Under the Law as outlined above, it appears that a new phase of play is considered to have begun when either an opponent of a player in the offside position deliberately plays the ball, or a teammate of the player touches the ball, deliberately or not. Once this new phase of play has begun, whether or not a player had been offside is irrelevant and the player's offside status has to be recalculated.

This also means that a player who is potentially offside by twenty yards can run into the opposing penalty area unmarked and score if an onside team-mate takes possession and then passes the ball back to the 'offside' player. The Law says that this is not gaining an advantage. A lot of football people would disagree. 

There is a huge amount of leeway for subjectivity with regard to did the ball merely rebound from an opponent, or was the opponent attempting to make a save, or did the opponent deliberately play the ball, particularly when the ball doesn't go in the direction intended. This is inevitably going to result in inconsistency of interpretation not only between different confederations and countries, but also between referees in the same league. It is this "gaining an advantage"part of the Offside law that I believes require clarification from the IFAB, along with the distribution of some really good educational materials.

5. Consistency of Cards

Sometimes certain fouls are punished with yellow cards, while similar fouls just result in a free-kick. A foul that would normally result in a yellow card may not be punished if the offender already has a yellow card. Fouls early in the match may not be punished with a card while the same foul later on sees the offender punished. A player may commit six fouls with no card, while another receives a yellow card for persistent infringement after two or three fouls. It is understood that cards are a management tool for referees, but increased consistency should still be encouraged.

Especially early in the game, referees may shy away from giving cards, even though the LOTG make no reference to the amount of time played in the section on Cautionable Offences. I've heard commentators say that the referee has caused himself problems by awarding an early card, because now he has to punish similar fouls the same way. It's not an argument I entirely agree with, because by clearly punishing a bad early foul, the referee can convey the message to everyone at the stadium that that type of foul is not going to be permitted, thereby possibly proactively preventing similar fouls from occurring.

It seems particularly wrong that a player who has already been given a yellow card can commit a foul easily worthy of a second yellow card and be let off. One of the reasons for giving a card in the first place is to attempt to change the behaviour of the player receiving it. By showing that he has been unwilling or unable to change his behaviour, surely the player is not deserving of leniency.

It is also common to see blatant dissent during top level matches and very rare to see it being punished. This sets a terrible example for grass roots players. It certainly isn't tolerated in rugby, where the punishment is usually to move the restart forward ten yards closer to the goal-line.

Ultimately, once again, what is needed is consistency. It is understood that all games are different and no two incidents are exactly the same, but there is enough obvious inconsistency to confuse people who play, coach and watch the game.

Of course there are occasions when cards are correctly given early in matches. Here's the Colorado Rapids goalkeeper being given a red card for DOGSO in the first thirty seconds of an MLS game. The incident occurs about 57 seconds into the video.

Here's a second yellow card wrongly awarded to a player removing his shirt as he is walking off the field to be substituted, meaning he is now sent off and cannot be replaced. According to the LOTG, the yellow card for removing a shirt only applies to celebrating a goal.

6. Denying an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity

Note that "Denying a Goal" ONLY applies to handling the ball to prevent it entering the goal, as in the aforementioned Luis Suarez incident against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.

"Denying an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity" (DOGSO) can apply to any foul that results in a free-kick to the opposing team. There is disagreement among some as to whether this can also include handling the ball because the argument goes that handling is not an offence committed against an opponent, but instead against a team. My interpretation is that it should be included. Otherwise a player who handles a stationary ball to prevent an opponent from kicking it into an empty net could not be sent off. Likewise, a goalkeeper who leaves the penalty area and handles a ball that is flicked over him but would not reach the goal without an additional touch from an attacker could also not be sent off for DOGSO if handling doesn't count.

There is huge inconsistency in the interpretation of DOGSO between countries and referees. In England, many people believe, "If he's the last man he has to go." In the United States the four D's are used (Direction of play, number of Defenders, Distance from the ball, Distance from the goal). If any of those four criteria doesn't check the right box, DOGSO is considered not to have occurred.

In the real world, DOGSO is probably located somewhere between those two extremes. The referee should try to subjectively determine the likelihood that a goal would have been scored considering the four D's but not being a slave to them.

Certainly being "the last man" should not be, in and of itself, the sole criterion for the referee giving a red card, as happened to Mikel Arteta of Arsenal in a match away to Crystal Palace in 2013. The clash happened near both the centre circle and the touchline and there were defenders racing back who could conceivably have prevented Marouane Chamakh from even being able to attempt a shot. Ignoring the fact that the collision was as much instigated by Chamakh, who was running away from the ball, as it was by Arteta, who was running towards the ball, it is certainly questionable as to whether it was an obvious goalscoring opportunity. (The cynics among the Arsenal fans were heard to mutter that even if Chamakh were two yards out with the ball at his feet and an open goal, it still wouldn't be an obvious goalscoring opportunity, but that's a separate issue.)

Here's the incident, beginning at 0:20 of the video.

Another consideration for the IFAB should be how to punish these DOGSO fouls. Should it be a yellow card, time in a sin bin, a red card, a red card plus a suspension or some other punishment? Does it make any difference if a goal is scored from a resulting penalty? What if the offence occurred outside  the penalty area? Should the intent of the player committing the offence be taken into consideration? The current 'Triple Punishment' seems especially harsh when a defender receives his marching orders for an unintentional and possibly questionable foul that doesn't prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity.

7. Encroachment at Penalty Kicks

Penalty kicks are a special type of free kick, awarded to the attacking team when an infringement that would have otherwise resulted in a direct free kick takes place in the penalty area.

There are some significant differences between how penalty kicks are conducted and how direct free kicks are conducted.

On just about every penalty kick taken at the highest levels of the game, it is easy to spot encroachment by players entering the penalty area too quickly, and yet instances where the referee chooses to apply the law and order a retake are so rare as to be noteworthy.

Here's what happens when a referee applies the letter of the law (video quality not the best).

Surely the point of the rules on encroachment is to prevent players from gaining an unfair advantage in the event that the ball remains in play, which happens relatively infrequently. Therefore, I believe it's time for the IFAB to reconsider the law so that it is only applied when a player who encroaches actually touches the ball. And when this actually happens, it should be applied mercilessly.

This would mean that, no matter who encroaches into the penalty area:

a) if a goal is scored directly from the penalty-kick, it would be awarded.
b) if the goalkeeper catches the ball, play would continue with the goalkeeper in possession.
c) if the ball goes directly out of play, the match would restart with a goal-kick (or throw-in).

d) if the goalkeeper deflects the ball out of play, the match would continue with a corner (or throw-in).
e) if the ball rebounds off the post, crossbar or goalkeeper, play would continue if the ball is not touched by a player who has encroached.

The penalty-kick would only be retaken if the ball rebounds to a player from the defending team who has encroached. I was considering the possibility that this should be indirect free-kick, but to be consistent with how encroachment at a direct free-kick is handled (i.e. a retake), I am opting for a retake of the penalty.

In the event an attacking player who has encroached touches the ball first from a rebound, a free-kick would be awarded to the defending team at the spot where the player touched the ball. Indirect or direct, take your pick; it's unlikely to make a significant difference.

On the other hand, encroachment by a goalkeeper (leaving the goal-line before the kick has been taken) should always be punished with a retake when a goal isn't scored, even if the ball is shot high or wide by the taker, because the very act of moving forward reduces the amount of space that is available for the kicker to score into, and therefore gives the goalkeeper an unfair advantage.

Here's an example of a rare, twice retaken penalty in an MLS match between the Portland Timbers and DC United due to goalkeeper encroachment. It still seems to be relatively rare that the assistant referee, whose sole job is to look for encroachment by the goalkeeper, actually flags when a goalkeeper has infringed.

In passing I would note that there have been at least two incidents I am aware of when a referee has made a serious technical error when ruling that encroachment has occurred.

The first occurred in a very important match between Uzbekistan and Bahrain in a World Cup Qualifying match in 2005. I don't have a video of the incident, but the referee ruled that an attacking player had encroached and instead of allowing Uzbekistan to retake the kick, he awarded an indirect free-kick to Bahrain. Uzbekistan went on to win the match 1-0, FIFA ordered a rematch because of the serious nature of the refereeing error, the replayed game ended 1-1, and Bahrain went on to win the two-legged tie on aggregate before succumbing to Trinidad & Tobago in the intercontinental play-off that followed.

The second occurred very recently, in a group match between New Zealand and New Caledonia in the Oceania Under 17 championship played in January 2015 in Samoa and American Samoa. With New Zealand leading 3-1, New Caledonia were awarded a penalty. A goal was scored but the referee ordered a retake because players from both teams were adjudged to have encroached.

From the retake, a goal was again scored, but the referee ruled that an attacking player had encroached. Instead of permitting another retake, he made the same error as the Japanese referee had made in the Uzbekistan-Bahrain match in 2005, awarding an indirect free-kick to New Zealand. New Caledonia went on to lose the match 4-5. There was no FIFA-ordered replay in this game, even though the team that had been cheated eventually lost.

Here's a video of the highlights of the match. The penalty incident begins at 2:30. Even though the goal was disallowed, it isn't obvious in the video.

8. Throw-ins Taken from the Wrong Place

Here is a goal from last weekend in La Liga. The ball boy quickly throws the ball to the Celta Vigo player (the visiting team no less) who takes the throw from too far up the pitch and a goal is scored. Most of the players seem to still be watching the ball that has just been kicked out.

Here is a controversial incident from the Finnish League that occurred because the officials didn't insist that the throw-in be taken at roughly the right spot. As a result, two balls are put into play 35-40 yards apart and are briefly both on the field, with a goal scored and ultimately awarded using the ball that was probably thrown in from much too far up the touchline.

At a lot of the refereeing training sessions I have attended I have been told that throw-ins shouldn't be focused on too much, because they are just a fifty-fifty way of returning the ball into play. My response to that is always that the teams these people have been refereeing must be very poorly coached. A well-coached team should retain possession 90% of the time from their own throw-in.

My forty plus years as a player make me fully aware that players who take throw-ins from the wrong place almost always know what they are doing and are trying to gain an unfair advantage.

I especially note that when the ball leaves the field of play near the corner flag, it is almost never thrown back in at the correct spot. Defending players don't want to get boxed in and attacking players want a bit of space to work with. It has got to the stage that I'm thinking maybe it's time to consider a rule change that would permit any ball that goes out of play within ten yards of the corner to be returned to play from any point within ten yards of the corner. At least that way the honest players won't be disadvantaged like they are now. This seems to be pretty much the unwritten rule anyway.

Finally, speaking of throw-ins, if you've made it this far, you deserve a laugh. Here's what can happen when a player encroaches at a throw-in. Perhaps he should have protected his face instead of the part of his body he did protect. Good, proactive refereeing would have prevented this from happening. Opponents must be at least two yards from the player throwing the ball, but this player seems to be about a foot from the line. Unbelievably, he chooses to, and is permitted to, stand in the exact same place again when play restarts.