Monday, July 23, 2012

2018/2022 World Cup Hosting Investigation is Desperately Needed

Recent rumblings suggesting that FIFA is likely to examine the process by which Russia and Qatar were, respectively, awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, should be welcomed.

Back when both hosts were announced, I was willing to believe that FIFA had chosen the winners based on a desire to spread the World Cup Finals to new frontiers, an ideal in itself that is not necessarily a bad thing.

When it was first suggested by many, particularly in the England camp, that there were all kinds of shenanigans going on in the lead up to the votes and subsequent announcement, it came across a little as sour grapes, and one was left with a feeling that England were willing to play the same games if it would have resulted in their bid being successful.

Indeed, we saw the English national team travel to Trinidad & Tobago in 2008 for a match that officially was played to celebrate the hosts' centenary. We now know it was probably an attempt to win the vote of not only Jack Warner, but also his entire CONCACAF voting bloc. We also know that this attempt ended in abject failure.

The other stories to emerge seemed so unbelievable as to be impossible. Tales of Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz's entourage asking for a knighthood or for the FA Cup to be named after him seemed completely bizarre. But in the light of the recent revelations about numerous members of the FIFA Executive Committee, it seems that anything is possible.

Russia is not the worst place to hold the World Cup Finals. True, there may be some long distances between venues, though no worse than in the USA in 1994. There is also the issue of alleged widespread corruption and numerous examples of racism. Russia's at times controversial politics, of which their attitude towards Syria is just the latest example, could also be viewed as a negative.

Yet despite these issues, Russia at least ticks many of the boxes. It is a footballing nation with a reasonably well-developed infrastructure, experience in hosting other major events and a country currently booming economically.

But what of Qatar? None of the stadia currently exist, the country has never qualified for the World Cup Finals and homosexual fans could be imprisoned, but most worrying of all is the extreme summer heat and humidity.

The recent Oceania Nations Cup in the Solomon Islands showed how much excessive heat and humidity can negatively affect player performance. And even if, as suggested, Qatar can find a way to cool their stadia, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of fans having to deal with the heat in between matches. Combined with the unavailability of alcohol, it's hard to picture a thriving Fan Zone experience.

Michel Platini, who voted for Qatar, has recently made a habit of saying that the Finals could be played in the winter. Such a plan would surely be hugely disruptive to the major European leagues. Besides, the Qatari bid was for a summer World Cup Finals, and that is what Platini voted for, rather than the USA, Japan, South Korea or my own personal favourite, Australia.

There have been rumours that at least two prominent African FIFA Exco members walked away with huge sums of money after voting for Qatar. These rumours suddenly hold more weight, given the recent findings that Mohamed bin Hammam, who was to all intents and purposes, the impetus behind the Qatari bid, had been using the funds of the Asian Football Confederation like they were his own back account. This came just days after bin Hammam was cleared of wrongdoing in the Caribbean Football Union bribery scandal, not because he was found innocent, but because there was insufficient evidence.

And this is now FIFA's problem. Because of the recent rash of corruption involving major FIFA figures, including the only two FIFA Presidents in the last 34 years, FIFA could run the cleanest, most transparent vote in history, and the football world would still believe that skulduggery was involved. That is what happens when a culture of corruption is allowed to exist, grow and fester without anything being done to curtail it.

Defining the culture and setting ethical expectations is one of the most important roles of any President/CEO, and Sepp Blatter has not only been incompetent in this regard, he has also aided and abetted corruption.

So now we are forced to believe that impropriety was involved in the decision to award at least the 2022 World Cup Finals to Qatar, if not also the 2018 tournament to Russia. And can we also now assume that the reason FIFA decided to award both the 2018 and 2022 hosting rights on the same day was to give the current Exco members twice as much chance to receive bribes?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kosovo, Gibraltar, Greenland and FIFA Membership

FIFA's acceptance of Kosovo as a football nation that is permitted to play friendly matches against other FIFA member nations has not gone down well in Serbia, which continues to see Kosovo as part of itself.

Kosovo has been unable to join UEFA because of a rule that says that only countries that are recognised by the United Nations are eligible to join UEFA.

And fortunately for Serbia, they have an ally in Russia, which has veto rights in the United Nations and continues to oppose recognition of Kosovo. This, despite the fact that almost all the other European countries are willing to recognise Kosovo.

The United Nations rule is a relatively recent one for UEFA. Not so long ago, the Faroe Islands, technically part of Denmark, was allowed to join UEFA. And of course, every football fan throughout the world knows that, for historical reasons, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all compete separately in world football, despite being part of the United Kingdom.

The rule is a classic example of a blanket one that was adopted for a single purpose.

On January 8th, 1997, Gibraltar applied for FIFA membership. The full story can be read on the Gibraltar Football Association's website, but to sum up, FIFA would not allow Gibraltar to join until it was granted UEFA membership. The application ran into continued opposition from Spain, a country that has long resented Gibraltar's existence as a British Overseas Territory, and which also has fears of some of its own territory, such as Catalonia or the Basque region, trying to become independent. (Ironically, Spain shows no inclination to give up either Ceuta or Melilla, it's own exclaves that are located in North Africa, despite requests from Morocco.)

This is all even more inconsistent when you consider that Gibraltar, whose Football Association is actually older than Spain's, is allowed to compete as a nation in many other sports that Spain also plays, such as hockey and rugby.

To appease Spain, the UN rule was rammed through by UEFA. Despite the Court for Arbitration in Sport's ruling that because Gibraltar had applied for membership before the rule change, UEFA still had to allow it to join, numerous obstacles continue to be thrown in Gibraltar's way.

At a recent UEFA vote, only England, Scotland and Wales voted in favour of Gibraltar.

Meanwhile Kosovo finds itself in a situation where because two European nations oppose it's recognition by the United Nations, it cannot become a member of UEFA.

This rule would also prevent other applicants, such as Greenland, from joining UEFA. Greenland is an interesting case, in a similar political situation to both the Faroe Islands, which has been a member of both FIFA and UEFA for over 20 years, and Gibraltar, which has found its way barred by Spain.

Interestingly, and inconsistently, while Greenland has already received assistance in the form of a GOAL Project to help construct an artificial turf field that will allow a huge increase in the number of games that can be played, UEFA has stated that Gibraltar cannot be the recipient of s GOAL Project.

Thus we have Kosovo, recognized by FIFA as a nation that may play other FIFA nations, but not allowed to join UEFA; Greenland, unable to join UEFA but having received FIFA assistance; Gibraltar, desperate to join both UEFA and FIFA but opposed by Spain and a hastily written rule; and the Faroe Islands, fully fledged UEFA and FIFA members.

While Kosovo does not have the blessing of Serbia, it's parent country, to join UEFA, Gibraltar and Greenland do have the blessing of the United Kingdom and Denmark, respectively.

Greenland and Gibraltar may find more luck in applying outside UEFA, but it's not clear that this would be satisfactory to them, being culturally and politically more European in outlook.

Given CONCACAF's willingness to accept numerous non-countries, presumably in an attempt to increase their voting bloc, it's not unreasonable to think that Greenland could become part of CONCACAF.

It seems less likely that the CAF would accept Gibraltar, however.

Looking more closely at UEFA's hastily adopted UN-recognition rule, it seems inconsistent that UEFA has this rule, but other Confederations such as CONCACAF, Oceania and Asia allow non-countries to join.

CONCACAF currently boasts amongst its members a number of British Overseas Territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks & Caicos Islands, all of which have the same political status as Gibraltar.

In addition, two other CONCACAF members, Aruba and Curacao, are part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, while the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are politically part of the United States.

Also politically part of the United States are Guam and Northern Marianas, which are both members of the AFC, and American Samoa, a member of the OFC.

The OFC also counts amongst its members the two French territories of New Caledonia and Tahiti (which will compete in the 2013 Confederations Cup) as well as the Cook Islands, politically still technically part of New Zealand.

Then there is Palestine, not recognized by the United Nations thanks to America's veto rights, but still accepted into the AFC and FIFA.

The United Nations has a list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, which it considers to be a list of countries that are non-decolonized. Of the sixteen territories on the list, ten currently have FIFA membership. This means that in footballing terms, Gibraltar is treated the same as the Falkland Islands, Saint Helena, Western Sahara, Tokelau and Pitcairn, none of which has so far shown any interest in joining FIFA.

It seems reasonable to me that if ten out of ten territories on this list, recognized by the United Nation as countries, albeit non-decolonized ones, that applied for FIFA membership have been granted it, the same outcome should be allowed for Gibraltar.

I do, however, believe that this is where the line should be drawn. I would not permit the likes of Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Ynys Mon, the Shetland Islands, Rhodes, Gotland or Hawaii to join FIFA, let alone Sealand.

FIFA needs to move quickly to develop a fair and consistent plan that will not only allow serious applicants such as Kosovo, Gibraltar and Greenland (also Zanzibar) to become fully fledged members, thus increasing participation and following their own goal of promoting the game worldwide, but also to bring in recognized countries that have expressed a desire to join, such as Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

There is actually a FIFA Committee in charge of this, but it apparently moves at a snail's pace. Perhaps if someone were to offer a few million in bribes, things would speed up...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Two high profile governance scandals - two very different outcomes

In the past week two reports regarding very high profile sports governance scandals have been released and there are some interesting parallels in the offences committed.

First we finally got to see Thomas Hildbrand's report on the ISL bribes scandal, an outrage long known about by close followers of the world game thanks to the work of Andrew Jennings, Jens Weinrich, Jean Fran├žois Tanda and others, but hidden from the public for so long as the result of concerted efforts by FIFA through their highly paid legal team.

And then, a few days later, the report by Louis Freeh on the Jerry Sandusky Child Sex Abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, in which he found that four top officials at the University turned a blind eye to the sordid doings of the assistant coach to the highly respected football team, in an attempt to protect the image and standing of the football programme.

It was confirmed that then FIFA President, Joao Havelange, and his then son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira, who was also head of the Brazilian Football Federation and a member of FIFA's powerful Executive Committee, had taken millions in bribes in exchange for awarding ISL lucrative World Cup TV rights contracts. In all probability, the amounts mentioned in the report were much lower than the actual amounts of the bribes. Andrew Jennings believes they are much higher and that there were other FIFA officials who also received financial inducements in exchange for services rendered.

It was also confirmed that the current FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, has known about these bribes for 15 years and, apart from fighting to prevent the Hildbrand report from being released, he did nothing, other than his self-serving claim that he set up the FIFA Ethics Committee in 2006, not only many years too late, but also a body that has proven to be completely useless since its inception.

Compare this to Penn State, where head coach Joe Paterno, then University President Graham Spanier, then Vice-President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley were made aware of Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse of minors on Univerity property, but showed "total and consistent disregard" for his victims by failing to report the incident to the police. As a result Sandusky abused multiple victims over 15 years. It was only after Sandusky's arrest that the university officials showed any empathy for the victims.

So in both cases, the most powerful people in the respective organisations knew of serious wrongdoing by other high ranking people in their organisations, and in both cases nothing was done, reported or said to bring the wrongdoers to justice.

Once the information became public, Sandusky was arrested, convicted and sentenced to what amounts to lifetime imprisonment, Paterno was fired and died two months later, and the other PSU officials are facing court cases for their failure to report what they knew.

Compare this to FIFA. FIFA did all they could to NOT prosecute Havelange and Teixeira by agreeing to negotiate very minimal reparations payments in exchange for the cases being discontinued.

Havelange, now 96, continues to be Honorary President of FIFA. Teixeira only recently resigned from his lucrative Executive Committee position but continues to receive fees as a consultant to the Brazilian Football Federation.

Sepp Blatter admits that he knew of the ISL payments to Havelange and Teixeira but argues, unbelievably, that no offences were actually committed, because it was accepted practice and historical crimes can't be judged using today's standards. He even claims that there were places on tax forms to report such payments. Really? There's a section on the tax forms that says, "Please list all bribe payments you received during the past financial year"?

The Hildbrand report itself notes that crimes of "embezzlement, or alternatively disloyal management" were committed, so it's a bit rich for Blatter to argue that he couldn't "have known about an offence that wasn’t even one."

One of the key tasks of any President or CEO is to set the organisation's culture, and then to communicate what is expected regularly to all the organisation's employees, so that there can be no doubt as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, both legally and ethically.

In the years Sepp Blatter has been President, he has knowingly withheld information about egregious embezzlement to the tune of at least US$22 million.

He's also awarded the CONCACAF area World Cup rights to Jack Warner for pennies, in exchange for the entire CONCACAF bloc voting for Blatter to be FIFA President. Warner was also involved in a high profile world cup tickets scandal when he profited personally from illegal sales. Furthermore, Warner reneged on giving the Trinidad & Tobago national team players their agreed share of profits from their appearance in the 2006 World Cup Finals, instead taking a huge cut for himself. And of course Warner was finally suspended for his role in handing out envelopes of money to Caribbean Football officials in return for their voting for Mohamed bin Hammam for FIFA President in 2011. (One wonders whether he would have been suspended had he been bribing those same officials to vote for Blatter rather than bin Hammam.)

Numerous other football officials have been suspended due to a variety of transgressions, all of which involve some sort of unethical behaviour over offering or receiving bribes for votes or asking to receive kickbacks in some form or other.

There have been numerous allegations over vote buying in the selection process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals hosting rights. Cameroon's Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anema from Cote d'Ivoire were alleged to have received bribes in exchange for voting for Qatar.

Meanwhile, Paragauayan Nicolas Leoz reportedly asked for a knighthood in exchange for voting for England, while Argentinian Julio Grondona said he wouldn't consider voting for England unless they gave the Falkland Islands back to Argentina.

I would be remiss not to mention Chuck Blazer, who somehow acted as both CONCACAF's General Secretary and Treasurer at the same time and who hired an expensive suite in Trump Tower for his office. Blazer allegedly used a CONCACAF credit card to pay for expensive nights out for himself and his inner circle, according to former employee Mal Brennan. Blazer is another former Executive Committee member who recently resigned, presumably to avoid investigation by the Ethics Committee.

All of this suggests a culture in FIFA that is rife with illegal and unethical behaviour. Sepp Blatter has been President since 1998, and has apparently been completely ineffective in conveying the type of culture that should exist within the organisation. Unless, of course, everyone is following his lead.

Until very recently, Joe Paterno was a highly respected coach who had overseen great achievements in his chosen profession and done a lot of good for a number of people. Sadly his legacy has now been irreparably tarnished by one terrible misjudgement.

At least he had a legacy to tarnish.

Sepp Blatter's only achievement is to somehow cling to power. His every action and every decision appear to have been made solely for the purpose of strengthening his grip on power.

Herr Blatter, it's time to resign.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Manifesto - Fairness, accountability and transparency, because football belongs to everyone.

My first few posts have necessarily been reactive, with so much to comment on happening in such a short time. It's only recently that I realised being angry with the way the game is being run is not actually going to change anything, which is why I decided to start this blog.

Let me say up front that I am fully aware that my chances of becoming FIFA President when Sepp Blatter finally retires are approximately the same as those of Havant & Waterlooville winning the FA Cup and then going on to win the Europa League the following season.

Nevertheless, I need somewhere to organise my thoughts, and if I can make a positive contribution to the overall debate, and at the same time learn from the many experts around the world who keep abreast of the issues, so much the better.

Unfortunately, the last election was won by the sitting President by default. I can only speculate as to how this situation came about, and there aren't enough minutes in the day to explore every conspiracy theory, so I'll leave it that.

I am aware that Grant Wahl started a semi-serious campaign for the 2011 election. In my opinion he had some good ideas, if a little simplistic. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about what happened to him during his candidacy.

It's all very easy to criticise those in leadership roles, but probably much harder to lay out concrete ideas that will be agreed upon by the majority of stakeholders. What follows is my opening gambit.

1. Without a doubt, the most pressing need right now is not actually football-specific. I'm talking about fairness, accountability and transparency, which is what everyone should require of every governing body, from FIFA and the United Nations down to the local school board. Any group that spends other people's money and make decisions that affect people's lives should follow the basic tenets of good governance. Unfortunately, FIFA has only just started to address this, after decades of opacity and the appearance of widespread corruption.

a) All financial data should be available to the public online, in detail. FIFA should go beyond meeting the mimimum legal requirements and instead strive for excellence in financial disclosures. Salaries, benefits, donations, event costs, funding for GOAL Programmes, etc. should all be separated out, in detail, with clear reference to who received the funds.

b) Voting records for every decision made should be available online. There should be no more secret ballots or decisions made behind closed doors. The public has a right to know who is responsible for making decisions. Maybe votes and important meetings could also be streamed live online.

c) There should be clear limits on the salaries, benefits and bonuses paid to FIFA's executive members and other staff. These should be available online. Currently it seems that these are handed out on a whim to curry favour or further enrich some already incredibly wealthy people.

d) The guidelines and rubrics for selecting tournament hosts should be clearly set out prior to asking for bids. That will prevent countries from wasting their time and money bidding to host a tournament where they have no chance of winning the bid. In addition, a far greater and diverse pool of people should be on the selection committee to reduce the opportunity for bribery.

e) Seeding methods and competition formats should be finalised and published prior to competitions taking place. Currently there is the suspicion that FIFA waits to see which teams make confederation play-offs, and then selects a seeding method that best ensures that their favoured teams have the best possible chance to progress. Justice must be seen to be done.

2. Technology should be embraced. As a referee myself, I am all for anything that makes my job easier. Not that I'm likely to ever a referee a match with Hawkeye technology in effect, but if I did, I would certainly be happy to use it.

As well as using Goal-Line Technology, I believe video evidence should definitely be used for retroactive punishment or rescinding of cards. Diving, feigning injury or violent conduct should all result in punishment, regardless of whether someone in the officiating team thought they might have seen something but didn't make a call. And a free-kick or yellow card awarded by a referee should not be enough to prevent a player who engaged in violent conduct from retroactively being awarded a red card.

On the flip side, yellow cards, as well as red cards, should be rescinded if video evidence suggests that a player has been wrongly punished.

I haven't yet formed a view on the use of video evidence to confirm whether or not a goal should be awarded/denied for offside or a penalty kick awarded.

In my opinion the penalty-kick decision is more clear-cut than the offside, because I am never convinced that the video stops at the EXACT moment the ball was passed, which is critical in offside cases. A half-second delay is enough for both forward and defender to run five metres in opposite directions which can completely change the decision.

If referees' decisions were to be overturned based on video technology, there would need to be compelling evidence that the officials' original decisions were wrong.

None of these technological advances would be forced on any member association, but they would be available for those that chose to utilise them.

3. The Laws of the Game need some tweaking. There is too much uncertainty around the rules in some areas.

a) Contact by itself should not be enough to determine that a foul has taken place. Referees should determine who initiated the contact and whether that contact was significant or trifling. Too often we see the player with the ball unnaturally trail a leg, thus initiating contact with an opponent in the hope of earning a free-kick or penalty-kick, or going to ground at the most minimal of contact. This needs to be stamped out.

b) The method for determining stoppage time needs to be clarified. I have seen halves where a player has suffered a serious injury that has been treated for four minutes, goals have been scored with lengthy celebrations occurring and numerous substitutions made, and these have seen four minutes of stoppage time added, the same as a half with no goals, no injuries and one or two substitutions.

It appears right now that referees add on one minute in the first half and three in the second half, unless an unusually long delay occurs, in which case they will add another minute or two.

Lets come up with a better method for this. It will never be perfect, but there is always room for improvement.

c) There is still room for clarification of when a new phase begins in determining whether a player is offside. Otherwise, I am reasonably happy with the Offside laws.

d) The so-called backpass rule needs to be clarified. As a referee I have been told that the ball needs to be neither passed nor played back for it to be a violation if the goalkeeper handles it. If a defender deliberately plays the ball with his or her foot, and it goes where intended and the goalkeeper handles it, a free-kick should be awarded. Or not. Lets just clarify this.

e) DOGSO. Very often I see a defender foul a forward and receive a red card because they are 'the last defender'. Yet as a referee, I am told that the 4 D's apply (distance to the ball, distance to the goal, number of defenders and direction of the ball). Are we sending off defenders who prevented a goalscoring opportunity or those who prevented a CLEAR-CUT goalscoring opportunity? Would a defender be sent off in the World Cup Final for a foul, but that same foul not be deemed worthy of a red card in a lower level match, because of the decreased likelihood that a goal would be scored? Lets clarify this.

Having said that, I am a great believer that a DOGSO red card should only be awarded for a blatant foul, when the defender is clearly setting out to breach the laws of the game. A dubious foul that results in a penalty should not also result in a red card and a mandatory one match suspension. On the other hand, a blatant foul such as the handling offence committed by Luis Suarez of Uruguay against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup should be deemed worthy of the triple punishment.

f) In fact I'd like to see a review of the entire card system. A bad foul should not earn the same punishment as removing a shirt after a goal. And I would like to see a yellow card awarded to any player who tries to argue with a referee unless they were the player directly involved in the incident. I think it's acceptable for a player to discuss a decision with a referee, but it is completely unacceptable for an entire team to surround a referee in an attempt to intimidate.

4) Term limits should be brought in for all FIFA Executive positions. Eight years should be enough for anyone. Executives can then complete two four-year cycles if re-elected.

5) Fans should be involved more. They should be able to have a say in big decisions. (A say, not the final say.) Fans' needs should be considered in match scheduling. Stadiums should be safe and comfortable. Every last penny/cent/zloty shouldn't be extracted from the fans. Make the game more accessible to everyone at a reasonable priced, instead of only a game for the wealthy to enjoy.

Perhaps fans could be involved in World Cup draws or even be selected to hand the trophy to the winning captain. These are just ideas I am floating. I would just like to see some acknowledgement that the game belongs to everybody.

6) Matchfixing, doping, racism and corruption should be heavily punished, with lifetime bans from the game and prison terms for serious incidents. Disciplinary measures should be put online so everyone knows the punishment for each crime.

7) FIFA should continue to be involved in community outreach for the good not only of the game but also the people around the world who play and follow it. However, there should be accountability and transparency in where the money goes. More focus should be put on the educational side of the game, including referee, administrative and coach training, rather than just large infrastructure projects that can create the impression of vote-buying.

8) The FIFA Rankings should be revamped to more closely reflect the relative strength of teams. In particular, the strength of the opponents should be taken into account when a team loses, the confederation component of the score should be eliminated, and the minimum eight-game requirement when calculating teams' average score per game should also be eliminated.

9) A Women's Beach Soccer World Cup should be introduced. It is unfair that this competition is only held for men. This would be an ideal tournament for a smaller nation to host.

10) World Cup Qualifying places should be standardized. With UEFA expanding the Euros I can see their World Cup allocation dropping to provide more places for other Confederations. I envisage UEFA 12, CONMEBOL 5, CONCACAF 5, Africa 5, Asia/Oceania 5. The hosts would take up one spot from their Confederation's allocation. That's a bit of a drop for UEFA and a slight gain for some others, notably CONCACAF. This would not be a final mandate, just an idea for discussion.

I do think that Oceania should be combined with Asia for the men's World Cup Qualifying only. Perhaps keep them apart in the first round and then the second round could consist of 17 Asian teams and three from Oceania in five groups of four. The third round would consist of two groups of five as it is now. This would help develop the game in Oceania and provide for more meaningful matches for their teams. I'd love to see Tahiti v Qatar, Uzbekistan v New Caledonia or Fiji v China. It would also increase the Asian teams' chances of qualifying for the Finals, because the fifth spot wouldn't come down to a home and away play-off and neither would a game against South American opposition be required.

11) A completely revamped justice system is needed. It's ridiculous that an official can rig a football election in their own country and then when a court of law finds that the victory was illegal, FIFA bans the country from competing in FIFA tournaments, not because someone rigged an election, but because someone justifiably complained about it! Oman is the latest country to run afoul of FIFA in this regard.

That's what I have for now. If I were to change the FIFA motto it would be:

Fairness, accountability and transparency, because football belongs to everyone.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Time to Revamp the FIFA Rankings

The latest FIFA rankings have been released and, as usual, to the average fan they seem like a complete joke.

Most people will focus on the teams in the top ten and question how England are suddenly ranked fourth in the world after being outplayed so comprehensively by sixth-ranked Italy. England are now, according to FIFA, ranked above Argentina (7) and Brazil (11). I'm sure fans throughout the world can point to many similar questionable rankings.

When people see the rankings they don't realise that they are not intended to be predictive, but instead historical. Take any two teams and the rankings aren't meant to show which team is more likely to win a match between them, but rather which team has garnered the most points over the last five years according to a fairly complicated set of rules. (We should be grateful that in this case, at least, the ranking system is transparent and can be found on FIFA's website, along with how many points each team earned in each game they played in the last month.)

The problem is, not only does the ranking system fail to be a good indicator of teams' current strength; it also fails miserably at indicating teams' historical strength. One glance at the Oceania rankings provides all the proof necessary.

Unbelievably, in the just released rankings, Samoa are ranked one place above the Solomon Islands. Anyone who follows the game in Oceania knows that the Solomon Islands are easily one of the four best teams in the region. Samoa, on the other hand, are clearly one of the four worst.

The results in the recent Oceania Nations Cup proved this. While the Solomons were defeating Papua New Guinea, drawing with Fiji and New Zealand, and losing narrowly 0-1 to eventual winners Tahiti and 3-4 to New Zealand in the 3rd place match, Samoa were being pounded 10-1, 5-0 and 9-0 in their three group games against Tahiti, Vanuatu and New Caledonia respectively.

But Samoa stayed above the Solomon Islands by virtue of the points they picked up in the First Round in December 2011, when they achieved a draw and two wins by a single goal in home matches against the Cook Islands, Tonga and American Samoa. These unconvincing results against some of the weakest teams in international football had moved Samoa from eleventh all the way up to second in Oceania, behind only New Zealand.

And therein lies the major problem with the FIFA rankings in my opinion. The rankings for teams who don't play many competitive matches are dramatically skewed.

Unfortunately, there just isn't the money in the Oceania region for teams to play lots of games on an ongoing basis. While European teams are playing eight to twelve matches in every Euro and World Cup Qualifying cycle, teams in Oceania often go a whole year without a game. Because the FIFA Rankings divide the points gained by a minimum of eight to get an average per match, countries that play fewer than eight games in a year are at a huge disadvantage.

Every four years the Oceania nations play in a combined Oceania Nations Cup/World Cup Qualifying event, resulting in three (for most teams) to a maximum of about twelve games (for the best few teams) in the four-year cycle. In all likelihood, only New Zealand will play any meaningful friendlies, and even these are limited by the difficulty in gaining releases for their players from their European, Australian and American clubs, meaning that they often can't play their strongest team. (In fact New Zealand had to play their Oceania Nations Cup matches without their two Premier League defenders, Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid.)

As well as unfairly penalising nations who play fewer than eight matches in a year, the ranking system also fails to take into account who the opponents are in a defeat. A team like New Zealand, for example, would earn the same number of points for a last-minute 4-3 loss to Spain in the World Cup as they would for a 5-0 loss to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Zero. Similarly, a 0-0 draw with the bottom ranked team would be worth more than a 4-3 loss to Spain.

That is ridiculous. There has to be a way to reward narrow losses to the best team in the world, or conversely, punish bad losses to very weak teams by awarding negative points.

People may ask what does it matter what the rankings are? They're only a bit of a fun, after all. The problem is, they're not. In the past they have been used to determine whether players should be awarded work permits for professional European clubs and also to determine seedings for World Cup or Nations Cup qualifying draws.

It is therefore imperative that the rankings as closely as possible fairly reflect the achievements of each team. Currently they are not doing that.

I don't know what the ideal formula is, but there must be statisticians who could come up with a better system. (The World Football ELO Ratings and ESPN's SPI Rankings are two alternate systems that on the face of it appear to have better outcomes, although the methodologies each use is open to debate.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

UEFA's Misleading TV Coverage and Part 3 of Why Platini should not be FIFA President

At a time when there has been a increasingly loud call for transparency in FIFA, it should come as no surprise that Michel Platini, considered by many the most likely candidate to become the next FIFA President, has been shown to currently be leading an organisation that tries to obscure reality.

A story doing the rounds today notes that UEFA's TV coverage of Euro 2012 contained pre-recorded footage interspersed with live footage in an attempt to manipulate the emotions of viewers.

Footage of a German female fan crying during her team's national anthem was broadcast at a time that made it look like she was crying as the result of Germany falling behind to Italy in the semi-final.

In addition, German coach Joachim Loew's playful interaction with a ballboy that actually occured before the match against the Netherlands, was broadcast in a way that suggested it occurred during the actual game. UEFA's coverage therefore prsented a false view of Loew's demeanour during the match.

Understandably, the world's broadcast companies are not happy that UEFA presented coverage that was misleading.

It has also emerged that UEFA likes to sanitise its coverage to prevent viewers from seeing anything that could reflect negatively on UEFA, such as empty seats, streakers or protest banners. Is there anything wrong with showing reality? Is the truth really not dramatic enough? Is there anything UEFA/Platini will not do to mislead the public if they think it will help their own standing?

So much for transparency. Is there any reason to believe that Platini would lead a fair, transparent and accountable FIFA should he become the next FIFA President? Don't hold your breath!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Euro Expansion and Part 2 of Why Platini should not be FIFA President

The 2012 Euros are over.  All in all, it was a fantastic competition, won in emphatic style by one of the greatest teams ever.

The next edition, to be held in 2016 in France, will see an increase from 16 teams to 24.  I can't help thinking this is another mistake by Michel Platini.

For most people, the major concern is that the quality of the tournament will be diluted.  There will be more average teams mixed in with the stronger teams, resulting in an increase in games that are either one-sided or where teams will 'park the bus' to try to salvage a point.  There is also bound to be an increasing number of matches where the product is of a lesser quality than is desirable for a showcase tournament.  This is a genuine concern, although there is also a chance that some of the less-fancied nations would cause a pleasant surprise.

Personally, I am more worried about the format of the tournament and the effect that will have on how teams approach their matches.

With sixteen teams, the format is clearcut.  Four groups of four, with the top two from each group going on to the quarter finals.

With 24 teams, it becomes messy.  The last time a 24-team format was used in a major competition was in the 1994 World Cup Finals.  The format used then is expected to be the format used in 2016.  Six groups of four, with the top two and the four best third-placed teams moving on to the last 16, at which point a straight knock-out system begins.

This leads to numerous logistical problems.

In the past few tournaments, the last group games in each group have kicked-off simultaneously, in an attempt to prevent teams from colluding with their opponents to their mutual benefit and at the expense of the other teams in their group.

The major catalyst for this was the disgraceful match between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, when, after the Germans scored early, neither team made any attempt to score, knowing that they would both progress to the next round at the expense of Algeria, who had earlier won 3-2 against Chile.

But using the accepted 24-team format, teams coming third in their group will now be in direct competition with each other.  This means either that all twelve final group matches must kick off simultaneously, or an increased possibility will exist for skullduggery.  The first option is impractical; the second unacceptable.

Another concern is that some teams are likely to progress with one win and two losses, which is hardly a record worthy of a team that deserves to move on to the next round.  Sure, it was possible under a sixteen-team format for this to occur, but actual instances are almost unheard of.  In the 24-team format, this scenario is very likely.

Even worse, we may see a scenario like that of Uruguay in 1986, who progressed to the last sixteen of the World Cup on the back of two draws and a 6-1 hammering at the hands of Denmark.

In my opinion, allowing teams with records such as this to continue to the next round, cheapens the competition.

Michel Platini has tried to justify his decision to increase the number of competing teams by arguing that it will allow more teams the chance to play in the Finals, reduce the number of coaches who lose their jobs for not qualifying, and allow host cities to hold four games instead of three.  

This last point is a little strange, because he announced a few days later that the number of host cities should be increased from eight to twelve or thirteen.  This means that instead of having 31 matches split between eight cities (or just under four games per city on average), we would see 51 matches split between thirteen cities (again just under four per city on average).  Hmm.

Taking Platini's arguments to their logical conclusion, it could be argued that all 53 UEFA member nations should qualify for the finals.  Instead of holding a series of qualifying matches over eighteen months or so, the first round could consist of a number of groups where teams play a home-and-away round-robin format over an extended time period.  

At the end of this, the top fourteen or fifteen teams could qualify for the second round, along with one or two host nations that would receive a bye in the first round.

The last sixteen could then be split into four groups of four with each team playing the other teams in their group once.  The top two from each group would qualify for the quarter-finals.

The advantages of this system would be that every nation gets the chance to play in the finals.  Furthermore, coaches in danger of losing their jobs could argue that they qualified for the Euro Finals.  And dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cities, could host Euro Finals matches, while still allowing for an atmospheric last sixteen for the fans based in eight host cities in one or two countries.

There's no reason to doubt that Platini might consider increasing the number of teams in the World Cup Finals, should he become the next FIFA President.  After all, if there are 24 worthy teams in UEFA, it seems fair to suggest that there are probably at least 24 more worthy teams from the rest of the world.

Next time - how to organise and run a successful 209 nation World Cup Finals.