Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifying

I've been thinking about the possibility of recombining Asia and Oceania World Cup Qualifying for a while and I believe it makes sense for both confederations. The confederations themselves are believed to be actively discussing the issue.

It isn't so long ago that the countries from these two confederations regularly faced each other as part of the qualifying process. I clearly recall New Zealand's matches not just against China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the final 1982 qualifying round, but also against Indonesia and Chinese Taipei in the first qualifying round.

This is no longer the case. The 2014 play-offs saw Jordan, from Asia, lose heavily to Uruguay, from South America, while Oceania's New Zealand were convincingly defeated by CONCACAF's Mexico. To be honest, I feel that the only way a team from Asia or Oceania will make it through the intercontinental play-offs in future is if they are drawn against each other, as happened in 2010 when New Zealand beat Bahrain 1-0 over two legs.

Some would say we should have the best teams at the World Cup Finals so it is better to have both Mexico and Uruguay there. While I see this argument, the World Cup Finals are also a worldwide celebration of the planet's culture, and the fact that we already have qualifying based on confederations shows that we recognise that we want the finals to be a truly global event.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who would argue that Oceania should always have one team in the Finals. I see their argument, too, but realistically, now that Australia has joined the Asian Football Confederation, that would pretty much guarantee New Zealand a spot in every Finals..Don't use Tahiti's qualification for the Confederations Cup as a counterargument. That only came about through a perfect storm of circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated.

My current favourite format for a combined Asia/Oceania Zone is as follows:

Phase 1 57 nations

OCEANIA (11 members)

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

ASIA (46 members)

16 nations with highest ranking receive bye into Phase 2
Remaining 30 nations play round-robin in either ten groups of three or five groups of six
Ten of these 30 nations qualify for Phase 2

Phase 2 30 nations as follows:
1 Highest ranked Oceania nation
3 Qualifiers from Oceania Phase 1
16 Highest ranked Asian nations
10 Qualifiers from Asian Phase 1

Round-robin played in five groups of six

Top two from each group progress to Phase 3

Phase 3 10 nations (winners and runners-up from Phase 2 groups)

Round-robin played in two groups of five
Winners and runners-up in each group qualify for World Cup Finals
Third-placed teams play each other home and away to decide fifth qualifier for World Cup Finals

Of course there are other configurations that could be used but I like the overall concept. It would guarantee four of the Oceania teams a vastly increased number of meaningful games against better opposition. Currently they are reduced to playing each other in a competition that often starts as the South Pacific Games, then evolves into the Oceania Nations Cup, and finally ends up as the World Cup Qualifying competition.

For the most part the Oceania nations never play any countries from outside their own confederation, other than New Zealand, and even then we are only talking about a handful of meaningless friendlies and the occasional Confederations Cup. This makes it extremely difficult for them to come out on top in a two-legged play-off against a team that might have played eighteen highly competitive matches in their own qualifying competition.

It would also increase by one (from 25 to 26) the number of Asian teams that make it through to Phase 2.

Cost may be an issue, of course, but perhaps TV money could help offset this.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Run the world game? FIFA can’t even run an online prediction game!

As a fan of the world game I decided to join the FIFA Club and play FIFA’s online prediction game. One reason is that I enjoy putting my football prediction skills to the test. Another is that the winner gets tickets to the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil.

The game consists of FIFA posting a series of matches from around the world on their website, and players predicting the outcome of these games. The winner is the player who gets the highest streak of correct matches, so the main skill is in knowing which games not to predict.

The game has been running for just over a year and every month there have been administrative issues that have adversely affected the playing experience, as well as in some instances being blatantly unfair.

A common issue has been FIFA’s failure to process games in a timely manner. There have been numerous occasions where I have made a prediction, the game has finished, and hours later (sometimes over 24 hours later, as was the case on May 28, 2013 for Sligo Rovers versus Dundalk) the game has still not been processed, making it impossible for me to make another prediction. Meanwhile, games played later have been processed allowing other players to make additional predictions and increase their streak. This most commonly (though not exclusively) occurs when scheduled games are postponed, and it is a source of real frustration.

Another issue has been FIFA’s failure to add to the list of games on their website. This occurred twice in the last three months. In September 2013 it involved a new twist whereby the website was listing games from June 2012 (Olympic matches on the whole) which were obviously unavailable for making predictions because they were played over a year ago. At least this issue affected all players equally.

A much more serious error occurred on April 25th, 2013. The website listed a match from Singapore as Young Lions versus Hougang. But the game that was actually played was Young Lions versus Home United, a completely different team. I used the online help form on the Rules & Help section of the website to contact the game organisers to point out this discrepancy, quoting the relevant rule, which states:

“CANCELLED MATCHES: If a match, the result of which you tried to predict, does not take place for any reason, then your streak will NOT be reset. The fixture will simply be marked as "cancelled” and your score will remain the same.”

It made no difference. Anyone who picked Hougang to win was credited with a correct prediction, despite the fact that they didn’t even play on that day, while anyone who picked Young Lions had their streak reset to zero.

May 16th, 2013, brought another fiasco. The listed game was Kilmarnock versus Hibernian from the Scottish Premier League, but seconds before the game kicked off, the website showed it had been cancelled, and players were allowed to make new predictions, which I did. Imagine my surprise the next day when the game was suddenly included in the list of games that had been played and counted.

Again I contacted the game organisers, pointing out that having made a mistake and cancelling the game, thus allowing players to make a new prediction, they couldn’t go back the next day and suddenly include the game. It's like wrongly disallowing a goal in the first half, playing another ten minutes, and then announcing at half-time that the goal counts!

On July 26, 2013, the website listed a match from the Gambrinus Liga as Dukla Prague versus Teplice. I picked Dukla to win at home. The match that was actually played was Znojmo versus Teplice. It ended 0-0, resetting my streak to zero. I contacted the game organisers and let them know. Of course I heard nothing back, and again nothing was done to rectify the mistake.

The other really annoying issue with the game is that sometimes the webpages can take over two minutes to load, and when they do they quite often open with an error message.

So all in all, FIFA’s running of this game has been awful. There have been numerous errors in administering the game, and few have been rectified, despite them being brought to the attention of the game administrators. The customer service has been terrible for a game that is presumably aimed at attracting fans to the website and engendering goodwill. 

Only once have I received a response to issues I brought to FIFA’s attention and that was to say they had a computer problem at the start of July which is why no games were available for making predictions.

It would be fair to say that the game suffers from a lack of fairness, transparency and accountability, the exact same problems we find at the top of FIFA. It can probably be assumed that FIFA employees take their cue from the top, and the culture of the entire organization from top to bottom reflects this.

No wonder FIFA can’t make a decent fist of running the world game. They can’t even run an online prediction game.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

FIFA Investigating Itself over 2018/2022 WCF Bidding Process

FIFA noted this week that its Ethics Prosecutor, Michael Garcia, will be investigating the allegations of corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests.

In a statement released by FIFA, Garcia said he "intends to conduct a thorough review of those allegations, including the evidentiary basis for and credibility of any allegations of individual misconduct."

I can already tell you what his findings will be. There is insufficient evidence of any irregularities. The allegations have no basis in fact and are the result purely of English and American media bias and sour grapes. No further action will be taken. Case closed.

And it's possible that such a finding would be accurate.

The problem is that observers are now so aware of the numerous other corruption scandals that FIFA has been embroiled in that the organisation has absolutely no credibility.

An independent, third party investigation is needed.

Also, changes need to be made to the bidding process.

The first thing I would do would be develop a scoring rubric and release it to potential bidders  at the time bids are asked for. It would clearly state how the winning bid would be selected and what weight is being given to each aspect of the bids (stadiums, mass transport systems, environmental concerns, accommodation, training facilities, media infrastructure, human rights, legacy, climate, geographical location, fan experience, the ability to host in June/July, etc.)

Such a system would stop countries such as England or the United States concentrating on technical bids, and being unsuccessful when it turns out that geographical location is the prime concern.

Secondly, the FIFA ExCo should not be the people determining which bid is successful. I would instead pick a very large panel of independent experts from across the globe each capable of evaluating one aspect of the bid and have them each score the bids on their area of expertise. The final scores could then be calculated and the winning bid announced.

The current system is far too open to abuse. Having a relatively small panel of 24 ExCo members picking the winners is to invite corruption, especially when so many of them have been in positions of power for decades. There are too many favours owed and grievances remembered and conflicts of interests for the process to be fair and transparent.

Way back when Germany was awarded the 2006 World Cup Finals, ExCo member Charlie Dempsey abstained from voting because of the pressure placed on him by bidding countries at the time of the vote. One must assume this included bribes and/or threats. Dempsey had announced he would vote for the English bid until England was eliminated, at which point he would consider his options. But once England was out of the running, Dempsey was under so much 'pressure' he fled home to New Zealand, thus abstaining from voting and in the process allowing Germany to beat South Africa by one vote.

There is no reason to believe that the 'pressures' are any less now.

And given the number of current and recent FIFA officials involved in controversy over the past few years, I have little confidence that all of the ExCo members can conduct a clean vote.

And neither do I have confidence that an investigation of the 2018/2022 process, undertaken by a FIFA insider, will be capable of allaying public suspicion should the outcome be similar to what I predicted above.