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.