Friday, December 9, 2016

A Critical Examination of Infantino's World Cup Finals Expansion Claims

I hoped we were past this World Cup expansion nonsense, but apparently Gianni Infantino still believes that his grandiose plans to enlarge the flagship FIFA tournament are more important than fixing the many things that still ail FIFA.

Lack of transparency? Lack of accountability? Player welfare issues? Limited opportunities for female players? Failure to develop referees and coaches? Match fixing? Doping? Corrupt national association officials? Racism? Sexism? Homophobia? Child trafficking? Illogical and discriminatory FIFA rankings?

Apparently, none of those are important. Instead, let's prioritise fixing the obviously broken World Cup.

Within the next month, FIFA will apparently be voting on which format to move ahead with for the 2026 World Cup. By FIFA, I mean the men (well, they are almost men, aren't they?) who have the most to gain from increasing the number of teams that qualify. Just think, under their inspired leadership, their country could qualify for the World Cup Finals for the first time ever!

Apparently there are five proposals on the table:

1. Retain the status quo. 32 teams qualify. The group stage consists of eight groups of four. The top two teams from each group progress to the knock-out phase. If you win three of these in a row, you're in the Final. Lose any game and you're out.

2. Add eight teams to the tournament. 40 teams qualify. The group stage consists of eight groups of five. Knock-out matches are then played to determine the finalists. I'm being deliberately vague about this format for reasons that will become clear later.

3. Add eight teams to the tournament. 40 teams qualify. The group stage consists of ten groups of four. Presumably the ten group winners and the six best second-placed teams move on to the knock-out stage. It's never really been made clear what the exact plan is. It probably doesn't matter, anyway. It's not going to happen.

4. Add sixteen teams to the tournament. 48 teams qualify. The lowest-ranked 32 teams play a single elimination match. The winners stay and qualify for the group stage. The tournament proceeds much as the current format proceeds. There is a big asterisk here that Gianni Infantino is ignoring. More on that later.

5.Add sixteen teams to the tournament. 48 teams qualify. The group stage consists of sixteen groups of three. The top two teams in each group progress to the 32-team knock-out phase. Win four of these games in a row and you'll find yourself in the Final. Lose any game and you're out.

Infantino's rationale for expansion is apparently to increase excitement (and, no doubt, revenue) in nations that normally aren't good enough to qualify for (what used to be) the world's elite international men's tournament. He argues that even if teams don't qualify, just knowing that they have a chance will, in itself, help promote the game.

I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of the arguments for and against his viewpoint. A lot of the arguments made by Infantino and his detractors are purely subjective and speculative.

Instead, I'm going to look at the practicalities of the different formats, and I will discuss them all purely through the lens of Infantino's recent statement in which:

Just to be clear, he said that ALL of the formats being considered can be played in 32 days with the finalists only having to play seven games and there will therefore be no additional burden on the players. Let's examine the ramifications of these claims.

First, there are certain assumptions I need to make.

Matches per Day

Recent history tells us that, for various revenue-based reasons, wherever possible, FIFA prefers to only play one match at a time. The exception is currently for the third round of group matches, where two matches are played simultaneously to lessen the opportunity for teams to manufacture results that suit both themselves and their opponents (as happened in 1982 when West Germany defeated Austria 1-0 to ensure both these teams qualified for the next phase at the expense of Algeria). The third round of group matches is currently the only time when more than three matches are played on a single day.

Currently the maximum number of kick-off times per day is three. Realistically, that could be expanded to four. This would mean it would be possible for the worldwide audience to watch matches played at 1:00PM, 3:15PM, 5:30PM and 7:45PM for example, leaving enough time between matches for stoppage time, etc. and plenty of time during the build-up for TV to show those lucrative advertisements. For matches potentially involving extra time or penalty shoot-outs, more time would be required between kick-off times.

Matchless Days

As the tournament progresses into the knock-out phase, eventually matchless days are required. The current format includes seven matchless days. There is one after the completion of the group stage and prior to the start of the Round of 16. There are two more after the Round of 16 and prior to the quarter-finals. There are two more between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals and then two more between the semi-finals and the third place play-off.

3rd Place Play-off and Final

Traditionally the match to determine the third place winners is played the day before the Final. It would be possible to play both matches on the same day but that would in all likelihood lead to the third place game being overlooked by many fans. FIFA appears to want to promote this match as important and also seems to be of the opinion that the Final itself is so important that there should be no other game played on the same day.

Taking into account the above three assumptions and combining them with Gianni Infantino's claims, I have come up with possible (likely?) formats for each of the five tournament format options that FIFA will apparently be selecting from.

Option 1:

The current format would require no change. The group stage could continue to be played over fifteen days. The 16 knock-out matches could be scheduled for the current ten days and the existing seven matchless days could be retained.

Option 2:

With forty teams divided into eight groups of five, 80 group stage matches are required. Even if four matches were played every day, including the Opening Game which traditionally is set aside by itself or with only one other match being played on the same day, that means twenty days would be required to complete the group stage. By then, each team would have already played four matches.

If we are to believe Gianni Infantino, the maximum number of matches played by the finalists would be seven. This means that only three rounds of knock-out matches would be possible (quarter-finals, semi-finals and Final) which could easily be scheduled in the remaining twelve days.

But the obvious conclusion is that only the eight group winners would progress to the knock-out phase, meaning the other 32 teams would be eliminated at the group stage. This would mean 80 out of the 88 matches would be group stage games, many of which would surely be meaningless from as early as the third round of group matches onward, and only eight matches would be straight knock-out matches that are so loved by fans.

I don't see how this format could possibly be acceptable.

Option 3:

With forty teams divided into ten groups of four, sixty group matches are required. If four matches per day were scheduled the group stage could be completed in fifteen days, the same as it is under the current format, and the rest of the tournament could be conducted the same way as in the 2018 schedule.

This format would logically require that the ten group winners and the six best second-placed teams would qualify for the Round of 16, with the remaining 24 teams eliminated after their three group games. In this format, too, there would be a high probability that many of the later group matches would be meaningless.

I really don't see this format being approved.

Option 4:

With 32 teams playing a single elimination match to determine which of them stay in the tournament and which go home after just one match, four days minimum would be needed just for these sixteen games.

An additional twelve days minimum would be required to complete the 48 group stage matches, by the end of which some teams would have already played four matches, meaning only three rounds of knock-out matches are possible. Therefore, only the eight group winners would progress to the knock-outs and the remaining 24 teams would be out.

A week or so ago Infantino thought this format was the best thing since sliced bread. It's actually another non-starter.

Option 5:

With 48 teams divided into sixteen groups of three, 48 first round matches would be required so the minimum days needed to complete the group stage would be twelve. The teams in groups 13-16 who have byes in their first match wouldn't begin their tournament until Day 8, by which time twelve teams would have already completed their group games, some of which could already be mathematically eliminated. There would also be the prospect of a team drawing their first game and knowing that anything better than a five goal loss would see them through to the next round. It's hard to see this format generating much excitement among viewers.

32 teams would progress to the 16-match second round requiring four days minimum to complete. At least one rest day would probably also be needed before the start of the Round of 16. By playing four games per day all of these matches could be accommodated.

On the negative side, there would be the potential for the third round of group matches to be either meaningless or manipulated, causing a huge disadvantage to the the teams with third round byes. In addition, the worst case scenario for the finalists would be that they are required to play seven matches in 25 days (or 24 days for the teams playing off for third place), whereas currently the worst possible scenario is that the winners play seven matches in 29 days.

This doesn't really fit in with Gianni Infantino's claim that there would be no extra demands on players.

Given the above, the best option of the five seems to me to be to keep the existing 32-team format. Certainly, options 2, 3 and 4 appear to be non-starters, and option 5 has numerous serious drawbacks.

In passing, I would note that Infantino campaigned on increasing the World Cup to forty teams, and yet neither of the forty-team formats is acceptable once subjected to even a modicum of scrutiny.

His next great idea was Option 4, which is also a non-starter.

It seems clear that he is a man who changes his mind often, suggesting one bad idea after another, failing to carry out due diligence and using poor arguments for justification. The devil is in the details, but clearly he's not a details man.

In a few more weeks, once the 2026 decision has already been taken, who's to say that he won't have come up with another three ridiculous formats?

On the bright side, with any luck, by the time 2026 rolls around, he'll no longer be FIFA President.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Oceania Football Confederation Must Come Clean On Champions League Draw Debacle

I'm generally a fan of the Oceania Football Confederation.

For the most part, they do a good job running and promoting the game with limited resources and incredibly difficult logistics in an area of the world that is generally forgotten by the rest of the footballing community.

Of all the Confederation websites, I find the OFC's is the one where I feel most confident that I will find the information I am seeking on any given day. There are links to numerous interesting publications and reports going back many years. And I am always grateful for the coverage of Confederation tournaments provided by OFC TV.

It saddens me then, to have to write this blog post, but in the interests of transparency and accountability, I feel someone has to draw attention to the absolute fiasco that was the OFC Champions League draw that occurred yesterday in Auckland.

To recap, the draw involved placing sixteen teams in four groups of four. The teams (two each from New Zealand, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, plus two qualifiers from a preliminary competition involving the champions of American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga) were originally seeded into four pots, and one team from each pot was to be drawn into each of the four groups. The one caveat was no group could contain two teams from the same country.

The draw was made live on the OFC's youtube channel. I was unable to watch live but managed to tune in and watch a rerun of the draw shortly after it was completed. What unfolded left me stunned.

All went to plan in the beginning as OFC Media officer Jacqueline Tran Van and OFC Competitions manager Michael Song carried out the draw. Each time a team was drawn the audience was reminded that two teams from the same country could not be drawn in the same group.

After the first ten teams had been placed in groups, this was the situation:

Group A: AS Magenta (New Caledonia), Hekari United (Papua New Guinea)
Group B: Team Wellington (New Zealand), Champions to be determined (Fiji), Hienghène Sport (New Caledonia)
Group C: Auckland City (New Zealand), Champions to be determined (Vanuatu), AS Central Sport (Tahiti)
Group D: AS Tefana (Tahiti), Champions to be determined (Solomon Islands).

The next team be drawn was the to be determined runners-up from Fiji. Once again, Jacqueline Van Tran made a point of saying that they copuld not be drawn in the same group as the other team from Fiji. Thus she opined that they could be drawn in either Group A or Group D.

That was her first fatal mistake.

What she failed to take into consideration was that the remaining Pot 3 team, Lae City Dwellers from Papua New Guinea, could not be placed in Group A because their fellow countrymen, Hekari United, were already in that group. Therefore, the Fijian runners-up had to be placed in Group A and Lae City Dwellers in Group D. Unfortunately, this fairly simple deduction was overlooked by both Ms Tran Van and Mr Song. And unluckily for both, fate decided to intervene. The Fijian runners-up were drawn into Group D, meaning the fourth Pot 3 team, Lae City Dwellers, were placed in Group A, the only remaining Group without a Pot 3 team, without so much as a second glance.

At this point there were two Papua New Guinea clubs drawn together in Pot A. Here's a screen shot I took from the video. Incidentally the red line at the bottom shows what percentage of the hour-long plus video had elapsed.

No-one at the draw noticed.

The draw continued, but suddenly the audio soundtrack changed to music and the voice of Ms Tran Van could no longer be heard. This continued for approximately fourteen minutes, during which time two of the Pot 4 teams were drawn and placed into groups. Unfortunately I don't have any screenshots but I am positive that the Preliminary Qualifying Group winner was drawn in Group C with Auckland City, the Vanuatu champions and AS Central Sport. The other team drawn was the Solomon Islands runners-up who must therefore have been placed in Group A or Group B. I'm reasonably sure it was the latter.

And then after a little over fourteen minutes of music during which time just two Pot 4 teams were drawn and placed, the audio returned and a somewhat sheepish Ms Tran Van said something about the perils of making a live draw and that they were going to redraw Pot 3.

I have two points to make about this.

Firstly, the problem wasn't caused by making a live draw. I'm sure it looked just as bad delayed as it did live. What caused this monumental cock-up was a failure to plan properly and a lack of oversight.

Secondly, there was no need to redo the Pot 3 draw. The first two teams had been drawn and placed properly, the third team from Fiji should have been placed in Group A and Lae City Dwellers should have been placed in Group D. That is how the official draw actually unfolded and that is where the teams should have been placed.

Redoing the draw was the second fatal mistake.

This time around, Hienghène Sport (New Caledonia) were again drawn into Group B. Then the Fijian runners-up were drawn into Group D. AS Central Sport (Tahiti) were the next team drawn and now lightning almost struck twice in  the same place because Ms Tran Van repeated her original mistake, stating that they could not be drawn with the other team from Tahiti so therefore they could be drawn in Group A or Group C. If they had been drawn in Group C, that would once again have left Lae City Dwellers in Group A with Hekari United. As it turned out, this time luck was on Ms Tran Van's side, AS Central Sport were drawn into Group A, and Lae City Dwellers were placed in the Group C with Auckland City and the Vanuatu champions.

What followed was a redo of Pot 4. This time the Preliminary Qualifying winners were drawn in Group B and the Solomon Islands runners-up in Group C. So neither of these teams were drawn into the same group they were originally placed in.

The final draw was thus listed as follows:

Having watched this mess unfold, I tweeted the following to the official OFC Champions League account.

I then sent out a few more tweets, including a link to the video.

Very soon after this I was advised that the video had been "taken down" and upon checking I noted that someone at the OFC had taken the decision to make the video private. On the OFC TV youtube site you can watch OFC Champions League draws from previous years, but you can now no longer watch the draw made yesterday. This tells me that at best, the OFC are embarrassed, and at worst, they are trying to hide their gross incompetence.

And that, for me, is the worst error of all.

By trying to sweep this under the rug, I can't help but feel the OFC is opening itself up to legal action.

I can't help thinking that clubs such as Auckland City and the Vanuatu champions (likely to be Amicale) would much prefer to play against the preliminary qualifying winners than against the Solomon Islands runners-up.

Perhaps the Solomon Islands runners-up would fancy Group B more than the potential minefield of Group C with Auckland City and Amicale.

And if the OFC failed to follow its official draw protocols, any of the sixteen teams would have the right to take legal action if they are unsatisfied with the final outcome of the draw.

This is not supposed to be amateur karaoke hour at the local pub. This is the biggest club competition in Oceania, with potentially a trip to the FIFA Club World Cup at stake with possible games against the 2017 UEFA Champions League and Copa Libertadores winners in the offing.

It's hard to imagine a similar mistake being made by UEFA, with two teams from Portugal or Russia drawn in the same group and no-one noticing for far too long. Nor would I expect a redo of the draw to take place when it was perfectly clear what the solution should have been. Imagine the ruckus and legal wrangling that would cause.

Before it's too late, the OFC needs to come clean on this. Nowhere in any of their press releases about the OFC Champions League draw did they mention the fact that they originally screwed up the process. They made the draw video private so that it can no longer be seen. No-one has taken responsibility.

At a time when the football community is crying out for transparency and accountability, the OFC have scored a pretty bad own goal here.

And that's a shame, because I stated at the beginning of this post, I think the OFC generally do a good job.


OFC have now uploaded an edited video of the draw which is less than half the length of the original video. They now admit it's edited and that they made the original mistake.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What has Gianni Infantino been doing?

Tomorrow marks day 180 of Gianni Infantino's presidency and the main question I have is what the hell has he been doing?

Before the election he presented his eleven-point ninety-day plan. He has now had two sets of ninety days and the vast majority of his points remain unfulfilled. If I am to be generous, I'd say he has completed five, with five incomplete and one, bizarrely, never announced.

Those that have been completed include his ridiculous FIFA Legends team, which appears to be the opportunity for Infantino to swan about with some famous players at a fairly substantial cost and with very little payback to the world game.

He did "launch the process for" the 2026 World Cup, but all that means in practical terms is that a decision was made on when and where the next meeting would take place.

He claims to have met with sponsors to reassure them that FIFA is moving in the right direction, although we have seen nothing concrete emerge from this other than the announcement of a single large sponsorship deal with the Chinese Wanda Group, which incidentally also purchased Philippe Blatter's Infront Media company.

One high profile undertaking was to appoint Fatma Samoura as the new Secretary-General. The response to this has been mixed. On the one hand, the appointment of an African woman with governance experience in an international body can be seen as a fresh, bold, exciting move. On the other, many questioned why Infantino proposed someone with no background in football. Was it so he could maintain control of FIFA, rather than allow that to move to the Secretary-General as was supposed to happen as part of the series of reforms approved last year? In addition, many were hoping for a proper recruitment process with the chance to vet multiple candidates before the decision was made. Instead, Infantino took a unilateral decision and presented it out of the blue at the FIFA Congress, where it takes a brave delegate to vote against anything proposed by the President.

Clearly the jury is still out on the new Secretary-General. I am willing to give her time to grow into the job. I hope she will prove to be a good appointment and will ensure FIFA follows governance best practices rather than continuing on as an old boys' network with 'gentlemen's agreements' made in dark booths in 'discrete' restaurants. But so far it appears nothing has changed.

An important task that was completed was to set up new football development regulations. While they appear much more transparent than the previous guidelines for distributing FIFA's Financial Aid Programme and awarding GOAL Projects, I have major concerns with the equal distribution of development funds to each member association. US$5 million is a huge amount for Angulla, Montserrat or Dominica and a mere drop in the bucket for Angola, Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other countries, such as the USA, Germany, Japan or England are hardly in need of this money. Giving each member the exact same amount may be 'fair', but it hardly leads to the best outcomes.

I would also like to have seen post-implementation review included to the Development guidelines. It is all very well ensuring that development money is spent as intended, but if the positive outcomes of that spending are never realised then the project has been a flop. For example, a training centre with a nice pitch and some decent facilities may be planned and duly constructed, but if it is seldom used because it is prone to flooding or difficult to access or impossible to maintain, then it has not met its aims and the lessons learned from such a failure need to be taken into consideration when future development projects are awarded.

The five things on Infantino's 90 Day plan that are complete were already done by Infantino's ninetieth day. So what has he been doing in the last ninety?

We know he spent some time dealing with a self-made crisis that almost (and probably should have) led to him undergoing a FIFA Ethics Committee hearing. There were a number of payments he wanted for a laundry list of questionable items, including a car and driver for his family, some staff he wanted flown to Zurich and back every week, the infamous exercise machine, mattresses, flowers and tuxedo and of course the questions about his use of private jets for flights to Moscow, Doha and a visit to the Vatican and possible conflicts of interest that resulted.

We also know he ousted a number of FIFA staff including Domenico Scala and the whistle-blowers from the Travel Department who questioned his unsanctioned travel.

He also forced through his own ability to remove and replace any member of any of FIFA's independent committees, including the ethics committee, thus rendering that particular body potentially beholden to himself.

As for his public appearances, he made a trip to Nigeria to meet with controversial Nigerian Football Federation boss Amaju Pinnick, who used Infantino's visit as a public display of support from FIFA. It would be fair to say that Infantino's faith in Pinnick is not matched by everyone in the Nigerian football community.

Infantino was also seen at three major football tournaments. He was in East Rutherford, NJ to attend the Final of the Copa America Centenario, was also present at a number of the Euro 2016 matches in France, and most recently was spotted in Brazil during the Olympics having his picture taken with disgraced ex FIFA Exco member and CBF leader Marco Polo del Nero. To say he displayed questionable judgement is an understatement.

One major tournament Infantino did not attend, which certainly came as no surprise to me, was the Oceania Nations Cup in Port Moresby. Infantino has always struck me as a man who likes the glamour of hobnobbing with the well-heeled and famous. Sitting in the heat and humidity of the Sir John Guise Stadium while watching the home team score eight goals without reply against Samoa on a dodgy playing surface perhaps doesn't fit that profile.

In fact I doubt Infantino will show his face in Oceania again until it's electioneering time, when he'll once again make a fleeting appearance, don a colourful Pacitic Island-style shirt, make a few patronising remarks, tweet some photos and be on his way to more glamorous locations. At least, that's what his history suggests.

If he were serious about the development of football in Oceania, he would, among other things:
- work on combining Oceania World Cup Qualifying with Asia's
- introduce massive development of the women's game to give New Zealand some proper competition
- set in place programmes to improve the quality of refereeing, which sometimes sees technical errors made even in international competitions
- ensure Wellington Phoenix's place in the A-League is forever sanctioned by FIFA so that there is at least one professional club within the confederation
- assist Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia to become full FIFA members
- change the format of the World Club Cup so that the Oceania representative shouldn't always play the hosts in the opening game, but instead the Confederation which performed worst in the previous year's tournament should be given that dishonour
- revamp the FIFA Rankings so that they don't unfairly discriminate against Oceania nations whose ability to play matches is severely hampered by the high costs of travelling in the Pacific.

The issue Infantino has been most voval about has been expanding the World Cup to forty teams. I have written about this before explaining why I think it is a terrible idea, both in terms of leading to an unfair format and in increasing the demands on players and fans.

He falsely equates the 50% increase in teams qualifying for the Euros with what would be a 25% increase in teams qualifying for the World Cup, suggesting that it would have the same affect on increasing the number of nations that would feel they have a decent chance of qualifying.

But in this he is way off the mark.

As of the beginning of qualifying for the Euros, there were 53 UEFA members. If 16 qualified, that meant around 30% would be successful. Increasing that to 24 qualifiers meant a little over 45% would be successful. That's a big jump from 30% to 45%. Of course more of the mid-level nations will think they have a chance.

FIFA has 211 members. If 32 qualify for the World Cup, that's just over 15%. If 40 qualify, that's just under 19%. An increase from 15% to 19% will have a negligible affect on which countries think they can qualify. The drawbacks of expansion (unwieldy and unfair format, massive increase in meaningless games, extra demands on fans and players) are not worth this small increase.

In the sphere of FIFA tournament expansion, what Infantino should be focusing on is the women's game. Currently every FIFA men's tournament has more teams than the women's counterparts. And men also have some tournaments that women don't have (Confederations Cup, World Club Cup, Futsal World Cup and Beach Soccer World Cup). If Infantino is serious about equality here is an opportunity to do something about it, instead of paying lip service to the issue. Yet instead, everywhere he goes his message is that the men's tournament should be expanded, reinforcing the view that women's football doesn't count.

The biggest concern I have is that despite Infantino making Transparency point number one on his 90 Days list, if anything we have seen a reduction in transparency under his administration.

I see no new releases about meeting minutes, financial spending, key performance indicators, any sort of charts measuring various metrics, useful datasets made available for the general public. We still await the announcement of his salary. There has been no hint that the Garcia Report will be released any time soon, or that Qatar will be held to higher standards over its immigrant worker conditions. He never responded over the fiasco in Africa involving how teams would be seeded for the World Cup qualifying final round draw. And as alluded to earlier, he reduced the independence of some of FIFA's committees.

There's been nothing new on tournament hosting bidding, doping, discrimination or matchfixing. Meanwhile some countries are banned for governance interference in football matters while others proceed without sanction.

And, of course, we were unaware that there was an ethics violation hearing against Infantino himself until such time as FIFA could announce that it wouldn't proceed.

This from a man who promised the following on page 5 of his manifesto.

Overall Infantino has wasted six months. He has been bad for transparency and good governance. He has been bad for women's football. He has failed to address many important issues.

All this lack of transparency and action comes despite a promise Infantino made in pre-election letters to each of the member associations.

And let us not forget what he said in his victory speech.

What he has done is promote himself, haggle over his own salary and bonuses despite his numerous protestations that his salary isn't important, and attempt to shore up support by offering $5 million to each member association every four-year cycle, and try to convince them that one of the eight extra World Cup spots might just fall the way of any given member association.

Not that I expected anything different. He was always the accidental president.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why I'm Not a Fan of the Expanded Euros

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the 24-team Euros format.

Some people are decrying the 36 matches required to eliminate just eight of the 24 teams, the overall low-scoring matches and emphasis teams have placed on being hard to break down knowing that in most cases gaining three points (out of a possible nine) will be enough to progress to the Round of 16 and the lack of fairness in the schedule.

Others have chosen to focus on some of the positives, notably the performances of some of the teams making their debuts in the competition and the excitement that was generated on the last day of matches as teams fought for the final few spots in the knock-out rounds.

There is merit in both arguments.

The tournament has been lengthened with an extra match required to be played by the two finalists. Whereas in an eight-team tournament the finalists played five matches and in a sixteen-team tournament the finalists played six matches, this latest expansion requires the finalists to play seven matches. There is no doubt that this will cause a little extra fatigue for the players and either reduce their summer breaks after they have just gone through a long domestic season or require them to report for pre-season training later than their club team-mates.

It also requires fans who are following their teams to stay longer and attend more matches, adding expense in terms of both accommodation and in paying the inflated ticket prices.

Some teams and their fans, such as Albania’s, had to stay in France a few extra days after their last group game to see whether they would be moving on or going home. It must have been difficult for the players to be fully motivated in training knowing that in all likelihood they would probably be eliminated and could be sitting resting on the beach.

The format also gave teams playing on the last day a huge advantage over teams who had already finished, knowing exactly what they had to do to qualify for the Round of 16. Had Ireland played Italy three days earlier would they have gone all out for a late winner or would they have settled for a draw? We will never know. But it is probably no coincidence that both the groups that played on the last day saw their third-placed teams qualifying for the next phase.

Of the 36 matches in the group stage there was arguably only one classic, the 3-3 draw between Hungary and Portugal. A number of the other 35 matches had late drama where a match that had been fairly pedestrian and sterile for 87 minutes or more saw a team grab a late winner or equaliser. And then there were some truly awful offerings like England versus Slovakia and France versus Switzerland, where everyone knew before the matches started that a draw would comfortably send them through to the next round.

But what about the heroics of tournament debutants like Iceland, Albania and Northern Ireland?

Iceland, no doubt, have been a wonderful story, although in all likelihood after beating the Netherlands both home and away in the qualifiers they would have been present in France even without the expansion to 24 teams.

Albania scored their first ever goal, thus gaining their first ever win, in their final group game, but ultimately it proved to be too little, too late. It was nice for them and their fans to qualify, of course, and they didn’t look out of place, but in truth the real reason they earned an automatic spot in the finals was the three points they were awarded by UEFA when Serbian fans invaded the pitch in the qualifying match between the two political rivals in Belgrade. A loss for Albania in that game would have seen Denmark finish in second spot in the group and Albania playing-off for a place. To be fair they drew with the Danes in both qualifying matches between the two teams and won their opening away match 1-0 in Portugal, so they certainly would have had a chance if they were forced to qualify through the play-off route.

As for Northern Ireland, they won their qualifying group and would have qualified under the sixteen-team format. They began the tournament losing 1-0 to Poland in a match in which they were out-shot by 18-2, played well and deservedly beat a poor, seemingly dispirited and disinterested Ukraine team, and then lost 1-0 to a Germany team in a match in which they once again had only two shots, while their opponents had 26, nine of which were on target. Northern Ireland knew coming into the Germany game that a narrow defeat would probably be sufficient to move on with the less than stellar record of one win and two losses. This is by no means meant as a criticism of Northern Ireland. They aren’t responsible for the tournament format. They just did their job professionally to ensure they did enough to move on. You have to congratulate them for that. They now face Wales on equal terms in the next match. I wish both teams well.

Of the five teams that won play-off matches to qualify after finishing third in their qualifying groups, Ireland and Hungary have progressed to the last sixteen, while Turkey, Ukraine and Sweden were all eliminated, the last two with barely a whimper. Hungary, of course, picked up just one point against a badly under-performing Greece in the qualifying matches, and won two hard-fought wins by one-goal margins against the Faeroe Islands, but came good in France when it mattered (or perhaps Austria and Portugal disappointed when it mattered.)

I’ve never liked 24-team World Cups that used this formula, especially the one in 1986 that saw Uruguay move on after two draws and a 6-1 loss to Denmark, so perhaps I’ve cherry-picked my arguments to support my pre-tournament view that the expanded tournament would not overall be a success, but after the completion of the group stage I really have no reason to change my mind.

It is a cumbersome format, gives an unfair advantage to the teams that play on the last day, and does little to encourage teams to set out to win all their group matches, which, not surprisingly, no team managed to do. Why would the top teams expend unnecessary effort at the start of the tournament when they can progress by playing a cagey defensive style?

And it’s not like all the teams that won their groups were rewarded as things turned out. Arguably Switzerland, Poland and Belgium were better off finishing second than France, Germany and Italy, the winners of their respective groups.

Some of the group winners are now rewarded by playing teams that finished third in their group, such as Wales versus Northern Ireland and France versus Ireland, while others play very strong group runners-up in the next round, such as Italy versus Spain and Hungary versus Belgium. It’s all a bit of a lottery but the overall feeling is that e format isn’t quite fair.

The increase to sixteen teams in the sudden death phase means that the good teams are now given an extra opportunity to slip up before the Final, which for me just lowers the overall integrity that little bit more, making this even more of a cup competition rather than a league competition with all that implies about the likelihood or not of the ‘best’ team winning the tournament.

My strong belief is that any sort of ‘Finals’ should use a fair format, encourage teams to play to win, allow for the occasional upset while still seeing the best teams progress for the most part and not allow so many teams to enter that it loses its currency as an elite event.

And for me that is why this format has failed so far.

Those arguing that this tournament is great despite its obvious weaknesses, merely because some new teams have competed for the first time and scored their first goal or picked up their first win, in tandem with the excitement of finding out which teams progressed on the final day of the group stage, are somewhat missing the point.

I could devise a 43-team tournament where some teams play one more game than others, a weird mathematical formula is used to determine which teams move on to the last 32, numerous teams such as Georgia, Finland, Armenia, Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Israel, Montenegro and, why not, even Scotland qualify and score some goals and win some games.

Think how great that would be!

An extra 19 teams would get the chance to play in the Finals and make history!

The final day of group play would be a roller-coaster of emotions as every goal scored changes which teams would qualify as the calculators confirm each team’s coefficient to three decimal places!

Sixteen more teams would have the chance to make history and progress beyond the group stage!

An extra sixteen of those exciting knock-out matches would be played!

There would be a whole extra month of football, increasing revenues for everyone and improving all the important business metrics!

It would be a win, win, win, win, win. What’s to dislike?

Plus, best of all, every UEFA member would vote for me for UEFA President.

I rest my case.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Infantino's justification for World Cup expansion is part false equivalence, part ignorance, part failure to carry out due diligence.

A big part of Gianni Infantino's manifesto for the job of FIFA President was his idea (actually Michel Platini's) that the World Cup should be expanded to 40 teams. He has continued to mention this with great enthusiasm on a fairly frequent basis since he won the job.

Most recently, he was asked about it by Alexi Lalas as part of a Fox Soccer interview. Here is the entire World Cup excerpt.


Once again Infantino has fallen into the twin traps of:

1) arguing that there are only two criticisms of the idea, and
2) using faulty logic to 'rebut' these criticisms.

Boring Qualifying Competition

The first criticism he mentioned was that the qualifiers would become boring. He then went on to argue that his experience with the expanded Euros showed the opposite, because with so many more teams qualifying, more teams had the chance to qualify and even more teams had the dream that they could qualify. While this was obviously true in the case of the Euros being expanded from 16 to 24 teams (a 50% increase), the effect would not be nearly as pronounced with eight extra teams spread across six Confederations.

With a sixteen-team Euros, 29.6% of the 54 UEFA members qualify for the Finals. Increasing the number of Finalists to 24 means that 44.4% of the members qualify for the Finals.

But even with the increased number of qualifiers, there are still countries at the bottom of the rankings who have no realistic chance of qualifying. I would conservatively include Kazakhstan, Malta, Luxembourg, Andorra, Gibraltar, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands in this group. Other lower ranked nations could arguably be added to the list.

Once these nations are taken out of the equation, it means that in a tournament with sixteen teams, 16/46 (34.8%) of potential qualifiers are successful, whereas in a tournament with 24 teams, 24/46 (52.2%) of potential qualifers are successful. That's right. Over half the teams with a realistic chance of qualifying for the 2016 Euros were successful. Of course that was going to generate some excitement in the qualifying rounds. It basically meant that all the nations that fall into the category of 'below average but not no-hopers' could dream that they had a realistic chance of qualifying for the final tournament, although of course not all of them managed to qualify.

The situation with the World Cup Finals would be completely different. At the start of this interview segment, Infantino suggested that there would be the following additions to the tournament if forty teams qualified:

1.5 extra qualifiers from Africa (I think he means 2, because African teams currently aren't involved in inter-Confederation play-offs)
1.5 extra qualifiers from CONCACAF
0.5 extra qualifiers from South America
1.5 extra qualifiers from Asia
0.5 extra qualifers from Oceania
1 extra qualifer from Europe
1 additional extra qualifer to be determined via some sort of on the pitch method

Lets look at these Confederation by Confederation:


Africa has 54 FIFA members. Currently five African teams qualify, meaning 90% are currently unsuccessful. Under an expanded tournament seven would qualify. While this is an increase in qualifying teams of 40%, it still means the vast majority (87%) of African members would not qualify for the World Cup even with expansion. The middle and lower-ranked teams in Africa (Botswana, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) are hardly likely to get excited that they have much more chance of being one of the seven qualifying teams than they have of being one of five qualifying teams.


Of all the Confederations, based on their on-the-field performances, this is the one that most deserves an increase in my opinion. In the last World Cup three out of the four CONCACAF qualifers progressed past the first round. Mexico drew with hosts Brazil and defeated Croatia from Europe and Cameroon from Africa. Costa Rica defeated Uruguay and Italy and drew with England. The United States snuck through after beating Ghana from Africa, drawing with Portugal from Europe and only losing 1-0 to eventual winners Germany which saw them qualify on goal difference.

In the second round the US lost to Belgium after extra time, Mexico lost to the Netherlands thanks to a controversial penalty, and Costa Rica beat Greece on penalties before falling to the Netherlands via the same method in the quarter finals.

CONCACAF has a small number of really strong teams, another set of teams who can reasonably expect to progress to the 'Hex' (the final six team competition of the qualifying competition), a few more teams that usually don't make it to the Hex but still manage to win a few games along the way, and a large number of weak teams that fall into the category of no-hopers.

Boosting the number of CONCACAF teams that qualify from 3.5 to 5, while arguably deserved, isn't going to change the dynamic of qualifying very much at all. The same teams that have a realistic chance of qualifying now (Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Canada, El Salvador and Panama) will have a realistic chance of qualifying if five teams are successful.

Of the remainder, perhaps teams like Guatemala, St Vincent, Haiti or Antigua & Barbuda could pull together a great team once in a while, but they would still be unlikely to qualify. For the remainder, their chances of qualifying would remain the same as they are now: zero.

South America

Realistically, all ten CONMEBOL members currently believe they have a realistic chance of qualifying under the current allocation of 4.5 spots, at least at the beginning of the qualifying process. Increasing it to 5.0 will have no practical effect, because South American teams invariably win their inter-Confederation play-offs.


Asia has 46 members. While they currently have 4.5 spots between them, practically, that means 4.0 spots, because Asian teams have lost every single inter-Confederation play-off they have played. An increase of 1.5 spots would mean an extra two Asian teams would qualify.

In a Confederation in which Japan, South Korea and Australia seem to qualify every time, this means that there will be three spots remaining. The same teams currently trying to win one of 1.5 spots would now be trying to win one of these 3.0 spots. This group realistically includes many of the stronger West Asian nations (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, etc.) plus Uzbekistan from Central Asia and China from East Asia and from time to time DPRK.

Overall an expansion looks like good news for West Asian nations who have struggled to qualify in recent tournaments, despite having a realistic chance to do so.

I don't see any teams that currently don't harbour realistic dreams of qualifying having realistic dreams of qualifying under an expanded tournament. Certainly none of the South Asian, Southeast Asian, remaining Central Asian or smaller nations like Guam, East Timor or Chinese Taipei would have any realistic increased chance of qualifying.


This is the only Confederation that currently doesn't have an automatic spot. New Zealand have so far won every Oceania qualifying tournament since Australia left the Confederation. They defeated Bahrain to qualify for 2010 but lost to Mexico for 2014 and should they again win in Oceania they would face the daunting prospect of facing a South American team for 2018, which is unlikely to go well.

Some of the other OFC nations are growing in strength, notably New Caledonia, but also Tahiti, the Solomon Islands and to a lesser extent, Vanuatu. These are the nations that currently believe they can reach the inter-Confederation play-offs, and nothing will change in this list should automatic qualification become reality. Despite some success at age-group level recently, Fiji have flattered to deceive, PNG still lack experience, and Samoa, Cook Islands, American Samoa and Tonga have no chance at all.


Not much needs to be said. Adding one additional qualifier (as opposed to eight in the Euros) is hardly likely to get a bunch of additional countries thinking they can qualify. Those teams should just dream of Euro qualification.

Based on this analysis, I feel comfortable stating that Gianni Infantino's comparison of Euro expansion to World Cup expansion with regard to a change in the qualifying dynamic is nothing more than a false equivalence fallacy.

Reduction in Quality

The second criticism Infantino mentioned was that there would be a reduction in quality. I have no argument with his view that an increase of one or two teams per Confederation would not affect quality. I think this is a more valid criticism of the Euro expansion, where eight more teams would be qualifying, rather than of World Cup expansion.

Other Issues

I would be concerned about many other issues that necessarily result from the expansion. Gianni Infantino, however, has never acknowledged that these issues exist, so eager is he to pronounce the 2016 Euros a success even though they have yet to be played.

Firstly, the formats of both tournaments have had to change.

The Euros will see four 'lucky' third-placed teams progressing to the last sixteen. Previous experience, about which perhaps Gianni Infantino is ignorant, suggests that this can result in some pretty undeserving progressing. The most obvious example is Uruguay in 1986, who drew two of their group matches and lost the other one 6-1 to Denmark. With the advantage that knowing a draw would see them progress, they used incredibly negative tactics in their final group game against Scotland, which resulted in their securing the 0-0 draw they required.

I suspect there will be a lot more matches in which both teams are happy to play out a draw rather than attempting to win, because it just makes sense that a draw becomes a much better outcome if two-thirds of the third place finishers get to move on to the last sixteen. Time will tell, but in my opinion, this is a serious risk.

By way of contrast, increasing the World Cup to forty teams in what appears to be a favoured format involving eight groups of five teams, would make draws a much less enticing outcome than they currently are. This might help lead to more attacking and positive play.

But of course there is also a downside.

Some teams may already know after their second match that they have been eliminated, resulting in an increased chance of playing weakened teams or being susceptible to bribery in their remaining matches.

Some teams will have byes while other teams play their last group games, giving teams a chance to manipulate the results of their final games for mutual benefit, much like what occurred in 1982 between West Germany and Austria.

Some teams will have byes in the first two rounds of group play, meaning when they play their second matches their opponents might be playing their third matches and have players suspended for already having received two yellow cards.

The increased number of teams will see a corresponding increase in matches. The current format requires a total of 64 matches - 48 in the group stage and 16 in the knock-out stages.The expanded format would see 80 group stage matches and 16 in the knock-outs.

All of these extra games would have to be squeezed into the first half or so of the tournament. Necessarily this would result in four matches per day being played for the first twenty days of the tournament.

Theoretically, if the teams with first round byes in groups G or H progress all the way to the Final, meaning they wouldn't play their first game until Day 8 of the tournament, they would have to play eight matches in 28 days (or 27 days if they play in the third place play-off).

Add in the increased travel that would occur from the extra games and there would also be reduced time for training and recovering from injuries. The demands on players, who are already tired from long domestic seasons, would be hugely increased. The physical, mental and economic demands on fans would also be increased and there would be an increased chance of spectators getting tired of watching so many matches and losing interest in the tournament.

It appears Infantino hasn't done the due diligence to sit down and see what the ramifications of an expanded tournament would be from a logistical perspective.

One of my biggest concerns is that based on his comments, Infantino seems to lack high quality analytical skills. Expanding the Euros to 24 teams is nothing like expanding the World Cup to 40 teams. Add in the fact that the Euros haven't even been played yet and it's hard to accept Infantino's rationale for promoting World Cup expansion based on the 'success' of the Euros as being logically valid.

He also seems ignorant of any criticisms other than the two he raises in the interview with Alexi Lalas. Partly this is because journalists have tended to focus on the Confederation-breakdown issue rather than asking important questions about logistics. But still, can he not think for himself?

And finally, it appears that Infantino meekly accepted Michel Platini's questionable claim that adding eight teams to the tournament would result in only three more days being required to play the entire tournament, instead of doing the required due diligence himself.

I hope this is not how his entire presidential reign will be conducted, but I fear the worst.

It seems obvious to me that to increase participation in World Cups, Infantino should be looking towards the women's game. FIFA could introduce a women's Club World Cup, Beach Soccer World Cup, Futsal World Cup and Confederations Cup, and add more teams to the Women's Under 17, Under 20 and Senior World Cups.

This would result in more tournaments being held in more locations, more women playing the game and a positive statement being made about equality rather than the empty promises I'm expecting to hear over the coming years.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Huge Wasted Opportunity for Oceania Football

Whatever the outcome of this week's FIFA Presidential election, the last few months (i.e. the official campaign) represents a huge wasted opportunity for Oceania Football.

As the deadline for nominations approached and there was no sign that anyone from the Oceania region would be nominated, I wrote to a number of the heads of the Oceania member associations (basically all those that were English-speaking and had a working e-mail address on their websites) suggesting a number of reasons why they should consider nominating a presidential candidate, and a listing a swathe of ideas for policies that would be of interest to Oceania and possibly not raised by any of the other candidates during the campaign period.

The following day I received a very positive response from the President of one of these member associations who also noted he would discuss the idea with the other countries' heads.

Around this time the expected candidate list included at least one from each of the other five Confederations: Michel Platini and Jerome Champagne from UEFA, Prince Ali from AFC, Tokyo Sexwale from CAF, David Nakhid from CONCACAF and Zico from CONMEBOL. I felt the OFC were in danger of being left out of the discussion and marginalising themselves.

After two weeks of hearing nothing, I recontacted the same people. Shortly thereafter, I received a brief, unenthusiastic e-mail from the Oceania Secretary-General, pretty much telling me, though in less colourful terms, to STFU.

That it was the Secretary-General who conveyed this news to me was a reminder that the Confederations seem to think they have the power and right to take decisions regarding Congress matters on behalf of their member associations.

As I have stated over and over again, nominating candidates for the Presidential election and voting during the election is the right of the 209 Congess members. Confederations have no nomination or voting rights.

In addition, FIFA Statutes specifically state that member associations are required to conduct their affairs without any interference from third parties. And yet here we are now in a situation where there is a fear that voters will feel compelled to take photos of their ballot papers to prove they voted for the candidate that their Confederations are backing. Third party interference is rife.

But back to Oceania.

In all likelihood, few, if any, of the five presidential candidates will be aware of the numerous ways in which Oceania is a unique Confederation.

1. Oceania is the only Confederation without an automatic men's World Cup Finals spot.

This is a big bone of contention from many within the region. Oceania has eleven members, one more than CONMEBOL which has anywhere from four to six World Cup Finals spots depending on which country is hosting and the results of play-off matches.

Personally, rather than give Oceania an automatic spot, which would benefit a single country (usually New Zealand) for a few weeks once every four years, I would rather see Oceania's World Cup Qualifying combined with Asia's, which could greatly benefit six or seven Oceania countries over a long period every four years.

No doubt, part of the reason for #1 above is:

2. Oceania is the only Confederation without any nation currently sitting in the top 150 of the men's FIFA Rankings. 

Because of the way the FIFA Rankings points are calculated, this means a win against New Zealand is worth the same as a win against Tonga.

A large part of the reason for Oceania countries being so lowly ranked is:
3. Oceania is the only Confederation where almost every year, none of the international teams play the five matches necessary to earn maximum ranking points.

In 2015 none of the OFC nations played five matches that could count towards FIFA Rankings points. Many of them played none. New Zealand only played three away friendlies against Asian opposition.

This is a record even worse than in the five previous years.

2014: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.
2013: 9/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches
2012: 7/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (4 teams involved in World Cup Qualifying third phase)
2011: 3/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (8 teams involved in combined OFC Nations Cup/World Cup Qualifying)
2010: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.

In addition:
4. Only one OFC nation 'regularly' plays opponents from other Confederations.

The last matches against non-OFC opposition for each OFC nation:

Fiji 2 India 1 (August 14, 2005)

Vanuatu 4 Guam 1 (September 3, 2011 (South Pacific Games)) - before that, never.

New Caledonia 16 St Pierre & Miquelon 1 (September 28, 2012 (French Territories Cup)) - not a FIFA member

Uruguay 8 Tahiti 0 (June 22, 2013 (Confederations Cup)) - before that tournament the last time they played a FIFA member from outside the Pacific was Tahiti 0 Mexico 1 (September 2, 1980).

Papua New Guinea 1 China 1 (September 18, 1985).

Solomon Islands have never played a match against any non-Pacific team. Nor have Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands or Tonga.

#3 and #4 provide ample evidence for why I think OFC members could greatly benefit from the increased number of matches and variety of opponents a combined Asia-Oceania World Cup Qualifying competition would provide.

Another reason for the limited number of matches and opponents is:
5. Oceania is the only Confederation where every member has to fly to every away match.

There are no shared borders in Oceania, and the distances between nations is surprisingly big. The Pacific is truly a vast ocean. Flying from Auckland to Sydney (Australia, now part of the AFC) which many people in the world believe to be a short hop, skip and jump is 2159 km.

For the purposes of comparison:

London to St Petersburg (2114 km)
Baltimore to Havana (1878 km)

Tahiti's closest neighbour is the Cook Islands, a flight of 1142 km.
But to fly to the other French territory in Oceania, New Caledonia, is a flight of 4630 km (plus crossing the dateline).

The lack of population (every other Confederation contains at least one country with a larger population than the combined Oceania population) means there are few flights and those flights are very expensive. Given the limited funds available for football in general, it is no surprise that member associations can't afford to spend a lot on international football. Even getting the team together can be a logistical nightmare with players living on different islands

6. Oceania is the only Confederation without a professional league.

Since Australia left for Asia, the top-rated league in Oceania is the eight-team, fourteen-round New Zealand Football Championship. Like the MLS in the United States and A-League in Australia, it is franchise-based with no promotion or relegation. None of the players are professionals.

This means that the better New Zealand players end up scattered around the world in various leagues (Winston Reid (West Ham), Chris Wood (Leeds), Tommy Smith (Ipswich) and Rory Fallon (Bristol Rovers) in England, Michael Boxall (SuperSport United) in South Africa, Ryan Thomas (PEC Zwolle) in the Netherlands, Stefan Marinovic (Unterhaching) in Germany, Themi Tzimopoulos (PAS Giannina) in Greece, others in the United States, others in the A-League.

Organising matches is therefore extremely difficult and expensive, wherever those matches are played.

7. Oceania is the only Confederation with only one professional team, that is forced to play its domestic football in another Confederation.

Despite Auckland City's heroics in various editions of the Club World Cup, Wellington Phoenix is the only professional team in Oceania. The Phoenix play in Australia's A-League and provide the only way into professional football for anyone living in the Confederation, unless they are willing/able to move elsewhere in the world.

This is why it was so vital that the they retained their A-League franchise licence. The new ten-year licence was announced this past week after much indecision. It was a great day for football in New Zealand.

The Phoenix have also provided the opportunity for players from other OFC nations, such as Fiji's Roy Krishna and Benjamin Totori of the Solomon Islands to experience life in professional football.

8. Oceania is the only Confederation where the winners of every women's international tournament are known before the tournament is played.

Whereas in men's football, New Zealand are only slightly ahead of nations such as New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, in women's football, New Zealand wins every single match against their Oceania opponents at all levels by convincing margins.

In last months' U-17 Qualifying competition in the Cook Islands, New Zealand beat Samoa 11-0, New Caledonia 12-0, Tonga 13-0, Fiji 11-0 and Papua New Guinea in the final by 'only' 8-0.

Five matches played, 55 goals scored, none conceded.

In last years' U-20 Qualifying competition, it was even worse. New Zealand beat Tonga 15-0, New Caledonia 26-0, Vanuatu 18-0 and Samoa 10-0. Four matches played, 69 goals scored, none conceded.

In last month's Olympic qualifiers, Papua New Guinea emerged from the minor nations to contest a two-game play-off against New Zealand. New Zealand won the first game in Port Moresby 7-1, effectively killing the tie. The final nail in the coffin was the failure of the PNG federation to apply for visas for the return match, resulting in New Zealand progressing by walkover.

Without considerable investment in women's football across the Confederation, it is hard to see how any of the other countries can start to challenge New Zealand. As a result, New Zealand's women's team will continue to have to make expensive trips outside the region to be able to play meaningful matches.

#9: Oceania is the only Confederation that could never host the World Cup Finals.

Where would the matches be played? Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin have the stadia for smaller matches, but no other cities in the entire confederation have large enough grounds.

As a result, Oceania will have to be content with holding youth World Cups and the keenly awaited upcoming Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea, while never having the advantage of a bonus entry in the World Cup Finals via the hosting nation.

#10: Oceania is the only Confederation that still has a large number of independent nations that aren't FIFA members.

Can you think of a fully independent nation recognised by the United Nations that isn't a FIFA member? Difficult, isn't it?

And yet there are actually six in Oceania.

In addition to the seven independent nations (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa), two French territories (New Caledonia and Tahiti), one American territory (American Samoa) and one island country in free association with New Zealand (Cook Islands), there are also six nations that aren't members of FIFA (Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

Of these, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia have shown some interest in being more involved in international football competitions. Requests they have made to FIFA in the past for assistance have reportedly fallen on deaf ears.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil we were subjected to numerous banners proclaiming FIFA Is For All, If that is true rather than just a clever acronym, FIFA should assist any of these six nations which wish to become members.

Of the five presidential candidates, only Jerome Champagne has noted he would like to ncrease FIFA membership, without mentioning Oceania specifically. However, it is hard to imagine where else he would look.

In Conclusion

Having someone from Oceania in the FIFA Presidential race, even without any expectation of that person winning the election, would have been a great opportunity to raise some of these points, make the other candidates aware of the major issues facing the region and maybe for some potential solutions to be discussed.

Instead, as I feared, Oceania's needs have been forgotten. None of Oceania's unique problems have been addressed.

And for that, sadly, Oceania Football only has itself to blame.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Shaikh Salman Didn't Say

This whole furore over Shaikh Salman's possible involvement in the alleged arrest and torture of Bahraini national team players during the Pearl Revolution of 2011 leaves an awful lot of important questions unanswered.

There is no doubt that torture did take place as a result of the uprising, as admitted by Bahrain's Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Kamal Ahmad, in this BBC newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman.

The list of torture methods outlined by Paxman is shocking, yet there is no denial from the Khalifa Government's representative, so in my opinion it is fair to assume that torture was systemic (and probably still is). I have no reason to doubt that those citizens brave enough to protest against the minority government of the royal family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783, underwent some quite horrific human rights abuses, whether or not they were athletes who had previously represented their country at international level. To be clear, Shaikh Salman was the President of the Bahrain Football Association at the time these events are alleged to have occurred, and he is member of the royal family that permitted (if not encouraged) these abuses to take place.

I personally found it suspicious that when these allegations first came to light, Salman's initial response was not to deny them categorically and condemn torture, but instead to ask for proof. Perhaps I've watched too many police dramas on TV, but my impression is that when people are guilty, their first line of defence is to say, "You can't prove it."

Just one question! If I had been accused of being complicit in human rights abuses and was entirely innocent, I would refute the allegations in the strongest possible terms while simultaneously expressing my absolute opposition to torture.

I also find it interesting that Salman's response in this October 2015 BBC interview with Richard Conway was, "It's not just damaging me, it's damaging the people and the country. These are false, nasty lies that have been repeated again and again in the past and the present."

Was he saying that the torture didn't take place, or that it did take place but he personally wasn't involved? In my opinion his argument that the "false, nasty lies" are damaging the people and the country, would suggest that he was trying to argue the former, when we already know that Kamal Ahmad didn't deny torture did take place. Whether that torture was committed against athletes or not seems to be a moot point. Surely torture against any citizen is far more damaging to the country and the people than reporting that it has occurred is.

If Shaikh Salman was arguing that torture did occur but he personally wasn't involved, that doesn't seem any less damaging to the people and the country than if he had been involved.

It is disappointing to me that he has never made any statement, at least that I am aware of, decrying torture or condemning the actions of the Bahrain government that arrested and killed Bahraini citizens who were seemingly carrying out peaceful protests.

At 14:23 in the Richard Conway interview video, Salman deliberately interrupts Conway to make a point of raising the issue of the infamous alleged Committee that he was rumoured to have led, mocking the suggestion that such a Committee would exist. And yet we are aware that such a Committee was suggested, because as reported in The Guardian, it says so on the Official Bahrain News Agency website, so its existence doesn't seem so unlikely.

After this information came to light, Salman admitted in this Fox Sports report that despite his earlier denials, there actually was such a Committee, but argued, "This is a committee that's been asked to look (at events) within the sports law, not the civil law ... but never met because it cannot look into responsibility beyond its restriction.''

If that was true, why not come clean in the interview with Richard Conway and state outright that the government  formed a Committee with him as Chairman but it never met because doing so would be illegal, instead of trying to pretend that the mere suggestion of such a committee existing would be ridiculous?

(In passing,  I also find it interesting that in this interview Salman claims to be a relative newcomer, with only two years involvement with FIFA, unlike some of the others who have been involved for over a decade, but later in the interview, when asked about the human rights abuses, and perhaps when he thinks a long association with FIFA would be of benefit to him, he mentions he's been involved with FIFA tournaments for thirteen years.)

This Daily Mail article by Nick Harris for The Mail on Sunday goes even further:
The statement said the committee had convened the previous day in a meeting chaired by Sheik Salman. He now denies it ever met. Sources close to him say legal advice was that the committee should not proceed.
A statement from Sheik Salman said: 'While it was 0proposed (sic) that Sheik Salman lead a fact-finding committee, that committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever. Sheik Salman had nothing to do with that proposal and played no part in any sanctions taken against any individuals in 2011.'
Again what I find most striking, other than the obvious contradiction between the official government statement saying that the Committee had met, and Salman's outright denial that it had, is that instead of taking the opportunity to condemn the very idea of Bahrain's citizens being tortured for protesting, it suggests that Salman's only reason for not taking part was because of legal advice. It leaves me with the impression that he would have been happy to be involved if he thought it were legal to do so.

The last sentence of the quote above also seemingly admits that sanctions were indeed taken against individuals in 2011.

There are also issues raised by the reported relegation of two clubs by the Bahrain Football Association, as reported in The Guardian. In case there is any doubt as to whether this happened, here's the 2010-11 Bahrain league table as displayed on the Bet365 website:

As can be seen, two clubs, Al Shabbab and Malkia, have records indicating they played zero games. Al Shabbab had finished seventh the previous season and Malkia ninth, after which they won a play-off to retain their place in the top division. So this relegation was imposed for reasons unrelated to performance on the field.

Was the punishment imposed by the Bahrain Football Association? If so, why? There has been no reason supplied that I can find, despite transparency being one of the values that Shaikh Salman includes numerous times in his FIFA election manifesto.

Here's one such example from Page 3:

So where is the transparency about the relegation of two clubs from Bahrain's top division in 2011 for reasons other than performance on the field?

Perhaps Shaikh Salman might argue that these clubs were relegated as the result of decisions made by someone other than the Bahrain Football Association (i.e. the Bahrain Government) and that therefore he couldn't legally intervene. But such an argument would be very problematic for the Bahrain Football Association, because it would surely constitute third party interference in football which under FIFA Statutes must necessarily result in suspension from FIFA, just as has occurred recently with Kuwait under the leadership of Shaikh Salman's close ally, Shaikh Ahmad.

There is some history worth noting with Malkia, which is a small Shia fishing village on the outskirts of Manama. In 2007 there were widespread protests after a member of the ruling Khalifa family seized some local coastline potentially threatening the local fishermen's livelihoods. The reportedly peaceful protests were met with truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

And then there is the extremely troubling evidence of the Bahrain international players who never again played for their country. The six players to suffer this fate reportedly included the Jubail brothers, A'ala and Mohammed, who at 31 and 29 respectively, were hardly too old to keep being key members of the national team. This article in the Kyiv Post is well worth reading, in my opinion, along with this from The National based in the United Arab Emirates..

To make matters worse for Bahrain, after falling at the last hurdle to Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 World Cup Qualifying and New Zealand in 2010 World Cup Qualifying, their performances under Peter Taylor in 2014 World Cup Qualifying were worse than expected, no doubt partly because of the loss of key players for unexplained reasons and partly because, as explained in this Al Jazeera article:

I'm surprised the poor state of Bahrain's national team and domestic league under Shaikh Salman's regime hasn't been raised before by any of the numerous Shaik Salman critics out there.

So to summarise, we first had allegations that Shaikh Salman was involved in illegal arrest, detainment and torture of Bahraini footballers as the leader of a committee that identified athletes involved in the Pearl Revolution protests.

This was followed by Salamn asking for proof that he was involved.

When further pressed he called the allegations nasty lies, yet when interviewed, Bahraini Cabinet Affairs Minister, Kamal Ahmad, made no attempt to refute the allegations of torture and seemed to confirm them.

Salman also seemed to go out of his way to mock the idea that an identification Committee would be set up with him in charge.

However the Bahrain Official News Agency's own website then provided evidence that such a committee was at least planned and Salman was the intended leader.

At this point, Salman admitted that the Committee did exist but said it never met, not because it would be outrageous and unethical to have such a committee, but because it would be illegal.

There are further reports in various newspapers that the committee did actually meet.

We know two teams were relegated from Bahrain's top division for reasons other than their performance on the field, but because of a lack of transparency, we don't know what the reasons are or whether the punishment was imposed by the Bahrain Football Association or the Khalifa Government, which would clearly constitute illegal government interference in football affairs.

We know that there are plenty of websites that contain articles in which some of the players say they were arrested, detained and tortured.

We know that a number of players who had previously appeared for the national team suddenly stopped being selected.

We know that Salman seemingly did nothing to protect these players.

We know that soon after this Bahrain's national football team started performing less well than it had in the preceding years.

And still Shaikh Salman sticks to his version of the events. And still as far as I can ascertain, he has not yet condemned what happened to athletes in Bahrain's jails in 2011.

I'm not telling you what to think about Shaikh Salman and whether or not he, as a member of a family that has for the past 233 years ruled Bahrain, a country with numerous alleged human rights violations made by multiple different human rights watch groups, would be a suitable candidate to be FIFA President.

But I've made my mind up.