Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What Gianni Infantino inadvertently admitted during his World Cup Finals expansion press conference

I listened keenly to Gianni Infantino's post-FIFA Congress press conference where he answered questions about the expansion of the World Cup Finals to 48 teams from 2026, because I was waiting for some sort of acknowledgement that the FIFA Congress members weren't given proper in-depth analysis of the ramifications of each of the proposed formats prior to the vote being taken.

My suspicions were only increased when I saw the leaked image below, apparently from FIFA, regarding key findings in the sphere of 'Sporting Balance' (whatever that means).

My attention was immediately drawn to the very last word in the graphic. While penalty shoot-outs may help reduce the number of situations where teams can manufacture mutually beneficial results in the last round of group games, they are not a solution for the problem of rest days. Assuming a proper in-depth analysis was indeed carried out, apparently FIFA has some other solutions in mind to deal with these issues. Yet the only hint of these solutions is the word "etc." which certainly gives no clue as to what these solutions might be.

If the analysis was done, and solutions to these problems do actually exist, then those solutions should be spelt out in the analysis. The fact that they aren't leads me to believe that FIFA has no solutions for these problems and that they attempted to gloss over this fact by using "etc." to falsely suggest that they have looked at the issues and they have solutions that are so obvious they needn't be detailed.

And so to Infantino's triumphant press conference.

At 17:11 of the video, in response to a question from 'Sports News Germany', Infantino stated, "An in-depth analysis has been made... We think we have come to a format which brings benefits without negatives."

He stated this, despite numerous negatives being raised by various commentators, myself included. Among them:

1. Because three-teams groups require teams having byes, there is huge scope for the teams playing the third group match to manipulate the result to ensure they both qualify at the expense of the team with the bye.

This point was neither raised, nor addressed, in the press conference.

2. There is a high likelihood that teams in some groups will have identical records and there is no obvious way to determine how to rank them.

This point was somewhat raised by Martin Ziegler of The Times (14:09) with regard to the suggestion of penalty shoot-outs being used to determine the winners of drawn group games, although the quite real possibility of all three teams winning one game 1-0 or winning one penalty shoot-out each after all three matches end in draws wasn't mentioned

Infantino's response was less than convincing. He noted that it is better to have the rankings decided by action on the pitch (which I agree with), but that doesn't help solve the two scenarios I raised above.

He then talked about the possibility of using pre-tournament rankings as tie-breakers. Surely this would favour the bigger countries and hinder the smaller countries? It seems unfair that an under-performing higher-ranked team xould progress past the group stage at the expense of a lower-ranked team over-performing team..

It also means FIFA would need to have complete trust in the FIFA Rankings, a system I have frequently criticised as being invalid and borderline racist.

3. The first twenty days will require four matches per day to be played consecutively. That is a lot of football, perhaps too much for even the biggest fan. In addition, this would require matches to be played throughout the day. A country like the United States has four major time zones (plus Hawaiian time) which would help alleviate this problem but it would still require matches in the middle of the country to kick-off in the heat of the American summer which would be extremely difficult on the players.

The first part of this question was asked by Martin Fernandez (35:44) and Gianni Infantino's response (36:34) was extremely concerning. He stated, "Four matches per day is something that already happens now for many days. It will just be a few days more."

That is at best misleading, and at worst an outright lie. Under the current format there is only ONE day when four matches are scheduled consecutively. For Russia 2018 that day is June 16th, with matches scheduled for 11:00 (C1-C2), 14:00 (D1-D2), 17:00 (C3-C4) and 20:00 (D3-D4).

There are four additional days when there are four matches scheduled (the last round of group matches) but on all four days, each group's matches are played concurrently rather than consecutively to avoid result manipulation, so there are only two kick-off times on these days, not four.

For Infantino to say with a straight face that twenty days is just a few more than one day (or even five) takes either unbelievable chutzpah or worrying ignorance of the current format.

An additional relevant point to note is that under the current format there are no more than two knock-out matches played on any day, whereas the 2026 format will require the Round of 32 matches to be played four per day. With the possibility of these matches going to extra time or penalties there will be even less time to spare between matches than at present.

4. There could be a possible negative affect on the Qualifying competitions, especially in CONMEBOL but also in other Confederations.

This point was raised by Jamir Chade (25:23) and Infantino's only response was that the qualifying competition format hasn't been and cannot be decided yet because the number of slots for each Confederation isn't yet known.

5. There is the possibility that the Spanish Federation will sue FIFA for the lack of consulatation and the potential negative affect on Spain's domestic club leagues.

Infantino's only response to this question (31:57) was a glib smile.

6. The potential negative outcome of countries spending two years attempting to qualify for the chance to play just two matches in the Finals.

This point was raised by a Saudi Arabian newspaper journalist whose name I didn't catch (Al-Harbi Khaled?) (33:05). Infantino's response was you should ask the sixteen additional teams whether they are happy to play two World Cup Finals matches rather than not compete.

However Infantino then seemingly attempted to suggest that having qualified, these supposedly weaker teams would have a reasonable chance of progressing to play a third game because "Football is the only sport in the world which is unpredictable and where anything can happen on the pitch." Clearly the man is unaware of Ireland's recent World Cup cricket exploits, although his point still stands that football is somewhat unpredictable.

7. Prior to the Round of 32, some teams will have had a full week of rest while others will have had only three days' rest (potentially including a day spent travelling). This seems unfair.

This extremely valid point, raised by 'Etienne from L'Equipe' caught Infantino unprepared. Without a ready, predetermined answer to fall back on, first Infantino responded, "If you have seven in 32, the rest days will figure out the same," which is obviously incorrect given that some teams would be starting their matches a full seven days after others, resulting in the possibility that they could play seven matches in 24 days. Then, perhaps unconvinced by his own argument, he started babbling about FIFA's "competition experts" and how they would ensure that everything fits in to place. 

If FIFA indeed has 'competition experts' you would think that they would have already taken care of such important details as equal rest time as part of their much hyped 'in-depth analysis'. But of course, the truth is, that no such analysis was included in the report FIFA circulated to the members of the FIFA Congress. Indeed, in a format where there are groups of three teams and one team has a bye in each round, no solution is possible. The reason is, as President Infantino apparently knows all too well, “This is simply the laws of mathematics which as you know are not an opinion but are facts," a seemingly rehearsed answer he himself gave to a question about which regions would benefit from increased development (13:55).

It was at this point that Infantino inadvertently admitted that my suspicions that he was being economical with the truth and that the entire process was a sham were confirmed; either FIFA did not undertake the in-depth analysis that Infantino claimed, or worse, that 'analysis' deliberately ignored any factors that reflected negatively on Infantino's preferred option for expansion. I don't know for sure, but I strongly suspect the latter was the case.

FIFA wouldn't be the first organisation to carry out one-sided analysis that only looked for evidence that supported a desired outcome while ignoring all contradictory evidence. The George W. Bush administration set up an entire department (the Office of Special Plans) that was apparently designed solely to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the considerable evidence to the contrary,

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that expanding the World Cup is anywhere near as bad as sending thousands of people off to be killed and/or injured or to kill even more thousands of innocent civilians in a desert on the back of dishonest intelligence; just that the method employed to reach a predetermined conclusion was the same.

Indeed, I actually have no problem with increasing the number of teams and players that get to experience international competition. There are ways to do it reasonably, whether by using some variation of MatchVision's pot format, or adding a second tier 32-team World Trophy, or of course by offering women the same opportunities as men.

The important thing is that expansion should not result in a format that is unfair or provide potential for result manipulation or matchfixing. And while I find the chosen format annoying, it is nowhere near as annoying to me as the charade that FIFA underwent to ensure it was selected.

So there we have it. Dishonest analysis, spin, outright lies, glossing over important details that don't fit the narrative, a complete lack of transparency, and an executive President who gets what he wants 'unanimously'. 

'Twas ever thus at FIFA.

Monday, January 9, 2017

In Desperation, I sent this to a FIFA Council Member prior to the 2026 World Cup Expansion Meeting

Here are some of the points I included in an e-mail I sent to a FIFA Council member this morning. I have omitted parts of the e-mail that would identify who that member is.


I am contacting you to today because having seen some of the leaked documents for tomorrow’s FIFA Council meeting, I have serious concerns about the upcoming decision that the FIFA Council will be taking as to which format should be used for the 2026 World Cup Finals. I am increasingly being given the impression that proper due diligence has not been performed on the costs and benefits of each of the five proposals being considered and that one proposal is having its strengths exaggerated while its weaknesses are glossed over.

I am concerned not only that FIFA risks destroying its flagship product, but also that such a major decision would be undertaken without the members of the FIFA Council (i.e. the voters) being provided with proper analysis.

It has been reported (http://www.espnfc.com/fifa-world-cup/story/2972078/fifa-to-study-expanding-2026-world-cup-to-40-or-48-teams) that Gianni “Infantino confirmed on Friday that a bigger World Cup would be for sporting reasons, ‘not a financial or political decision.’"

In a brief interview (viewable at http://www.onenewspage.com/video/20161208/6214494/FIFA-Infantino-defends-his-48-team-World.htm), President Infantino also stated the following regarding all of the proposed formats that will be considered by the FIFA Council in January:

“What I can say already now and just to be very clear, is that all these formats can be played in the same number of days as currently (32 days), with the same number of stadiums than (sic) currently (12 stadiums), and that the team qualifying, or the two teams qualifying for the Final of the tournament, will play seven games.

This means that there is no additional burden for the players because if you play the Final you play seven games in 32 days, as exactly as it is the case now, so there is no downside for the players, there is no downside for the clubs because the calendar is not impacted but there is a big upside for football because it allows eight or sixteen more teams and more countries and more regions in the world to participate in the top competition of the world which is the World Cup.”

The five proposals are:

1.      Retain the existing 32 team format
2.      Increase the number of teams to 40, with the group stage played in eight groups of five
3.      Increase the number of teams to 40, with the group stage played in ten groups of four
4.      Increase the number of teams to 48, with a preliminary round played first to reduce the number of teams to 32 and then follow the existing format
5.      Increase the number of teams to 48, with the group stage played in sixteen groups of three

While I understand the desire for more countries to attend the tournament and what that would potentially mean in terms of revenue and increasing fan interest, I do not believe that this should be done at the expense of the integrity of the tournament.

Certainly it appears that three of the four plans for expansion are non-starters, because they would result in only one team qualifying from some or all of the groups.

The proposals I refer to are, of course, #2, #3 and #4.

#2: 40 Teams (8 groups of 5 teams)

If there are eight groups of five teams, then each team would play four group games. This would mean they can only play three more matches each.

This logically means that only eight teams can make the knock-out stage.

Therefore only the eight group winners would progress beyond the group stage and the remaining 32 teams would be eliminated.

I find it hard to believe that this format is actually being considered.

#3: 40 Teams (10 groups of 4 teams)

If there are ten groups of four teams, then each team would play three group games. This means they can play up to four more matches each.

This logically means that sixteen teams can make the knock-out stage.

Therefore, the ten group winners and six best runners-up would progress, meaning four groups would see only one out of their four teams progress. 24 teams would be eliminated.

I also find it hard to believe that this format is actually being considered.

#4: 48 teams with Preliminary knock-out round, then 8 groups of 4 teams

If 32 teams play a preliminary match, then sixteen will be eliminated after just one match, which is not much of a ‘tournament’ for those teams.

It is quite likely too that there would be a regional imbalance in the number of teams making the last 32.

At the end of the group stage, with half of the teams having played one preliminary match plus three group matches for a total of four matches, we have the same situation as in #2.  The teams can only play a maximum of three more games each.

This logically means that only eight teams can make the knock-out stage.

Therefore only the eight group winners would progress beyond the group stage and the remaining 24 teams would be eliminated.

This format also seems completely unacceptable.

The fact that #2 was the proposal that President Infantino widely promoted prior to the election, with #3 and #4 having been alternatives he suggested later, makes me question whether he did any due diligence at all on his own proposals.

A more sinister interpretation would be that President Infantino knows only too well that none of these proposals can possibly be acceptable and is just presenting them to introduce false alternatives where none really exist.

#5: 48 teams (16 groups of 3 teams)

That leaves just #5 as a possible useable format. But there are also huge negatives with this proposal, including the following:

1. Result Manipulation

Groups containing three teams necessarily have byes, meaning the two teams that play on the last day are at an advantage because they know what result they need to progress. The whole reason FIFA instigated the system where all teams in a group play their third group match simultaneously in 1986 was to prevent a repeat of what happened in 1982 when West Germany defeated Austria 1-0, a result that saw both teams progress at the expense of Algeria.

Consider some of the possible scenarios that could result:

Scenario 1
England 1 Australia 0
Argentina 2 England 0
Both Australia and Argentina will progress at England's expense if Australia win the third game by one goal

Scenario 2
Switzerland 0 Honduras 0
Ecuador 1 Switzerland 0
Both Ecuador and Honduras will progress at Switzerland's expense if the third game is a draw.

Scenario 3
Italy 1 Nigeria 1
Italy 0 Colombia 0
Both Nigeria and Colombia will progress at Italy's expense if the third game ends 2-2.

Scenario 4
New Zealand 0 Paraguay 0
Germany 3 Paraguay 0
Both Germany and New Zealand will progress if Germany win the third game by one or two goals.

2. Possibility of all three teams in a group finishing with identical records.

There is an increased chance of teams finishing with identical records in a group and no obvious tie-breaking mechanism being available.

Consider these scenarios:

Scenario 5
Iran 1 Iceland 0
Iceland 1 Cameroon 0
Cameroon 1 Iran 0

All three teams have one win and one loss, with identical goals for and against.

Scenario 6
Brazil 1 Poland 1
Poland 1 USA 1
USA 1 Brazil 1

All three teams have two draws, with identical goals for and against.

Scenario 7
Belgium 2 Peru 0
Belgium 2 Morocco 0
Peru 1 Morocco 1

Belgium have won the group with two wins, but there is no way to separate Peru and Morocco.

There has been talk of removing the possibility of draws by having penalty shoot-outs for matches that finish level. This would be a radical change to football and would see FIFA  introducing something for the World Cup that isn't used anywhere else.

And even this radical change wouldn't help with all of the scenarios above.

It is also possible to imagine the following:

Scenario 8
Mali 0 Israel 0 (Mali wins on penalties)
South Korea 0 Mali 0 (South Korea wins on penalties)
Israel 0 South Korea 0 (Israel wins on penalties)

3. Unequal Rest Periods prior to the knock-out matches

In each group, one team will have a bye in the third round of group matches, while the other two teams meet each other.

Two out of the three teams will progress to the next round. Therefore, there is a 67% chance on average that a team that has a third-round bye will progress to the Last 32.

When this happens, there is a good chance that team will meet a team that played in the third round of group games.

This would mean that one team has a full week to prepare for the Last 32 match, while the other team has only three days, including possibly travelling. This seems inherently unfair.