The controversy over December’s World Cup draw — in which France’s placement was hotly debated and United States fans were left bemoaning their fate — was symptomatic of the system’s fundamental flaws.
Fortunately, there is a more fair way to conduct the draw, one relying more on world rankings to ensure balanced groups.
This year, five continents are represented in the World Cup: Europe (13 teams), South America (6), Africa (5), North and Central America (Concacaf, 4) and Asia (4). When dividing the 32 qualified teams into eight groups of four, FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, is guided by two legitimate principles: balance and geographic separation.
Balance means that the eight groups must be roughly at the same competitive level. Geographic separation means that teams from the same continent cannot be drawn into the same group, with the exception of European teams — a maximum of two of them per group is allowed.
The moment when the United States men's soccer team learned its group at the World Cup draw ceremony on Dec. 6. The U.S. will face Germany, Portugal and Ghana, perhaps the toughest group.CreditClive Mason/Getty Images
The current system gives priority to the geographic criterion, at the expense of balance. First, the 32 teams are divided by four into what are called pots. This is the way the pots were initially announced in December, three days before the draw:
POT 1 (SEEDED TEAMS) Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay and Switzerland
POT 2 (AFRICA/SOUTH AMERICA) Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chile and Ecuador, unseeded European team to be determined.
POT 3 (NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA/ASIA) Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, United States, Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea
POT 4 (EUROPE) Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Russia. (One team to be sent to Pot 2 during the day of the draw.)
Each group of four includes one team randomly selected from each pot. A minimum level of balance is reached in the current system by placing the highest-ranked teams and the host country in Pot 1. These are the eight seeded teams. FIFA then builds Pots 2, 3, and 4 using geographic criteria that disregard rankings. This year, Pot 2 was made up of the African teams as well as Chile, Ecuador and one unseeded European team (Italy, eventually). Pot 3 was made of the teams from Concacaf and Asia. Pot 4 contained the eight remaining unseeded European teams.
This ensured that, by successively emptying the pots, geographic diversity was easily enforced.
But many fans justifiably complain that this system is unfair. The United States, for instance, despite being ranked 13th, was placed in Pot 3 with teams ranked 24th, 31st, 34th, 44th, 49th, 56th and 57th. This ensured that they would play against one seeded team (ranked 1-7, or Brazil, ranked 11th) and one European team from Pot 4 (ranked 8-21), and that they would be prevented from playing against weaker Asian teams (ranked 44 to 57).
And in fact, the United States wound up in what many consider the toughest group, with Germany (2), Portugal (14) and Ghana (23).
Chilean fans can also rightly claim to be aggrieved. Placed in Pot 2 with teams ranked 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 32nd, 33rd and 59th, Chile, ranked 12th, was automatically set to land in a tough group with two European teams, one seeded team (ranked 1-7) and one unseeded team (ranked 8-21).
As it turned out, Chile drew Spain (1) and the Netherlands (8), the two finalists of 2010.
The biggest controversy, which some called potgate, came before the draw, when FIFA decided that the European team in Pot 2 would be drawn there randomly. Previously, the lowest-ranked European team was sent there. In this case, that would have been France, which wound up escaping the tough draw that befell Italy.
Many officials, fans and journalists complained, pointing out that a Frenchman, the FIFA secretary-general Jérôme Valcke, suggested the change, and suspecting that another influential Frenchman, UEFA’s president, Michel Platini, helped approve it.
The next day, a headline in the Italian sports periodical Corriere dello Sport blared: “2014 World Cup draw: What a scandal!”
Yet it is possible to devise rules ensuring that a random draw builds fairly balanced and geographically diverse groups, using a small number of bowls and balls. Here is what I suggest:
All 32 qualified teams would be seeded, from 1 to 32, and eight pots of four teams each would be established. Pot 1 would contain the four highest-ranked teams (in this case Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina), with Pot 2 the following four (Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland), and so on.
To guarantee balance, Pot 1 teams would be drawn against teams from Pots 4, 5 and 8 (in Draw 1), while Pot 2 teams would play against teams from Pots 3, 6, and 7 (Draw 2).
Before drawing the teams from Pots 3–8, we would first draw their continents. For example, this year, Pot 4 would have contained three teams from Europe and one from Concacaf. Pot 5 would have three European teams and one from Africa. And Pot 8 would have three Asian teams and one African team. That leaves six possible continental distributions for Draw 1, adhering to the concept of geographical separation, one of them being:
■ Brazil, Europe, Europe, Asia
■ Spain, Europe, Africa, Asia
■ Germany, Concacaf, Europe, Africa
■ Argentina, Europe, Europe, Asia
For Draw 2, 24 continental distributions of Pots 3, 6 and 7 would have been acceptable given the constraints of geographic separation. On the day of the draw, we would first randomly select two admissible continental distributions, one for Draw 1 and one for Draw 2. This year, this could have been done by rolling two dice, a 6-sided one and a 24-sided one.
Then we would draw the teams. Pot 8 would be emptied sequentially, and when a team would be drawn, it would go to the first available position for its continent. In the above example, if Cameroon is picked first from Pot 8, it goes directly to the group containing Germany. Then if Iran is drawn second, it joins the group containing Brazil, and so on. We would repeat this for Pots 7 to 3.
Eventually, to ensure that the knockout stage bracket is well balanced, the seeded teams 4, 5 and 8 would be randomly allocated to Groups C, E, G, and the seeded teams 2, 3, 6 and 7 to Groups B, D, F, H (Group A being reserved for the host, seeded No. 1). Unlike the procedure followed by UEFA to build the groups of the Champions League, this system is completely fair: All the possible outcomes are equally likely.
A: Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, Iran
B: Belgium, Chile, Ghana, Japan
C: Argentina, Greece, Croatia, South Korea
D: Spain, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Australia
E: Switzerland, Netherlands, Ecuador, Honduras
F: Uruguay, England, Costa Rica, Nigeria
G: Colombia, Italy, Mexico, Algeria
H: Germany, United States, France, Cameroon
These are the actual groups:
A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
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H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
In comparing the two, the new groups are more balanced. Nigeria replaces Italy in the group that has England; the Dutch replace the French in Group E. Chile and the United States have a more fair chance to advance to the Round of 16. Oh, and no more possibility of a potgate controversy — England, Italy and Uruguay could not be drawn into the same group.
This new procedure is simple, produces well-balanced and geographically diverse groups and lends itself to an eagerly anticipated TV show. Most important, it is just. The world’s most popular sporting event deserves the utmost level of fairness, in line with its prestige and the excitement that it triggers throughout the world.