The World Cup play-offs are almost settled, and thank Christ England aren’t involved. But if we were, I’d be very relieved that FIFA have apparently decided that the play-offs will be seeded according to the teams’ world rankings, which would prevent us playing France, Russia or Portugal. (Although we could potentially have wound up playing Sweden, which in many ways would have been worse.) But deep down I’d have known the whole idea of seeding these play-offs is unfair. Actually, it wouldn’t even be deep down, I’d just be openly hypocritical about it.
The Republic of Ireland, who have sealed a play-off spot, are quite rightly annoyed about it, not only because they’d been given to believe that the draw would have been random, but also because this system transparently favours teams who should have topped their groups but fucked it up, and makes life harder for teams who’ve punched above their weight. There’s already been one seeding process to help ensure the biggest teams don’t knock each other out, and it should have been ample opportunity for them to get through. If France – who, ten years ago, were the best in the world – can’t top their group ahead of Serbia, why do they deserve any help now?
What’s key here is that France and Portugal are both unexpectedly in the mix, and FIFA is nervous that these two, who played each other in the semi-final of the last World Cup, will end up playing each other for the right to even participate in the next World Cup. Most worryingly, it could result in the world’s most expensive player not being involved. But fuck him. World Cups aren’t about that. How often do we see the most-hyped players have poor tournaments whilst others come from nowhere to play a blinder? The World Cup has survived without the world’s biggest players before – look at 1962, when Corinthians broke Pele with endless exhibition games, resulting in him limping out of the tournament when it had barely begun.
There’s a sense that the World Cup is somehow under threat; that international football has lost its lustre; that the Champions League is now considered a bigger draw; that the loss of a big-name player or two (hello, Lionel Messi) is genuinely damaging to the prestige of the tournament. But really, this is just something for the media to chatter about beforehand. Nobody gives a shit when the tournament gets going. The World Cup is bigger than any one player.
But I admit, there is something a bit daunting about a random draw. A team which missed out on the top spot by a hair’s breadth could get a tough draw, whilst one which stumbled into the play-offs might get an easy one. So this is my modest proposal: all nine second-placed teams will be ranked against each other, because the one with the worst record will be eliminated. So why not use this ranking – one based on how well they did in these qualifiers, not on how well they did in the last World Cup – to determine the draw? The top-ranked team plays the eighth-ranked team, second plays seventh and so on. It wouldn’t actually help Ireland that much, but it’d be better than the current system, which is tantamount to FIFA saying they’d really rather have France in the tournament instead.