Sunday, December 11, 2005

winning, losing, and drawing of lots

[The draw for the 2006 World Cup finals was made last Friday. To mark the occassion, this Sunday's sports post is a re-hash from my now defunct blog "Just As Well It's Only A Game", and it's all about the one way no sportsperson wants to lose]

rule xviii article 31 subsection 5 (g) – be afraid, be very afraid

Anyone who remembers the incredible run of Jack Charlton’s brave Irish team in the World Cup in Italy in 1990 can probably tell you exactly where they were for two incidents in particular; Packie Bonner’s save and David O’Leary’s winner in the penalty shoot-out against Romania in Genoa, which combined to seal an historical quarter-final berth for The Boys In Green.

I wonder how many remember the events of four nights earlier;
June 21, 1990. In Palermo, Niall Quinn’s equaliser earned us the point against the Dutch we needed to come out of our extremely difficult first round group which included England, Holland and Egypt. When the full time whistle blew, people all over the country were jumping for joy. I doubt many were aware that there was one formality still to be decided.

The format for the 1990 finals was such that three teams could qualify from some of the four-team groups for the knock-out phase of the tournament. In our group, however, we had finished with absolutely identical records to The Netherlands, and for the purpose of the competition, the organizers needed a method to decide who finished second and who finished third in the group. The distinction was significant, as one team would go on to play Romania and the other had to face the mighty Germans.

The beaurocrats at FIFA in their infinite wisdom could only come up with one method to separate the teams, the “drawing of lots”. As we all know, the luck of the Irish meant we avoided facing the team that was to go on to win the Cup. Still, the party would have continued well into the night regardless of how the draw turned out, for just being through to the second round was cause for celebration in itself.

Next summer, the finals will be, ironically, in Germany. Qualifying from a first-round group as a third-placed team is long gone, and in the past 15 years, there have been many more positive rule changes in football, with the back-pass outlawed, the goalkeeper steps rule changed; even the ambiguous “injury time” issue has been sensibly dealt with.

However, in World Cup 2006, should two or more teams finish absolutely level in the first phase, the drawing of lots remains the final option for determining who advances into the knockout rounds and who goes home.

Let’s be clear on this; this is the World’s biggest single sporting competition, and the preliminary phase comprises teams representing more countries than are in the United Nations. It is distinctly possible that having qualified for the finals, travelled to Germany and played three tough first round games, a team could be sent packing by someone reaching into a pot.

So, what would I do? I would replace the drawing of lots law with one awarding the higher ranking to the team placed higher in the
FIFA World rankings come the start of the World Cup Finals competition. Ok, so it’s not perfect; ok, so it uses a mathematical equation that makes advanced algebra look like adding 2 and 2, but at least the numbers are derived from the teams in question actually playing football, rather than having them both placed in the hands of fate.

Remember, I am recommending the ranking be taken into account only after looking at the old reliable tie breakers such as goal difference, goals scored, and the result between the deadlocked teams.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to have a one-game play-off, but even if they were to provide an extra date for this, what would they do if there were 3 or 4 teams involved?

If you think my concerns are trivial, consider this; cast your mind back to Italia 90, USA 94 or Japan/Korea 2002, and ask yourself how you would feel if Ireland’s participation had been cut short simply by a lottery. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Yet the rule is still there. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.


Alan said...

I have to say I would be pretty unhappy about that solution. I suppose being a Scot, and us being frequently well down the rankings, I would say that. But surely, on the off-chance that Scotland ever qualify again, say we finished with an identical record to Brazil, that would mean that considering our relative positions in the rankings, we had done marvellously better than expected and they had done disastrously worse. Thus it would be highly unfair for us to be ejected on those terms. I'd far rather take a chance on the lottery.

JL Pagano said...

Of course you would prefer that, Alan, being from Scotland, but would that be a fair resolution to a world football matter?

A perfect analogy for your argument is the quiz show "The Weakest Link". In that game, even though answering questions correctly will increase the eventual prize money, the person that appears to be the best at answering questions is invariably voted off. I feel the rules of football should be made by those concerned with what is better for the game at large and not those of individual nations.

Remember, Ireland indeed everyone would lose out to the Brazilians in the same way, but surely there must be some perk associated with No1 ranking in the world? If not then why bother having the rankings at all?

My contention is that when deciding who should advance in a tournament between two or more teams, the determining factor should be results on the pitch, and in your example, I think Brazil's five World Cup triumphs is a pretty strong and valid trump card.

Another point I am trying to make is that FIFA are being ostrich-like in having the rule on their statute books. I can guarantee you they are hoping they will never have to use it. There are powerful lobbies at work behind the scenes from the strongest nations and should that rule ever have to be applied in such a way that, say, Trinidad and Tobago advance at the expense of England, the repercussions may go right to the very top.

No way of seperating equal teams is fair in my book. Don't even start me on the penalty shoot-out, but at least that is a football-related method, and you are guaranteed to have the two competing teams in the same place to settle the score. Given the logistics of a World Cup tournament, at least my way everyone knows where they stand when the tournament begins.

I reckon we are headed for a "agree to disagree" impasse here, but I do of course appreciate the input.