6 December 2013
Saturday morning, 3am AET, Australia will discover its opponents for next year’s World Cup in Brazil. The draw will also decide venues at which Australia will play, which could prove problematic for all those “We’re off to Rio” and “Road to Rio” slogans from media, fans and even players. Rio is just one of many cities that will host matches throughout this huge country, and most likely is a city that Australia will never visit.
Pot 1: Brazil+, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland
Pot 2: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, 1 from Pot 4*
Pot 3: Japan, Iran, Korea Republic, Australia, United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras
Pot 4: Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia, France
* In a pre-draw, a team from Pot 4 will be placed in Pot 2. Upon being drawn in the main draw, this team will be placed in one of the groups of a South American team from Pot 1 – either Brazil, Argentina, Colombia or Uruguay.
+ Brazil will automatically be placed in Group A as Team 1
To no surprise, in their infinitely insane and warped wisdom, FIFA have cocked up the whole notion of a draw. First, the seeds, whereby FIFA are using their heavily flawed and useless rankings system. Forget that Australia is ranked the lowest team in the tournament at 59, just like the Socceroo Realm consistently ignores referring to FIFA rankings as some sort of meaningful analysis of Australia’s status. Look at the fact that the sixth best South American team after the qualifying phase – Uruguay – is one of the top 8 seeds. Sixth best gets you top eight. While Colombia at least finished second behind Argentina, the fact that Belgium and Switzerland reached the top 8 after merely winning their qualifying group against fellow middling European teams, is astonishing. Belgium hadn’t even qualified since 2002, so unlike Uruguay that finished third in 2010, Belgium never had a points legacy. It’s been built by beating Croatia, Serbia, Scotland and Wales. While Switzerland qualified ahead Iceland, Slovenia and Norway. What? No Italy, Germany or Netherlands to surmount on your glorious, high-ranking qualifying run?
The second flaw is the potty pot system itself that’s perpetually used. While it’s fine to separate teams based on geography, it’s not fine to avoid opponents based on geography. Grouping Asia with CONCACAF in one pot means no team from these region can play each – ie: Australia cannot be drawn against Mexico, USA, Costa Rica or Honduras. Ridiculous. A real draw would be just all teams in one pot, then pick them out one by one, filling each group as the rules allow. Say Brazil is in Group A and Spain is drawn next, they go straight in with Brazil. If Chile comes next, they can’t go with Brazil so are put into Group B. If USA comes next, they go to Group A. If it’s Mexico next, they go to Group B because they can’t be with regional rivals, Mexico. If Australia is next, into Group A. If an Asian team were already in Groups A and B, then Australia goes to Group C. This is the simplest, most effective and fairest method. All teams get a realistic chance of playing any other team from another region. See the Hypothetical Draw below for more of an idea.
Mostly, I want Australia to play new teams – teams we’ve not played recently, and especially not at a World Cup – or rivalries.
Pot 1: Avoid Brazil, Germany, Argentina; Prefer Spain, Belgium, Uruguay or Switzerland
Pot 2: Australia are in this group, so a preferred option of USA won’t happen.
Pot 3: Avoid Ghana, Chile and France; Prefer Algeria, Cameroon or Ecuador
Pot 4: Avoid Netherlands, Italy and Croatia; Prefer England, Greece, Bosnia or Russia
Obviously some of these preferences will depend on teams already selected as Australia won’t play two teams from the same region unless it’s Europe. For instant, if Australia draw Uruguay from Pot 1, they won’t play any South Americans from Pot 2. Likewise if Spain is drawn from Pot 1, the European team from Pot 2 won’t be an option.
Most Preferred Draw: Uruguay, Cameroon, Greece
With our World Cup qualifying playoffs against them in 2001 and 2005, Uruguay is an obvious pick. Of course, they are beatable. They are not a top 8 nation. While Jordan capitulated in the first leg of the playoff this time, Uruguay were held 0-0 at home. Cameroon are the most interesting and erratic of the African teams. Greece is almost a “local derby”. It’s a natural rivalry, the match would be highly interesting, and competitive.
Least Preferred Draw: Germany, Ghana, Croatia
Germany smashed us in 2010 and simply would be too clinical, not to mention boring to revisit. Ghana, again, played in 2010 to a draw. With Serbia in 2010 and Croatia in 2006, and even despite Australia’s good record against these teams, been there, done that, with these Southern Slavic teams.
Toughest Draw: Brazil, Netherlands, Italy
Brazil would be interesting if it was Australia’s first match as it would be some occasion to play the opening match of the World Cup. Only in that situation would it be appealing. Italy wavers between a rival and a boring team. That 2006 match in Germany was more an anomaly than two even teams fighting it out. Worst, they’d be a tough team. Because you have top European teams like Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and France in Pot 4, any of which could end up in Pot 2, it creates a dangerous situation for a famed “group of death”, so there’s several options of tough Europeans in a draw to avoid.
Rivalry Draw: Uruguay, England, Italy
Remember, the World Cup doesn’t end with the Group stage. If Australia reaches the second round, they could face England. While many fans want to draw England in the group, I’d prefer them in the knockout stage so to knock them out.
Hypothetical Single Pot Draw
This is based on the one pot draw as described at the top of the article. Except for the host, each team is randomly assigned these numbers as their draw position…
17 Algeria, 09 Argentina, 03 Australia, 21 Belgium, 05 Bosnia-Herzegovina, 23 Cameroon, 26 Chile, 30 Colombia, 20 Costa Rica, 11 Croatia, 08 Ecuador, 10 England, 14 France, 06 Germany, 24 Ghana, 25 Greece, 15 Honduras, 28 Iran, 13 Italy, 29 Ivory Coast, 27 Japan, 19 Korea, 01 Mexico, 18 Netherlands, 07 Nigeria, 16 Portugal, 31 Russia, 02 Spain, 04 Switzerland, 12 Uruguay, 22 USA, 00 Brazil
In other words, Algeria would be drawn 17th out of the pot, Australia third. The groups are then filled in accordance with FIFA’s rule of no more than one team from each region in a group, except for Europe which can have a maximum of two teams. Brazil is automatically set to Group A as Team 1 as FIFA has dictated…
Group A: 00 Brazil, 01 Mexico, 02 Spain, 03 Australia
Group B: 04 Switzerland, 05 Bosnia-Herzegovina, 07 Nigeria, 08 Ecuador
Group C: 06 Germany, 09 Argentina, 10 England, 15 Honduras
Group D: 11 Croatia, 12 Uruguay, 13 Italy, 17 Algeria
Group E: 14 France, 16 Portugal, 19 Korea, 20 Costa Rica
Group F: 18 Netherlands, 21 Belgium, 22 USA, 23 Cameroon
Group G: 24 Ghana, 25 Greece, 26 Chile, 27 Japan
Group H: 28 Iran, 29 Ivory Coast, 30 Colombia, 31 Russia
Wow! Australia has it tough. They’d play Spain first, Mexico second (impossible under FIFA’s system) and Brazil last. Group C is a cracker, while Group F has a great opening match. You can see with Germany as drawn sixth was shuffled into a new pot as there were already two Europeans in Group B. Nigeria came out seventh so could fill Group B, as could Ecuador in eighth. It’s a very simple and fair draw. Just place the team in the first available pot.
Hypothetical Draw Using FIFA’s Pots
Group A: Brazil, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mexico, England
Group B: Spain, Nigeria, Australia, Croatia
Group C: Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, Italy
Group D: Germany, Algeria, Korea, France
Group E: Argentina, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Portugal
Group F: Uruguay, Ghana, USA, Netherlands
Group G: Belgium, Ivory Coast, Japan, Greece
Group H: Colombia, Chile, Iran, Russia
Note that Bosnia was the pre-drawn European team that would go into Pot 2 and there’s no draw on the group place. Pot 1 is slot 1, pot 2 is slot 2, etc. I much prefer the single pot draw. It produced a much more interesting and fluid draw. Australia has it tough, and I especially dislike playing Croatia again. Groups A and E seem the most interesting of a fairly dull outcome. Thankfully it’s all hypothetical, so far…
Hypothetical Single Pot Draw 2
This time the groups are filled horizontally, with the first 8 teams obviously filling first position in each group…
Group A: 00 Brazil, 10 England, 16 Portugal, 24 Ghana
Group B: 01 Mexico, 08 Ecuador, 17 Algeria, 25 Greece
Group C: 02 Spain, 09 Argentina, 18 Netherlands, 27 Japan
Group D: 03 Australia, 11 Croatia, 20 Costa Rica, 26 Chile
Group E: 04 Switzerland, 12 Uruguay, 19 Korea, 29 Ivory Coast
Group F: 05 Bosnia-Herzegovina, 13 Italy, 22 USA, 28 Iran
Group G: 06 Germany, 14 France, 23 Cameroon, 30 Colombia
Group H: 07 Nigeria, 15 Honduras, 21 Belgium, 31 Russia
Wow! Look at Group A. Opening match Brazil vs England. Then there’s Portugal and Ghana as the other teams. For a true lethal, you can’t go past Group C. Group G is tough, while Australia’s group proves quite placid and would present great optimism to reach the second round.
Mostly these single pot draws show that simplicity and a true democratic draw works best. FIFA trying to fix seeds and segregate teams is foolish. If the issue is that you can’t have the bevy of former players on the stage helping with the draw, that could be fixed by teams randomly split into separate pots for each player to be used and they take it in turns drawing a ball from their pot.
With the exception of Brazil as Team 1 in Group A, the draw also decides position in the group. Most likely Australia will face one super tough team, and many theories abound about best time to play them. Mark Milligan, earlier in the week, suggested it’s best to play them first: “Many times the big teams do not get into the swing of things so early in the tournament. They usually build into a tournament so playing them in the first match might give us an advantage and the best opportunity to get a result. People might say that facing Germany in the first game of South Africa 2010 did not quite help us (losing 4-0). The way I look at it is that the Australian team learned a lot from that bad defeat and went on to have two very strong games against Ghana and Serbia on the back of that game.”
Playing the top team first up, you might catch them by surprise. More likely they are primed, then you’re in the mindset of needing to win the final two matches (even if not in actual position as mathematically a team can progress with as low as 2 points), plus there’s the sapping of confidence. Australia just didn’t recover in 2010. If you win or draw, you could also become complacent. How often has Australia excelled against a top team only to bomb out against a lower side in the next match? Too often.
Playing them second up, if you’ve won your first game, you go in confident while still guarded because it is the top team. You also have the comfort of the third game in case the result doesn’t go well. If you’ve lost the first game, you go into the second game really alert, and with Australia’s famed fighting spirit, it’s perfect chance to snatch an unlikely win.
Meeting the top team third up they could be qualified, or they could be desperate. Of course, you could already be qualified yourself, then the match matters even less. If not, as in the case of second-up after a loss, Australia’s fighting spirit comes to the fore, and you also have nothing to lose. If the top team needs to win, the pressure is actually all on them.
Personally I favour the second match to face the top team, with third-up the next preference. There’s less psychological involvement with second-up, and historically it seems to just have the edge. In 2006, the scenario of second-up played out perfectly. Won against Japan, lost to Brazil without losing confidence, primed for the qualification passed Croatia. In Confederations Cups and Youth World Cups, when Australia excelled against the top teams, it’s been second or third match.
Even if Australia draws a top team first, there’s no reason to be anxious about it. No one can predict the mindset of teams, whether or not they’ve already qualified for the next phase, or know the mindset of Australia. There’s scenarios justifying any position to play the top team. If the team is coached well, especially psychologically, it just doesn’t matter at which stage points are accrued. As long as they are accrued, that’s all that matters.