Here’s a rule of thumb: Whenever it looks like FIFA did something smart, you’ll always be able to find a reason why it’s dumb.
On Wednesday, world soccer’s governing body announced that the 32 teams that qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia will be seeded one through 32 and separated into the four pots from which the eight groups will be drawn. As the host, Russia automatically goes into Pot 1—despite coming it at no. 64 in the latest rankings—along with the top seven teams. Then nos. eight through 15 in Pot 2, and etc. The caveats: Only one team from each non-European confederation per group, and no more than two European nations. Also, per ESPN, “FIFA is also likely to prevent Russia and, should they qualify, Ukraine from being drawn together for political reasons.”
In the interests of fairness, this should be a positive development. While arguing over which group is, in fact, “the Group of Death” has become its own quadrennial tradition, the previous location-based pot system did little to help decide the best national team in the world. Last time around, it provided us with the joy of seeing England get knocked out in the group stages after difficult matches against Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, but this change won’t deprive us of the sweet summer pleasure of seeing the British media self-immolate. As we saw at last summer’s European championships, the Three Lions don’t need a highly ranked opponent in order to fail spectacularly: England’s early exit has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, the problem here is the problem with FIFA itself: Tweaks to the fringes don’t matter when the core is rotten. The FIFA rankings do a better job of seeding the quality of national teams than, say, a drunk guy with a blindfold and some darts or a random-number generator, but the formula, which essentially penalizes teams for playing friendly matches, no matter the opponent, is easily gamed—and a number of countries have done exactly that.
Before 2014 World Cup qualifying, Wales were ranked 113, one spot below the Faroe Islands. Today, they’re no. 13, and if they win the rest of their qualifiers, they’ll likely end up in Pot 1. Part of this comes down to performance: Gareth Bale is their Russell Westbrook, and he’s flanked by a lineup of competent-to-good European pros. They made the semifinals of Euro 2016 and are undefeated through eight games of 2018 qualifying. But after a June 4 friendly against the Netherlands in 2014, they went 17 months without playing a noncompetitive match. That goosed their FIFA ranking and earned them a spot in Pot 1 of Europe’s World Cup qualifying, ahead of traditional and current heavyweights France and Italy. And now they’re at it again: They haven’t played a friendly since June 5, 2016, and they’re a handful of wins away from leaping into the top seven despite a more-accurate rankings system like Elo ranking them at no. 24.
Something similar happened before the 2014 World Cup, when Switzerland earned a place in Pot 1 ahead of the Netherlands, England, and Italy essentially by barely playing any friendlies. Today, Italy is eight in Elo, meaning they should be just on the verge of Pot 1, but they’re only 17th in FIFA’s rankings and will now likely end up in Pot 3. They’ve played eight friendlies since the start of 2016.
Qualifying wraps up over the next few months, and the draw for the World Cup takes place December 1. Wales are currently in second place in their group. They still haven’t clinched qualification, so until then every game matters. Then again, that’s always been the case.