Thursday, September 10, 2009

Statistical Break

An Argentinian friend remarked to me a couple of months ago that European qualification for the World Cup is pretty damn easy. He didn't say this out of sour grapes at his country's current dismal run in qualifiers, which sees them at risk of missing the finals for the first time since 1950*. The albiceleste's absence from that tournament in Brazil was the doing of Juan Perón, who was afraid of the prospect of a failure troubling his populist regime's handling of football as a propaganda tool. And I can't say he's wrong. The strongest teams in the world might be largely concentrated in Europe but there are a fair few duffers in there. The South American qualifiers, which pitches every one against one another home and away in an 18-match league that lasts almost two years, are a stiffer challenge. Though South American teams are not always too hot when they compete in the World Cup finals, they do provide good competition among themselves with the gaps in class between some elided by hostile crowds and games at altitude (as Argentina's successive defeats in La Paz and Quito earlier this year show).

In Europe this time around, the lack of competition in most groups has been palpable. Three teams, Spain, the Netherlands and England have already qualified, with 100% records after eight games (no prizes for guessing which of those three will be reading far too much into those wins against mostly flimsy opposition). Even a modest but well-drilled side like Slovakia tops its group with six wins out of eight. Other teams such as Ireland are likely to reach the play-offs having played at most one or two games of decent football in qualifying so far.

Those play-offs will feature only eight of the nine second-place teams and results against the bottom-place team in the six-team groups are discounted in ranking them, to bring them in line with group 9, which has only five. At the moment the rankings are:

  1. Russia Played 7 Points 18
  2. France Played 7 Points 12
  3. Greece Played 6 Points 11
  4. Slovenia Played 7 Points 11
  5. Croatia Played 7 Points 11
  6. Bosnia-Herzegovina Played 6 Points 10
  7. Norway Played 8 Played Points 10
  8. Ireland Played 6 Points 10
  9. Sweden Played 6 Points 9
That line-up is likely to change with Russia possibly qualifying automatically if they beat Germany in Moscow next month (meaning the Germans will take their place at the top of these rankings) and Sweden will have their work cut out to finish ahead of a Portugal side that has two very winnable home games remaining. Meanwhile the Czech Republic could edge out Slovenia. Ireland, should they win one of their remaining two home games are probably there too. Norway, who have no games left, are likely to be the odd one out.

According to L'Équipe today, FIFA will decide at its next meeting on the 29th of September in Rio if it will use the same seeding system based on FIFA rankings it used in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

A look at the rankings for those teams in the running for the play-offs:

4. Germany
6. Russia
9. Croatia
10. France
12. Greece
17. Portugal
18. Czech Republic
25. Ukraine
27. Turkey
38. Ireland
41. Sweden
45. Slovakia
46. Bosnia-Herzegovina
54. Slovenia
58. Latvia

That makes sobering reading for Irish football fans, as most permutations will put us in the bottom four of the play-off teams (only a combination of heroics from Sweden, Slovenia and Latvia will edge us into the top four). So we are left with the possibility of games against Germany or Russia, or the resurgent France and Portugal, or Croatia or Greece, whom we would be a great deal more the measure of. Who said those FIFA rankings are good for nothing?


How incorrect of me. They last failed to reach the finals in 1970, when South America was represented by Brazil, Peru and Uruguay. Argentina's failure to qualify back then was as unexpected as it would be today, as Argentine clubs had a total dominance of the Copa Libertadores at the time. They also declined to enter the 1954 World Cup.

Here's what happened last time we relied on an unlikely outcome elsewhere to help us on our way: