How FIFA’s Wacky Seedings Have Influenced the World Cup

The way the draw was seeded has been a blow to the tournament

The announcement of the top seeds ahead of last December’s World Cup draw was a shock. When Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, and Switzerland were placed among the world’s best eight teams, most fans and pundits thought something didn’t quite look right.

Kartik Krishnaiyer at pointed out some of the more blatant issues. “Colombia failed to qualify for the previous three World Cups and has last appeared in the knock-out stages of a World Cup in 1990,” wrote Krishnaiyer. “Belgium missed qualifying for the previous five major tournaments. Italy won the 2006 World Cup and reached the Euro 2012 final, while Holland reached the 2010 World Cup final and went undefeated in qualifying. Yet both Italy and the Netherlands will be unseeded.”

Experienced pros were also surprised. Before the draw, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann—a World Cup winner in 1990 with Germany—told that the pots looked strange. “When you have a Pot Number One, you expect countries in there that really proved it in World Cups,” Klinsmann said. “You will have a couple of ‘Groups of Death.‘ Then you will find maybe two or three groups that are much easier, at least on paper. It’s unbalanced now with that seeding procedure. It is what it is, but I’m not very happy with it.”

Until 2010, the seeds were chosen using a complex formula that took previous major tournament performance into account. But FIFA has changed its procedure, for unknown reasons. The eight seeds are now the top seven countries in the FIFA rankings at the time the draw is made, along with the hosts. (In this case Brazil, who were 11th last December so would have been unseeded had the tournament been held anywhere else).

FIFA’s complex ranking mechanism gives weighted points to all results in qualifiers and friendlies over the last four years, with a heavy emphasis on the most recent 12 months. This system is often ridiculed for being susceptible to wild fluctuations in short spaces of time. The BBC reported how the Netherlands and Italy unwittingly hurt their rankings in the run-up to December’s draw by playing friendlies against Indonesia and San Marino. Meanwhile, Switzerland rose due to a relatively weak qualifying group. Uruguay was also a seed despite needing a play-off against Jordan to make the finals.

Also, in somewhat of a contradiction, the FIFA rankings are ignored when sorting the other 24 teams. The other three pots are organized using the “principle of geographic separation,” with eight European teams in one pot. In 2014, this meant the second group of teams was (according to both FIFA rankings and past tournament performances) much stronger than pots three and four and lead, as Klinsmann had feared, to an unbalanced set of groups with some much stronger (on paper) than others.

With the group stages now completed, it looks on first glance as if the seedings have actually been fair. Colombia and Belgium easily won their groups with 100 percent records. Of the eight seeds, only defending champions Spain have been eliminated. Meanwhile, the non-seeded European teams had a disastrous time: France and Greece have progressed, but Italy, England, Portugal, Bosnia, Croatia, Russia, and Italy have all headed for home.

But there’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy about this. Colombia and Belgium won their groups because they were drawn in relatively easy ones. France and Greece’s chances increased when they were placed in groups headed by Switzerland and Colombia. England and Italy are going home after being drawn in a “Group of Death.” Spain’s surprise unravelling might not have happened so quickly if they had not played Holland (unseeded despite being 2010 finalists) first up. Getting the right draw has been a very important factor for progress.

Maybe if Switzerland, Colombia, or Belgium go much deeper into the tournament, the seeding system will have been proven correct (and this article will look pretty silly). It could be that the previous “historic” seeding actually held less-experienced teams back. But of the three “surprise” seeds, only Switzerland has faced a traditional big team thus far, France, who hammered them 5–2. So more probable is the four remaining big guns (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Holland) cruising to the semifinals. Las Vegas certainly seems to think so: They’re all odds-on to get to the final four.

This is because previous major tournament performance remains a better predictor of future tournament success than qualifying or friendlies. So the way the draw was seeded has been a blow to the competitive nature of this World Cup.