Next Tuesday the Republic of Ireland will be drawn against Switzerland, Italy, Croatia or Denmark in the UEFA play-off for the 2018 World Cup.
The reason why the Republic have to play one of these four teams is of course because the draw is seeded. This became a controversial issue when FIFA announced, in September 2009, that the play-offs would be determined by a countries ranking and would not be an open draw. In particular, debate arose as FIFA had claimed that an open draw would be used – the rules were being manipulated during a competition. Given the timing of the decision, FIFA had a reasonably good idea which teams would be entering the playoffs …
The worry for the Republic is that seeding the playoffs usually gives those higher ranked teams (who are usually pot 1 or pot 2 teams at the start) a second bite of the cherry. Consider the past three play-off stages.
- In the 2014 playoffs, three out of four seeded play-off teams progressed (Portugal, Greece & Croatia)
- In the 2010 playoffs, three out of four seeded play-off teams progressed (Portugal, France & Greece)
- In the 2006 playoffs, two out of three seeded play-off teams progressed (Czech Republic & Spain)
Over the past three World Cup UEFA play-offs, usually only one pot 2 or ‘unseeded’ play-off team makes the finals.
Back in 1998 Ireland were beneficiaries of the seeding play-off system. Alas, we were the one seeded team not to make it from the four. The unseeded Belgium beat the Republic 3-2 on aggregate.
Regardless of our ranking, seeding the playoffs seems unfair. After all, these eight teams have already all finished second in their qualifying groups – is that not enough to show they are comparable? On the face of it, it appears another attempt by organising bodies to engineer outcomes. Chance could throw up a Croatia vs. Italy playoff next week if there was no seeding…
There are ways to redesign the playoffs to make things fairer while keeping the seeding system. Firstly, two-legged playoffs (that typically favour stronger nations) could be replaced. Why not have a one-legged play-off in a neutral location.
Secondly, efforts could be made to separate the play-offs as a new phase of the competition. Importantly, one which is global. In the 2002 World Cup Ireland faced Iran (from the AFC confederation) in the play-offs. Integrating UEFA teams with ACF, OFC, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL at the play-offs stage could throw up some interesting matches between nations that have never met competitively before. This approach would surely be consistent with FIFA values and could sustain play-off seeding but give UEFA nations an opportunity to overcome the increasingly difficult task of qualifying for World Cups. Approximately 40% of teams qualified from Europe from 1982 to 1990. This has fallen since then. Now under a quarter of the UEFA entrants reach the finals.