BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, December 1, 2009
This moment comes only once every four years. Soccer fans worldwide hold their collective breath and hope for the best.
It's not the kickoff of the World Cup – that's still months away. Even so, on Friday Sepp Blatter and his crew will go a long way towards deciding the fates of the 32 nations headed to South Africa next June, when they fire up their custom made version of a leaf blower and pluck a number of ping pong balls from four large urns unceremoniously labeled "pots."
For American fans, it's time to trade in the blind illusion that comes with having qualified for the big dance, for the more tangible reality of a list of three potentially menacing group opponents.
FIFA draws in general have seldom been too forgiving for the U.S., and the World Cup draw is no exception. American fans lament the bad luck of their nation in being drawn into groups like the one that faced them in Germany in 2006, against Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana. They curse their fortune when the notorious ping pong raffle leads to opening matchups with Portugal or Germany, leaving the prospect of an early hole before the tournament even kicks off.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the whole process is the lack of control over something that goes such a long way towards deciding the outcome at an event that is anxiously awaited for years. An easier draw - say Mexico's in 2006 - goes a long way towards securing soccer respectability worldwide for years to come. Plus, an accessible group obviously means the chance of a better overall result, which according to FIFA's current formula in turn makes the odds of an easy draw next time, and for years to come, more probable.
Even more consternating is the notion that the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into years of qualifying and squad building can all be virtually wiped out with the bounce of one of those ping pong balls.
But is that really the case?
Maybe not. An analysis of the mechanisms of the draw reveals that the U.S. likely to be once again drawn into a very difficult group in South Africa, so maybe fans should sit back with their nachos on Friday, and simply accept the fate that awaits them.
Much of the worry over the outcome draw, it turns out, comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how it works. Despite the appearance of randomness, FIFA's got this covered. The potential outcomes are much fewer than it would seem at first glance.
Of course the international governing body is interested in making these sorts of things look as fair and random as possible, while still assuring that things come out more or less as planned. But with millions and millions of dollars on the line at an event that comes around only once every four years, our friends at FIFA are not so foolish as to leave things completely to chance.
Even without accusing anyone of rigging the draw, which could easily be done with circumstantial if not solid evidence, the format itself assures that stronger teams from weaker regions are inherently vulnerable to the worst luck of the draw.
To maintain some control, FIFA divides the teams into four pots, and one team from each pot goes into each group. It's fair enough to throw favorites into one pot, and the rest of the European teams in another. That leaves Africa, Oceania, Asia, CONCACAF, and a couple South American teams to split between pots C and D, and that's where things get tricky.
In the past, the five African qualifiers have fit nicely with the three South American teams, to make their own pot of eight. This year it would be numerically possible to switch North and South America, giving the North Americans the advantage of potentially being drawn with the weakest teams in the competition. Who wouldn't switch the chance to play North Korea or New Zealand for a potential matchup with Ivory Coast or Cameroon?
But the potential switch of the African teams with those from Asia/Oceania is the only potential wiggle room this year, and there's no reason to believe that change will happen unless some sort of off-the-radar deal makes it worthwhile.
That would leave the four pots looking like this:
Pot 1: Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, South Africa
Pot 2: Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland
Pot 3: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay
Pot 4: U.S., Honduras, Mexico, Australia, Japan, S. Korea, N. Korea, New Zealand
If the CONCACAF teams go into the pot with Asia and Oceania, as expected, that leaves the U.S. as one of the two or three strongest teams in the weakest pot, and the odds are that much better that the U.S. ends up in the Group of Death.
It's a numbers game that has never added up for the United States. It's clear that the cards are not intentionally stacked against the US –America is just currently the best team from a region that invariably gets thrown into the weakest pot. In past years, it was as simple as that. The Group of Death awaited.
But this time around, there's some good reason to be cautiously optimistic about the group that awaits Bob Bradley's team. While North Korea, New Zealand, and even Honduras aren't likely to strike fear into opponents' hearts on first glance, under this scenario the "D" pot does contain solid teams five-deep: Asian powers Australia, South Korea, and Japan, alongside Mexico and the U.S.
All those squads match up relatively evenly against the African and ‘leftover' South American teams in the ‘C' pot, and each should also stand a decent chance against the lesser-than-usual quality in pot ‘B.' In fact, of the remaining European teams, while Portugal and France are big names, only Serbia look like a team that the U.S. should be desperately hoping to avoid.
The Group of Death this time around will certainly be considered the one that ends up with either Portugal or France, and one of the five heavyweights from Pot D, provided the seeded team is not South Africa, even though a group containing Serbia as the second European team is likely to be just as tough.
Those calculations make this year's odds much better than what the U.S. has faced in the past. When watching the draw on Friday then, simply hope that the U.S. can avoid Serbia, France, and Portugal, probably in that order.
With a potentially favorable draw, all Bob Bradley will have to worry about between now and next June will be closing those holes that have popped up all over the field.