Thursday, July 17, 2008
Close friends of mine would undoubtedly describe me to be an unabashed soccer fanatic, but they would also tell all of my readers that I am passionate about a cornucopia of different sports.

Collegiate athletics has always held a special place in my heart and as an alumnus of The University of Georgia I am anxiously awaiting the start of a college football season that carries an enormous amount of potential for my beloved Bulldogs (RIP UGA VI by the way).

Perhaps the single most anticipated sporting event of my annual calendar (outside of anything soccer related) is that of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. March Madness is a disease as infectious as The Bubonic Plague and every year I come down with a case that baffles the minds of this country’s most prestigious doctors. Rational thought appears to elude my train of thought during the entire month and colleagues of mine cannot understand why winning an NCAA bracket pool becomes as coveted as Indiana Jones’ Holy Grail.

There is no reason to believe that a bracket style format would not be phenomenal for soccer’s own version of the Holy Grail, the World Cup Trophy. Therefore I am here to declare that the World Cup Trophy’s prestige and appreciation would be enhanced even further than its current status if the tournament was decided in a 32 team, single-elimination format.

The most indelible mark left on this year’s European Championship, outside of Spain’s first major soccer triumph since 1964, had to be that of Fatih Terim’s Turkey. The Crescent Stars’ improbable run to the semifinals captivated everyone who followed the tournament as religiously as I did and their inability to reach the tournament’s final would most politely be described as unfortunate.

The Turks, without stars Nihat and Emre due to injury and Tuncay due to suspension, dominated their German counterparts for most of the game, but were undone by a moment of brilliance from Philip Lahm. The Germans took a total of three shots all game, but scored all three and won 3-2 to advance to the finals. The underdogs’ magical run had finally come to a conclusion, but there is no doubt amongst people who watched the game that the Turks deserved to go at least a step further than the Germans. This concept of Cinderella could easily be translated to the World Cup tournament as well.

The two elements of professional athletics that most determine an individual or team’s greatness are the ability to produce in pressure situations and the willingness of an athlete to muster more mental strength than his or her’s adversaries. There is nothing that illuminates these characteristics more than knockout-format soccer.

Skeptics would argue that years of preparation to qualify for the World Cup should merit a reward longer than a potential one-game and done scenario. There is some validity to that opinion, but a certain sporting event in Beijing beginning next month often offers just a moment to prove your successes or failures and the scale is of similar magnitude to that of the World Cup.

Tyson Gay, America’s most promising Olympic sprinter, will not be able to participate in the 200 meter dash at this year’s Olympic Games. Why you may ask? Gay was the victim of his own physiology as his attempt to qualify for the American squad was thwarted by an unpredictable leg cramp, the cruelest of outcomes for an amateur athlete that spent years preparing for that special moment of twenty seconds or less in Beijing. Olympics athletes have become accustomed to the instantaneous shattering of dreams and there is no reason to believe that soccer players could not be trained to get used to that same horrendous feeling that is the source of such future motivation to avoid a similar fate.

My proposal to radically change the current format of the World Cup would contain some elements similar to the structure currently in place, but with significant modifications to enhance the overall quality and fairness of the tournament.

The qualification rounds used to determine the 32 teams that currently comprise the World Cup would be the same for me, except the exemption that allows automatic qualification for the host country would be eliminated. The honor of hosting a World Cup is an immense one, but that shouldn’t guarantee that your nation is a participant. Austria and Switzerland were incredible emcees for Euro 2008, but their teams’ performances were disappointing at best and embarrassing at worst. The overall level of the tournament would certainly have been upgraded if other quality European teams like England and Scotland were added at the expense of the hosts.

The tournament would be seeded in a National Hockey League-style format, meaning that the higher seeds would always have the luxury of playing seeds below them. I will use the current FIFA World Rankings to provide an illustration. Spain is currently the number one team in the world (don’t worry because I’m going to address the ridiculousness of the FIFA rankings momentarily) and would face off with 32nd ranked Poland in the opening round. If the Poles somehow stunned La Furia Roja they would still be forced to play second-ranked Italy in the second round, not a team ranked somewhere in the teens as an NCAA Basketball-style bracket would mandate.

The seeding for the current World Cup structure is absurd and would be abolished entirely. There are an infinite number of disagreements amongst soccer aficionados regarding the game’s hot topics, but an almost universally-accepted truth is that the FIFA Rankings are about as reliable as college football’s BCS Rankings. Spain is deservedly ranked number one, but somehow Italy is second despite firing Roberto Donadoni for his shortcomings at Euro 2008 and elderly France is shockingly ranked four spots ahead of the emerging Turks.

The formula used to determine the eight “seeded” teams for the current World Cup structure uses a composite of FIFA World Rankings combined with a country’s performances in the preceding two World Cups to come up with an aggregate rankings score for all 32 teams.

I take serious umbrage with the idea that what a nation did on the soccer field eight years prior to the current World Cup should factor in to how they are ranked at that particular moment. The world changes drastically in eight years and so does the soccer landscape for that same time period. The fact that the United States team of the most recent World Cup was held accountable for the abysmal display known as France '98 was preposterous and should have had no bearing whatsoever on their placement for Germany 2006. It is also worth noting that teams that have not participated in one or both of the preceding World Cups are penalized even further in the current formula as they receive a score of zero for that portion of the calculation.

My seeding would be based solely on “friendly” international tournament, and current World Cup qualifying results. Regional qualifying winners from UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, CAF, and AFC would be guaranteed of a top-ten seeding spot regardless of past international displays. Regional trophy holders like Egypt, Iraq, The United States, and Spain would also be afforded a seeding advantage since the aim of international soccer is to win trophies.

The method for determining the numerical seed for the weaker teams (i.e teams that finish second or third in regional World Cup qualifying) would be based on any potential head-to- head encounters they may have had with other tournament opponents as well as their finishes in respective regional or worldwide tournaments like the Confederations Cup. The idea of a “friendly” would no longer exist as every international result would affect seeding for the current World Cup. Teams that are willing to travel, much like the US did to take on juggernauts England and Spain, would be afforded a “strength of schedule” advantage in order to entice more world-class friendly matchups (who wouldn’t want to see Spain vs Brazil at the Maracana?) The ability to get a win on the road would also be given more weight than a home win in order to try and equally balance out the number of home and away matches on a given schedule.

I will be the first to admit that, like the current format, my World Cup proposal is far from perfect. The ability to come up with an ideal seeding system is impossible, but I definitely believe that a formula that uses FIFA World Rankings and past World Cup performances to determine seeding is a flawed one. Sports are most often remembered for the moments when David slays Goliath and a single-elimination tournament would certainly provide many more of those unforgettable events than the current format provides. The United States is a long way from being better than Brazil, Argentina, and Spain over seven games like today’s World Cup title challenge requires, but for one day only the opportunity to slay the proverbial dragon and eliminate them completely from the tournament would be a moment no one would ever forget. Right now a win like that would almost feel like a World Cup Trophy triumph in itself, wouldn’t it?