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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

World Cup Draw: A More Professional Way

FIFA, the governing world body of soccer led by long-time mogul Sepp Blatter, loves controversy, chance and corruption. No doubt this generates lots of media attention–but it certainly does not instill a sense of equity in its decision-making.

How else could the world’s #2 team, Germany, be paired with #5 Portugal, #14 USA, and #24 Ghana?  All of these teams advanced to the next round in 2010!  Meanwhile the “Group of Death” has #3 Argentina’s group and also contains #45 Iran, #36 Nigeria, and #22 Bosnia. (Eat your heart out, Jurgen Klinsmann.)

FIFA’s latest manufactured controversy stems from its arcane method of placing the teams of 32 nations in eight brackets. Essentially, FIFA assigned each qualifying World Cup team into one of four pots. On Friday, balls corresponding to the teams were literally placed into four “pots” (actually bowls) and then teams were selected (at random) from the pots in a drawing. As each team’s ball was selected from the pot, it was placed into an A-H grouping for the First Round. What a mess!

This is certainly not a difficult task by modern sporting standards. The world’s leading tennis tournaments figured this out decades ago. The NCAA basketball tournaments use a similar approach for both the men’s and women’s brackets.

How to do it? Just take the most recent FIFA rankings – that’s November 28, 2013, after all the World Cup qualifying games were completed – for each country’s team and place it in brackets from one to 32, eliminating higher-ranked teams that didn’t qualify. Here’s what the pairings would look like:

A

B

C

D

#1     Spain

#2     Germany

#3     Argentina

#4     Columbia

#16   Croatia

#15   Chile

#14   USA

#13   England

#17   Ivory Coast

#19   France

#20   Mexico

#21   Russia

#59   Australia

#54   South Korea

#51   Cameroon

#48   Japan

E

F

G

H

#5    Portugal

#6    Uruguay

#7    Italy

#8    Switzerland

#12  Greece

#11  Belgium

#10  Brazil

#9    Netherlands

#22  Bosnia

#23  Ecuador

#24  Ghana

#26  Algeria

#45  Iran

#41  Honduras

#36  Nigeria

#31  Costa Rica

While none of these brackets is easy, they are better balanced – and thus more equitable – than the mess that FIFA’s ranking system produced. Granted, the US would have to beat Mexico and Cameroon to advance, assuming #3 Argentina dominates this group. But that’s better than having to beat both #5 Portugal and #24 Ghana. And #11 Belgium couldn’t coast into the next round in a soft group like it has with Russia, Algeria, and South Korea.

By adopting this system, FIFA could restore an even playing field to the World Cup competition.  As it stands now, much of the competition will be determined by the luck-of-the-draw approach utilized to select the groupings. More importantly, teams that performed well in all competitions in the past year would be rewarded by accumulating objective points in FIFA’s ranking system.