France, the 1998 World Cup champion, may avoid higher-ranked soccer teams at next year’s tournament in Brazil after the sport’s governing body changed the way it organized today’s draw, irking some European squads.
France had to beat Ukraine in a November playoff to make the tournament. Under the system used in the 2006 event, France would have been penalized for being the lowest-ranked European team and faced group-stage rivals from its continent and South America. Instead, France will be part of a preliminary draw among the nine unseeded European nations, all with the same chance to drop into the group with the strongest four opponents.
“My question is, what is the value of the FIFA ranking in that decision?” Bert van Oostveen, director of professional soccer for the Dutch governing body, told national broadcaster NOS after the Netherlands was put in the same pot even though it was eighth in FIFA’s October rankings. France was 21st.
The FIFA rules try to restrict teams from playing other squads from the same region in the opening round. Only Europe, which has the most qualifiers, can have two nations in the same group. The 2010 World Cup didn’t have the issue because there were eight ranked European teams, enough to fill their own selection pot.
This year, the Netherlands missed out on the relative safety of a top seeding because 11th-ranked Brazil took a slot as host nation. The Dutch, the 2010 runners-up, will join France and the other European teams in the selection to see which will be placed in Pot 2 alongside the five African qualifiers and two unseeded South Americans.
In 2006, Serbia and Montenegro was the lowest-ranked of nine unseeded European nations in the draw in Germany, and was placed in a separate pot. It lost all three games after being paired with Argentina, the Netherlands and Ivory Coast.
This year, FIFA used the October rankings to determine the tournament’s top eight seeds, and placed them in separate groups.
“It would have been logical -- and I always thought it was the line -- to give that position to the lowest-ranked team,” van Oostveen said. “In this case that would be France.”
Dutch officials had lawyers check if FIFA’s decision was allowed, he said. Michel Platini, the Frenchman who heads European soccer’s governing body UEFA, distanced himself from the decision amid reports in U.K. newspapers including the Daily Mirror that he used his influence to force through the change.
“It came from the FIFA administration,” Platini, also a vice president of soccer’s global governing body, said about the new draw structure. “I am not the only Frenchman in FIFA.”
Fellow Frenchman Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s general secretary, said he proposed three options to the presidents of soccer’s six confederations and World Cup organizing committee and they agreed the plan that will be used today without complaint, adding it was “unfair” to talk of a French conspiracy.
Still, there’s no guarantee France will get a soft landing when its opponents are named at the draw in Costa do Sauipe. It was paired with Brazil, a record-five time champion, four-time winner Italy and Australia during a test two days ago.
Zinedine Zidane, who scored twice in France’s 3-0 World Cup final victory over Brazil in 1998, said he wants a tough draw because the national team struggles against lower-ranked opponents.
France was eliminated after the group phase in 2010, having failed to overcome hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay in what was considered one of the competition’s weakest pools. In 2002 France left the tournament without scoring a goal after losing the opening game to Senegal.
“We need to feel we are going to have to fight against the best teams from the start,” Zidane said. “I hope it is a draw that’s slightly challenging.”