Imagine a World Cup draw that places the U.S. with Brazil, Italy and nemesis Ghana. Or a quartet pitting the Americans against Germany, Ivory Coast and the Netherlands.
Those frightening scenarios could unfold when the eight first-round groups are sorted on Dec. 6, thanks in part to FIFA’s decision to seed the top seven nations (along with host Brazil) from the new world ranking released Thursday.
Fourth-ranked Colombia, No. 5 Belgium and No. 6 Switzerland have been in good form this year and made the cut for a seed in a tournament that’s still eight months way. The Dutch (assuming Uruguay qualifies) and former champions Italy and France (who still need to qualify) did not.
Regardless of the ranking, second-tier sides like the U.S. -- the sort that aim to get out of the group and then take their chances in the knockout rounds – likely would prefer to face off against the likes of Switzerland and Colombia rather than the Italians. At a World Cup, pedigree often matters. Some teams are more imposing and consistent then others. Nations like Mexico, Belgium and Uruguay rise and fall. Others are perpetual threats.
At the next World Cup, the U.S. could get lucky and be paired with a manageable seed, or it might be drawn into a historically difficult “group of death”. Its fate may depend on those unpredictable plastic balls.
Thursday’s ranking laid out one more important piece of the roadmap to Brazil. Here’s where everything stands.
Host Brazil, world champion Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium and Switzerland are guaranteed seeds next summer. If Uruguay defeats Jordan in next month’s playoff, La Celeste will be seeded. If Jordan wins, the eighth-ranked Dutch will claim a seed.
It’s fashionable in soccer circles to claim the FIFA ranking is pointless -- that it's a fabrication designed to generate publicity and attract sponsorship.
Ask Colombia, Switzerland and Belgium if it's pointless. Past World Cup performance no longer impacts seeding, making the ranking something that federations may have to take into consideration when scheduling future friendlies. Those games now have competitive ramifications.
The U.S. maintained its spot at No. 13. The Americans did their part to earn a World Cup seed, but Jurgen Klinsmann’s team also needed Turkey to beat Holland, Slovenia to beat Switzerland, Poland to tie or defeat England and Ecuador to tie or beat Chile to have a chance. None occurred.
Twenty-one of the 32 places are spoken for. Brazil, as host, was guaranteed a spot.
Europe: Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Switzerland.
South America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.
North America: Costa Rica, Honduras and the U.S.
Asia: Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea.
Among those 21, only Bosnia will be making its World Cup debut.
IN THE HUNT
Twenty-two countries remain alive for the 11 additional berths, at least technically. Egypt’s stirring run ended, for all intents and purposes, with Tuesday’s 6-1 thrashing by Ghana, though the Pharaohs won't officially be eliminated until after the second leg of the playoff.
The 11 remaining spots will be determined by home-and-home, aggregate-goal series.
Runners-up from eight of the nine UEFA groups will be drawn on Monday into four playoff series. Denmark is the unlucky odd nation out. After the results against the sixth-place team in each group were expunged (since one group had only five countries), the Danes had the worst record of the nine at 2-2-4.
Europe will seed the playoffs using the same FIFA ranking. Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Ukraine will be separated. Among the unseeded four lurks a former world champion (France) and the continental Cinderella, Iceland.
The games will be played on Nov. 15 and 19.
Each of the 10 group winners was drawn into a two-team playoff. The openers already have taken place. The second legs are next month, and “Team 2” will host. Continental powers Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria are in good shape to win their playoffs.
CONCACAF, South America, Asia and Oceania each send one team to an intercontinental playoff. The match-ups were drawn in 2011.
Uruguay, which finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, will be heavily favored to defeat Jordan, which has never qualified. In the other series, Mexico will look to make the most of its World Cup reprieve against New Zealand.
Games are scheduled for Nov. 13 and 20. “Team 1” will host the first leg.
Fate will have its say on Dec. 6 in Mata de São João, a beach town in Bahia. The specific procedure hasn’t been announced, but it’s unlikely to change too much from past draws.
The eight seeds each will be placed in a group. A second pot will contain eight European teams, who can be drawn into any of the eight groups. In the World Cup’s first round, continental confederations are kept apart except for UEFA.
If Uruguay defeats Jordan, as expected, there will be nine unseeded European sides. That last team could be drawn separately into a group headed by Brazil, Argentina, Colombia or La Celeste or put in one of the other three pots with that same provision.
CONCACAF teams tend to be drawn from the same pot as the Asian sides. If Mexico and Uruguay win their playoffs, both CONCACAF and Asia will send an easy four teams each, creating a perfect pot. An upset by either Jordan (adding a fifth Asian team) or New Zealand (removing the fourth CONCACAF team) could complicate matters.
A fourth pot likely will contain the five African survivors, Chile and Ecuador, and perhaps the final European side. But FIFA could switch it up.
By the night of Nov. 20, at least, the 32 teams will be known. WILSON: England shakes off ghosts of 1973, beats Poland to clinch World Cup berth