With World Cup qualifying wrapping up very soon, a potential nightmare scenario lies ahead for FIFA:
Imagine a World Cup without the two best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And not just them, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribéry, Luka Modric and Michael Ballack, too.
Heck, make it simple: Imagine a World Cup without Germany, Croatia, France, Portugal, Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria.
Because that's the worst-case scenario facing FIFA and, just as importantly, the sponsors. And it's really not that far-fetched. Either Sweden or Portugal -- and perhaps both -- almost certainly won't make it as far as the playoffs between UEFA's second-place finishers. And, if one of them gets there, it will need to get through 180 minutes unscathed, which is far from guaranteed.
Over in Africa, Nigeria doesn't control its own destiny: It could win its final two group matches and still go out. In South America, Argentina is walking a tightrope. It's desperately hanging on to the fifth and final place in CONMEBOL qualifying, just one point ahead of Venezuela and Uruguay. And -- guess what? -- Argentina's final game is away to Uruguay.
Of course, cynics and conspiracy theorists -- of which there are plenty -- will tell you that, no matter what the numbers say now, it simply won't happen. The powers that be will find a way for it not to happen.
You don't want to believe them. And, generally speaking, you don't. Until, of course, something comes along to plant a seed of doubt in your mind. Like what happened last week in Rio de Janeiro.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter explained the procedure for the playoffs in the UEFA qualifying zone. Europe gets 13 slots in the World Cup. Qualification features nine groups, with each winner advancing automatically to South Africa. Of the nine teams that finish second in each group, eight go into the playoffs and one is eliminated. Blatter illustrated just how those playoff pairings would be determined.
"We have decided on seeding the teams in two groups of four, taking the FIFA world rankings into account, with the top four in one pot and the other four in another pot," said Blatter.
What this basically means is that, rather than having an open draw, each the four strongest nations (based on the European rankings) will face one of the weaker nations. It's entirely possible, for example, that Germany, Portugal, Croatia and France all will have to go through the playoffs. Rather than cannibalizing each other, they probably will face the likes of Slovenia, Bosnia, Norway or Ireland (or somebody else of a comparable level).
What's wrong with that? Well, nothing ... except for the fact that FIFA is pretty much changing the rules halfway through the qualifying tournament. In years past, there was no such seeding system. In 1998, Russia and Italy were ranked first and second among the playoff teams and they still faced each other. This time, the big boys will be kept apart, except we were only told this was going to be the case with two qualifying games to go.
And that's simply not fair, say the smaller nations, led by Ireland, whose coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, has compared it to the "death of football." His players, unsurprisingly, feel the same way. Shay Given called it "crazy" and "sick." Kevin Kilbane spoke of "moving the goalposts." None of these conclusions is all that inaccurate.
Now, FIFA already gets more than it share of bad press. Some of it is deserved, some of it is not. The question here is why it acted the way it did. There's nothing inherently wrong with seedings per se. They exist in most sports, they reward the better teams for their performance and, I suppose, you can make a coherent argument for why better teams should get the edge. After all, if the World Cup itself wasn't seeded, we could end up with Brazil, Spain, Italy and Germany in one group and England, Argentina, France and the Netherlands in the other and we'd lose four of the top eight teams in the world in the group stage.
But it's very legitimate to ask this: Why not lay out the rules clearly before the start of qualifying? There are two possible answers, as I see it. One is incompetence: FIFA simply didn't think of it.
The other, which the conspiracy theorists are pushing, is far more disturbing. There are some "smaller" nations that have very high FIFA rankings, such as Russia (sixth), Greece (12th) or Switzerland (15th). And, at the start of qualifying, you could envision a scenario where some "big" nations might have been ranked lower.
At that point, by having a free draw, you actually would have favored the bigger nations, at the expense of the smaller ones. On the other hand, with a seeding system in place, you would potentially "hurt" the "big" nations. This way, by leaving it late, the rules can be tailored to whatever best fits the big boys.
I don't even want to contemplate this second option. I want to believe that FIFA simply forgot to deal with the issue, or didn't think it was important. Which doesn't reflect well on the game's governing body. But, heck, it's a lot better than the other option.