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FIFA's questionable organizing to blame for unbalanced WWC structure

If current results hold, Germany and France, No. 1 and No. 3 in the world, will meet surprisingly early in the quarterfinals of the knockout round. Why did FIFA organize the Women's World Cup in such unbalanced fashion?

WINNIPEG, Canada — With Germany and France still atop their groups having played against their toughest expected rivals, we’re looking at a strange and unfortunate situation in the World Cup knockout bracket. If results hold to form, the Germans and the French—the No. 1 and No. 3 teams, respectively, in the FIFA rankings—are on a collision course to meet surprisingly early in the quarterfinals.

Even worse, it’s a situation that wasn’t due to the (bad) luck of the draw, but rather one that was created by FIFA.

France and Germany were two of the six seeded teams for the WWC draw last December. But unlike in the men’s World Cup, where seeded teams (other than the host nation) are drawn randomly into their groups, FIFA decided before the draw which groups all the seeded teams would be in at the Women’s World Cup.

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If the winners of Group B (likely Germany) and Group F (likely France) win their Round of 16 games, they will meet each other in the quarterfinals.

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​When I asked FIFA why it would arrange a likely marquee matchup between No. 1 and No. 3 in the quarterfinals, a spokesperson noted that the Women’s World Cup is different from the men’s World Cup. Basically, FIFA feels like it needs to put certain teams in certain cities to sell tickets and in certain time zones to help with TV ratings back home.

“Similar to previous draws for FIFA Women’s World Cups like Germany in 2011, teams are seeded ... and allocated into specific groups for ticketing and promotion reasons,” the FIFA spokesperson replied. “Whilst the interest in the FIFA Women’s World Cup has grown significantly over the last years, the success and great interest from the public in the tournament in Germany in 2011 can’t be compared to the Brazil [men’s] World Cup. Filling the stadia is a FIFA and host association key objective. The allocation of teams to venues, the ticketing and promotion plan and the ticket price strategy are among the key factors for the overall success of the event.”

So that’s why FIFA placed the seeded teams in their respective groups and locations. Fair enough. But why couldn’t FIFA still have done a random draw to determine where the group winners would be placed in the bracket in the knockout rounds? I asked FIFA that question, but it wasn’t addressed in the organization’s response.

Obviously, results don’t always hold to form, and that’s certainly possible as this Women’s World Cup progresses. But if results do hold to form and the seeded teams win their groups, a couple of unbalanced things happen:

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​​• One half of the knockout bracket would have the world’s top three ranked teams: No. 1 Germany, No. 2 U.S. and No. 3 France.

• The two biggest crowd draws, the U.S. and Canada, would be the only two of the six seeded teams that would avoid having to play against another seeded team until the semifinals. (In a response to my question, the FIFA spokesperson said this was not by design.)

If you’re keeping score, Germany and France have every reason to be unhappy with FIFA for creating this situation.

But they aren’t the only teams with a gripe. There’s also Sweden, which meets the U.S. in a heavyweight showdown on Friday. If FIFA had conducted the WWC draw as it did for the men, the seeded teams would have been the host country and the top teams in the FIFA rankings. Those would have included Sweden and not Brazil. But for the WWC, FIFA decided to make Brazil a seeded team and shut out the Swedes.

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Swedish coach Pia Sundhage told me right before last December’s draw that she was unhappy about that, and she was even more annoyed when Sweden got drawn into the tournament’s hardest group with the U.S., Nigeria and Australia.

When I asked FIFA why it switched its seeding methodology at Sweden’s expense, the response was:

“The host team was obviously seeded in A1. For the five other groups, the winners from the confederations were seeded as following: AFC (Japan), CONCACAF (USA) and CONMEBOL (Brazil). For UEFA there was no winner, as the qualification did not end with one, therefore, the top two teams based on the world ranking were chosen, Germany and France. Given the ranking of the teams from CAF (Nigeria 35, and lower for Cameroon and Ivory Coast) and OFC (NZL 19), those confederations were not seeded.”

Maybe I’m crazy, but I didn’t hear that explanation from FIFA last December. In any case, it’s one more example that shows FIFA could have done a better job with the competition structure for this Women’s World Cup.