Romania, Wales set to be surprise World Cup top seeds
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) At the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw on Saturday, two European countries could be rewarded for perfect tactics on and off the field.
Both Romania and Wales should be top-seeded in their groups despite not playing at a World Cup for decades.
Credit is due to in-form national teams and smart national federation officials learning that playing friendlies can damage your FIFA ranking.
FIFA is expected to confirm on Friday that seeding will be decided by world rankings alone, as it was four years ago.
That will ensure No. 8-ranked Romania and No. 10 Wales avoid Germany, Spain and the Netherlands in a draw where only group winners are sure to advance.
''For us it will be very important,'' said Razvan Burleanu, the federation president for Romania, whose last World Cup match in 1998 was the week of his 14th birthday.
The recent rise of Romania and Wales is a surprise, even in the often-mysterious world of FIFA rankings.
World Cup winners Italy and France, plus tournament regulars Switzerland all face being in the pot of second-seeded Europeans.
Romania and Gareth Bale-inspired Wales have surged into top-10 slots ahead of a FIFA World Cup organizing committee meeting on Friday. It is expected to accept UEFA's proposal to seed European groups just by ranking, rather than factor in past World Cup performances.
Their timing is no accident, but by careful design.
The Romanian and Welsh federations spotted two factors in helping peak at the right time: Go unbeaten through European Championship qualifiers and avoid playing friendlies in the previous 12 months.
The complex FIFA calculations can reward teams not to play non-competition matches.
Taking matches over a four-year cycle, the points-scoring formula gives recent results more value, takes account of an opponent's ranking and weighs competitive matches up to four times more highly than friendlies.
So, beating a low-ranked opponent in a friendly might be good for confidence but is bad for ranking.
Since July 2014, Romania played just one friendly (a win against Denmark last November) and Wales avoided them completely.
Wales last played a friendly in June 2014, which was a 2-0 loss in a warm-up for the World Cup-bound Dutch.
Today, Romania and Wales are comfortably among the top nine European nations according to FIFA.
Burleanu was elected last year on a mission to restore the national team's pride and status after missing four straight World Cups, and two of the past three Euros tournaments.
''I was interested to see how FIFA calculated the rankings,'' the 31-year-old Burleanu said in a recent telephone interview.
Romania took advice from a consultant who decoded some mysteries of a ranking system used by FIFA since 1992.
Their rise is even more remarkable given where both started from.
Exactly four years ago, the 2014 World Cup qualifying draw had Romania in pot 4 and Wales, stunningly, had fallen into the lowest of six seeding pots.
Now, Wales now tops its Euro 2016 qualifying group after six of 10 matches, with Bale maturing as a world star. His fifth goal in Euro 2016 qualifying last month beat a Belgium team then ranked No. 2.
While Belgium is enjoying a golden generation - Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne head a stellar lineup - the rise of Romania was harder to predict.
''There is a big difference between Romania and Belgium,'' Burleanu said. ''They started a lot of years ago on the youth system. In this moment we don't have an individual, but we have a very strong team.''
That team could be in a World Cup group by Saturday evening with Iceland as a potential second-seeded opponent.