What is FIFA thinking? Cup selection process is a head scratcher

This week, U.S. soccer found out that it is indeed still viewed as a little tyke in the world of Futbol powerhouses. When the eight top seeds for this summer’s World Cup were announced on Tuesday, the United States team found itself on the outside looking in. The full field will be announced Friday, when the FIFA brandy snifters announce the (supposedly) random pods.

Take a good look at the eight that did make it into the heralded pantheon: Germany, Brazil, England, France, Argentina, Italy, Spain and Mexico.

The first six make sense, but what about the last two? Spain-albeit playing in the very tough European qualifying tournament-had to beat San Marino in order to fend off Bosnia-Herzegovina for second place in group play. Then, it had to play Slovakia in a tiebreaking home-and-home series to even reach the Cup.

Mexico played well in CONCACAF qualifying but still finished second…to the United States. That second place included a 2-0 shellacking by the Yanks in Columbus in September, a vengeance win for a tight 2-1 Mexico victory at Azteca.

So why was our NAFTA neighbor chosen to don an “I’m #1” cap and the United States got relegated to pray they avoid a “group of death?”

Well, it’s a funny thing really. FIFA, being the omniscient governing body that it is, has the discretion to be nebulous and fluid in its processes. But the FIFA committee members have at least given a guideline for how they designate the one seeds.

The two criterion are:

1. Where the country in question has ranked in the FIFA rankings during the last three years. This favors the United States, since the team currently ranks No. 8, has ranked as high as No. 6 and has stayed in the top 10 through most of the last 1,000 days.

2. (This is the interesting one) How the country has fared in the last two World Cups. That’s right, your 2005 national team is graded on how it fared in something that happened eight years ago.

As logic would have it, FIFA weighs recent Cup results heavier, but the United States is still hurt by its last-place showing in France at the 1998 Cup. That team, which featured at most two starters from the 2006 team, is hurting Landon Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley and the other Nats who were in high school during the infamous ’98 debacle.

Mexico, on the other hand, went to the second round in France, earning solid “historical credentials.”

How would that template look if we applied it to other sports? USC football finished the regular season 7-5 in 1998. Tennessee finished 12-0. Therefore, using FIFA’s rules, Eric Ainge and the 5-6 Vols should be rewarded THIS YEAR for what Tee Martin accomplished eight years ago, while the Trojans get their 2005 BCS rating dashed because freshman Carson Palmer had some growing pains.

Of course, being that FIFA governs 205 national teams that range from the big boys, like Brazil, to little-known nations, such as Djibouti and Macau, the organization does deserve some leeway. These teams don’t play very often, and it is even more rare to see them play out-of-region friendlies with their best 11. So having a strange way of selecting teams is expected.

But to have a now-elite national team miss out on a top Cup seed by the slimmest margin because its rival did better in a decade-old tournament?

That should warrant a card.

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