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Dec 2, 2009

FIFA plays fair in seedings snub

The correct thing to do in the interests of fair play - or a deliberate and premeditated stitch-up?

• France face seeding snub

Whatever the official line trotted out by FIFA following the decision to exclude France from the World Cup seedings, the conspiracy theories will inevitably stir Gallic resentment right through to next summer's finals.

No-one at FIFA would admit openly that France had got their just desserts as a result of Thierry Henry's infamous handball that broke Irish hearts. But when Raymond Domenech's under-performing team found themselves placed in the same pot as the second tier of European finalists, you could almost hear the cries of "what goes around comes around" and "serves you right" reverberate across the International Convention Centre in Cape Town.

And not just in Cape Town. The bottom line is that FIFA has to find a way - any way - of placating advocates of fair play. So what did they do? Use the October rather than the November world rankings and scrap performances in previous World Cups - traditionally one of the criteria for selecting the seeds.

For once, however, FIFA cannot be criticised on either count. The cynics will say they decided first on an outcome and then on a formula to bring it about. But consider the facts. Using the October rankings makes perfect sense - and not only because England would have been unseeded otherwise. FIFA wanted to use a strategy that put all teams on a level playing field. Factoring in the November rankings would have given the play-off teams two extra games to move up the ladder - as France thought they had.

Ignoring how well teams had done in previous World Cups was a totally unexpected but worthy decision. Holland are ranked third in the world and were the first team from Europe to qualify for next summer's finals. Yet had previous World Cup form been used, the Dutch would have been the ones to give way to France. And that, too, would have been unfair.

The host country South Africa plus Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany and Argentina were named as the other seeds alongside Holland and England. What it all means of course is that France will certainly be drawn on Friday against another major footballing power. The French may not deserve to be seeded judging by the recent performances but they will still be the most dangerous floater.

FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke insisted the Henry incident had played no role in the seeding decisions - even though using rankings alone had not been used previously. "In the past the seedings have been determined by a mixture of world rankings and performances in past World Cups but this time the feeling was the October rankings most closely represented the best teams in the tournament," he said. "We made the decision last month that the October rankings would be used because they were fairer. Countries which had been involved in the play-offs would have had an unfair advantage because they would have played more games and that affects their rankings."

"France qualified after additional matches and were not even first in their group. Why should playing more matches and gaining more points kick out England who qualified with a good campaign? We used purely sporting criteria. France-Ireland was never part of the discussions."

There will be four pots in Friday's draw - one containing the top seeds, the second with countries from Asia, Oceania and north/central America, the third with the five other African nations and three South American countries, and a fourth pot with the other eight European countries.

England manager Fabio Capello will be glad that his side will avoid the real big hitters such as Spain and Brazil but will be acutely aware that England could still end up in a tough group. All kinds of scenarios could take place and you could almost feel the tension with 24 hours to go. Until then, the main talking point will not be about the eight teams that have been seeded - but about the one that had not.

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