KEIR RADNEDGE in COSTA DO SAUIPE: FIFA’s Battle of the Pots was more intense behind the scenes this time than for many World Cups past.
Hence deliberations by the world federation and the local organising committee threw up a solution laced with a dangerously exposed European floater.
Two reasons predominated. One was FIFA’s initial, disgracefully cavalier, decision to cave in to a Brazilian insistence on sending all the teams all around half of continent of South America; the second was the utilisation of the cranky world rankings system to designate the top eight seeds.
Players and officials, fans and media will discover at first, flying hand, the unhappy literal cost of the refusal to revert to the clusters system for groups (which the pragmatic Russians rushed to embrace, let it be noted, for 2018).
As for the world rankings, this a pleasant little public relations game once a month for main FIFA sponsor Coca-Cola but its vagaries have long since proved that as a serious assessment of status it leaves a lot to be desired.
By using the rankings FIFA ended up with four Europeans in Pot One and thus nine Europeans in the rest of the draw. Nine into eight does not go. Hence a tetchy lobbying campaign by the lowest-ranked Europeans, France, for a solution which did not put them at risk of landing up in a group with, say, Brazil, Italy and Mexico.
Similarly, it was unthinkable that Italy – Europe’s record four-times world champions – should not have been honoured with a top pot seeding. In fact Italy would have been up there had FIFA used the November rankings but it preferred to use the October listing, compiled before the latest swathe of play-offs and friendlies.
If FIFA had used November then Italy and Portugal would have been parachuted up into Pot One, although this would have still not resolved the European issue. Cristiano Ronaldo has said that he is pleased Portugal are not among the formal favourites. He had no other option.
The jostling for places possessed a geopolitical aspect. Some nations will plant themselves in one city and fly both short and long haul, whatever the draw offers.
England are one of those, having settled on the Royal Tulip Hotel overlooking Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro. This is the first time England have lighted on a ‘general public’ (i.e. well-heeled) hotel for many a World Cup and a stark reversal of preference to the monastic boredom of Rustenburg four years ago.
This may say much about both the lessons of Rustenburg and the differences in managerial upbringing, culture and style between Roy Hodgson and Fabio Capello.
Hodgson put his finger on the worry for everybody when he cautioned about the climatic dangers lurking in the draw. Hosts Brazil, for instance know already that they will kick off the finals in Sao Paulo in the south-east, travel north-east to then angle back to Brasilia in mid-country.
Their luckless opponents in that Opening Match (assuming tragedy-trounced Itaquero is ready in time) must then fly 2,500 miles to steamy Manaus in the Amazon before flying halfway out to Recife on the coast.
Luck of the draw will fall, by contrast, to the top seeds in Group H who play in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo – the nearest arrangement to a ‘cluster’ for which anyone could hope. By contrast local kick-off times of 1pm, 4pm and 7pm mean a heat and humidity check for anyone drawn to play in Fortaleza, Natal and Salvador.
The climatic challenge, of course, will be more testing for some teams than others.