Immediately following France’s loss to Germany in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, a rightfully frustrated Camille Abily lashed out at FIFA’s seeding protocols. As anyone who bothered to look ahead could see, those teams—probably the two best in the world—were always on a collision course at that early stage in the tournament, and as FIFA themselves admitted, they scheduled things like that not to draw up the fairest and most competitive WWC, but to pad their own pockets.
If you missed the post linked above, here’s what had Abily so mad: At the men’s World Cup, the top-ranked teams in the world are seeded, as well as the host nation. Those teams are then randomly drawn and placed into groups to try make sure that the best teams don’t all knock each other out at the group stage. The knockout rounds are then drawn up, pitting group winners against runners-up, randomizing the proceedings and again making sure that the best teams don’t meet until the later rounds.
There was no draw for seeded teams at the Women’s World Cup. Instead, FIFA selected which of them would be in which groups. This meant that when making the knockout rounds bracket, they already had a good idea of which teams would win their groups, and thus when and where they would meet. Their reasoning for doing so was to put certain teams in certain locations with an eye towards stadium attendance and bigger TV audiences for the teams’ home nations. What this resulted in was one side of the bracket (the one with Germany, France, and the U.S.) being way more stacked than the other.
Now, obviously, this is bullshit. If we care at all about the results of sporting events, if we think they differ from the real world in any significant, laudable way, it is because they impose a neutral set of parameters whereby nothing but an individual team’s talents determines the winner. This is to some degree fictional, as things like home-field advantage, referee bias, ineptitude, dumb luck, etc. always threaten to influence the outcome to some extent. However, limiting these non-sporting reasons for success or failure should always be the goal. When a tournament’s governing body expressly admits to rigging the structure in order to, at best, lure in a few more attendees and their wallets to the stadiums or, at worst, give preferred teams easier routes to victory, this is a thing nobody interested in the competition itself should let slide idly by.
“But the teams themselves are different,” you might say. “They should block out everything they can’t control and focus on their play on the field. And in any case, won’t any eventual champion have to go navigate past the Germans at one stage or another? Sure, it’s bad what FIFA did, but Abily’s remarks verge on excuse-making and whining.”
That sort of opinion also misses the point, for a number of reasons—one of which Abily pointed out herself. “I’m sorry but if they did a real draw, maybe we would not have played Germany or the United States after.” It’s not just that France had to beat Germany if they wanted to win the whole thing, it’s that they would’ve had to beat Germany and the U.S., and even then would have to play another team, probably the reigning champs, Japan. The paths certain teams have had to take are considerably more difficult than others, all because of FIFA’s decision to thumb the scales during the seeding process.
Look at it from Germany’s perspective. If they win the whole thing, they will have beaten the 5th ranked team in the Round of 16, the 3rd ranked one in the next round, the 2nd ranked team in the semifinal, and most likely 4th ranked Japan in the final. That’s basically every single team that had a cognizable chance at winning the World Cup, and Germany will have to beat all of them. Meanwhile, Japan won’t play a single team that could even give them a game in the knockout rounds until the final. And again, this is how FIFA wanted it.
The sporting reasons are just one aspect of why the seeding issue matters to the players. Another huge consideration is financial. Let’s remember, this is women’s soccer. These are not the multimillionaire international superstars of the men’s World Cup. This tournament is made up largely of women who play in leagues with very small fanbases, earning less from their clubs in a year than their male counterparts make in a week, if they’re even professional at all.
Because of that, the financial windfall from a deep World Cup run is huge. About a week ago, the Toronto Sun made the same point. The cash prizes FIFA awards each participating federation varies widely depending on how far they make it in the tournament. With their quarterfinal exit, the French federation will get $750,000. If France-Germany would’ve been one of the semifinals, which is the theoretically the earliest you would want a game of that magnitude to occur, the loss would’ve gotten France into the 3rd place game. If they would’ve won that, they’d have been rewarded with $1 million; a loss there would’ve gotten them $800,000.
It’s not clear how France plans on divvying that money up, but at least according to that Sun article, the Canadian federation planned on giving “a significant percentage” of those winnings to the players. You can hopefully see how the difference between $50K to $250K could make a profound impact on these women’s lives. And that doesn’t even take into account the bonuses federations themselves usually promise their players. For instance, there was a rumor that the Chinese players had $250,000 coming to them had they beaten the U.S. and made it to the semifinals. It’s possible that the French players lost out on at least tens of thousands of dollars each by facing an opponent as difficult as Germany so early in the WWC.
All of these and more (oh, and as Hannibaldirum pointed out in a comment, WWC results also are used in Olympics qualification; with a semifinal appearance, France could’ve already locked up their place in next summer’s games) are reasons justifying Abily’s and undoubtedly her teammates’ personal feelings of disgust at how an unbelievably rich organization like FIFA toyed with the players’ livelihoods for a few dollars more.
But if that still doesn’t sway you, think of it from your own perspective. We’re not likely to see a more competitive, well-played game than what France and Germany—the two teams more than any of the others that are progressing toward the pinnacle of what women’s soccer can, should, and will be—treated us to. That it wasn’t in the tournament’s premier game or even one of the two penultimate ones is too bad for the players, and it’s also a damn shame for us spectators.
Photo via Getty