World Cup ‘Potgate’ scandal sees France earn easy draw, Italy in tough, cries of conspiracy

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What's the best way to make announcing the groups for an event controversial? Well, changing the rules the week before the draw isn't a bad start, and that's what world soccer governing body FIFA did this week ahead of Friday's draw for the 2014 World Cup groups. Potgate started because FIFA elected to put all nine European teams that qualified into a draw to see who moved over to Pot 2 with the South American teams, rather than follow the past practice of moving the lowest-seeded European team, which would have been France. That has plenty outraged, considering that FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke (who admitted to coming up with the idea) and UEFA head Michel Platini are both French. The move certainly worked out well for France, though, as they stayed in Pot 4 and drew the weakest seeded team (Switzerland), plus lightweights Ecuador and Honduras. Meanwhile, the Italians were grumbling based on FIFA only using October world rankings even before the draw, and things got even worse for them, as they took the Pot 2 spot that normally would have been France's and wound up in a difficult group with Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. It may or may not have been a genuine conspiracy, but the results have made FIFA look bad yet again. The Daily Mail's Charles Sale wrote Thursday that Potgate had become the biggest story heading into the draw:

Potgate continued to dominate the build-up to the World Cup draw on Thursday with French FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke forced to defend involvement in his home country’s good fortune over the rules.

Valcke admitted on Thursday he had proposed that all nine European World Cup qualifiers go into a draw to decide who moves into Pot 2 today rather than France automatically switching as the lowest-ranked team.

The fact that Valcke’s idea was then approved by the Confederation presidents and the World Cup organising committee has been interpreted as a major power play by UEFA’s French president Michel Platini, the most influential figure sitting on both groups.

Platini had claimed that the Euro draw wasn’t his idea and pointed the finger at Valcke when he declared himself ‘not the only Frenchman on FIFA’.

Valcke said it would be ‘unfair’ to suggest his nationality had anything to do with the surprise change of format, adding that ‘not a single voice’ had contested the decision.

Moreover, FIFA president Sepp Blatter dodged a question on the subject Thursday:

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the decision followed talks with confederation presidents, including UEFA's French president Michel Platini. However, he sidestepped a question asking him to explain a procedure that seemingly ignored FIFA's own precedent and favoured France.

"Let us [hold the] draw and not let us speak of teams," Blatter said.

Regardless of the support for the decision, changing the rules a day before the draw in a move that transparently benefits the country of both the FIFA secretary-general and the UEFA president is problematic from a perception standpoint, to say the least. Take a look at how the results wound up by the October FIFA World Rankings, the ones used in the draw:

Thus, France's average opponent would be ranked 21st, while Italy's average opponent would be ranked 16th. Perhaps even more importantly, Italy has to face two top-10 sides in Uruguay (who placed third at the 2010 World Cup) and England, while France's only team above 22nd is Switzerland, widely viewed as the softest seeded team. The Italians were already upset that October rankings were used instead of November ones, as they were eighth in October and just missed out on a seed, but were ahead of the Swiss for a long period before that. They also passed Switzerland in the latest rankings, moving up to seventh, and thus would have been seeded. Italian coach Cesare Prandelli already called the system "ridiculous," and that was before he found out where his team wound up. Now the Azzurri have even more reason to be annoyed at FIFA.

Meanwhile, France earned a remarkably easy group despite struggling through qualification, only earning a World Cup berth at all in late November. They ranked only 21st in October (and 19th in November), well behind Italy's 8th and 7th. One draw alone might not be a reason to scream conspiracy, but taken in light of FIFA's checkered history, it doesn't look good. Potgate certainly doesn't help the organization's image, but it does help the French.

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