(Persia Digest) - the Washington Post writes that by Wednesday, the World Cup finalists will emerge from each half of the bracket. One of them will have fought its way through a thicket of the best teams, and the other, well, not so much. Americans must be baffled. How could FIFA let this happen? What madness could explain a system where the favorites are allowed to knock each other out while middle-of-the-pack teams sneak through? To the rest of the world, this is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even welcome. Why? I suspect that different attitudes toward seeding systems in the end reflect fundamental differences in worldview. Let me explain.
On Tuesday, either Belgium or France will advance to a World Cup final — teams FIFA respectively ranked third and seventh in the world. Earlier on, Belgium had beat Brazil (second), and France beat Argentina (fifth). On the other side of the bracket, either England (12th) or Croatia (20th) will advance, after neither of them had defeated a team ranked higher than 12th in the knockout stage. While Croatia at least defeated Argentina in the group stage, and had to play host Russia en route, England’s four victories came against teams ranked 21st, 55th, 16th and 23rd. They played only one game against a top 10 team, Belgium, and lost.
If you hail from almost anywhere in the world, you will view this state of affairs with equanimity or even glee. Luck of the draw! Should England or Croatia actually win the cup, their supporters will still hail them as worthy world champions. To be sure, Brazilians, Portuguese, Argentinians and even a few Germans might mumble that their teams could have easily beaten either one had they been given a chance, but nobody would contest their glory. There will be no demands for an asterisk.
To Americans, however, the process that led to the semifinals must seem like yet another example of soccer’s corruption and incompetence. At the end of the group stage, the teams ranked second, third, fourth, fifth and seventh ended up in one half of the bracket while the best team in the other half was ranked 10th — insanity! Imagine a March Madness bracket designed in this way. There would be riots.
So what is the structure that made this result possible? The group stage concept has been around since the World Cup’s first edition in 1930. Nowadays, teams are first allocated to four pots, based on their FIFA rankings, and then the groups are drawn by lots, so that each group features one team randomly selected from pots 1, 2, 3 and 4. The top two teams progress to the knockout stage, which begins with the round of 16. If the group stage games went according to the rankings, each half of the bracket would include an equal number of pot 1 and pot 2 teams. However, in this World Cup, two pot 1 teams, Germany and Poland, were eliminated in the group stage. With Argentina and Portugal ending up in second place in their respective groups, the result was a relatively lightweight bottom half of the bracket.
If you hail from almost anywhere in the world, you will view this state of affairs with equanimity or even glee. Luck of the draw! Should England or Croatia actually win the cup, their supporters will still hail them as worthy world champions. To be sure, Brazilians, Portuguese, Argentinians and even a few Germans might mumble that their teams could have easily beaten either one had they been given a chance, but nobody would contest their glory. There will be no demands for an asterisk.
To Americans, however, the process that led to the semifinals must seem like yet another example of soccer’s corruption and incompetence. At the end of the group stage, the teams ranked second, third, fourth, fifth and seventh ended up in one half of the bracket while the best team in the other half was ranked 10th — insanity! Imagine a March Madness bracket designed in this way. There would be riots.
So what is the structure that made this result possible? The group stage concept has been around since the World Cup’s first edition in 1930. Nowadays, teams are first allocated to four pots, based on their FIFA rankings, and then the groups are drawn by lots, so that each group features one team randomly selected from pots 1, 2, 3 and 4. The top two teams progress to the knockout stage, which begins with the round of 16. If the group stage games went according to the rankings, each half of the bracket would include an equal number of pot 1 and pot 2 teams. However, in this World Cup, two pot 1 teams, Germany and Poland, were eliminated in the group stage. With Argentina and Portugal ending up in second place in their respective groups, the result was a relatively lightweight bottom half of the bracket.
In the past, teams on the way to the final have usually met at least one heavy hitter, but the current situation isn’t unprecedented: In 2002 one of the weakest German teams of modern times reached the final having beaten Paraguay, the U.S. and South Korea in the knock-out stage. There were no calls to reform the system.
Of course, everybody loves to see underdogs triumph — that is one of the most popular narratives in sports. But to Americans, at least, this story only works if the underdog actually beats one of the top dogs along the way: N.C. State defeating Houston for the 1983 NCAA Championship, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeating the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, or the Giants trouncing the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
U.S. competitions are designed to give the favorites the best chance at winning. Numerous papers in American statistical journals, going back to the 1960s, explore exactly how to make sure that this is the case. The rest of the world would certainly agree that the World Cup is not designed to ensure that the best team has the highest probability of winning — but they also don’t see anything wrong with that. After all, it’s not just the World Cup that works like this. Almost every soccer nation has a knockout national championship (the FA Cup in England, Copa del Rey in Spain, Pokal in Germany and so on). Their seeding systems frequently enable weak teams to have a relatively easy ride to the final. These competitions are as old as the hills, and no one demands reform. It’s an interesting difference in the perception of fairness.I think there are three reasons for it. One is tradition: Americans just do things differently because they always have. A second is skepticism: Non-Americans just don’t trust seeding systems. The FIFA rankings are habitually ridiculed and suspected of corrupt biases — it would be the same for any alternative system. But I think the third reason is the one that really matters: According to the quasi-official American creed, everyone in life starts on an equal footing, and competition reveals “natural ability,” rewarding the best. Thus, seeding is the fairest way to structure a tournament since it reflects those natural abilities.
Non-Americans are more likely to see a world where your standing is the result of nepotism and inherited advantages — hence seeding reflects privilege as much as ability. A system where the top dogs, for once, are made to take each other out rather than “kick down” administers a soothing balm on the wounds an unfair world inflicts as a matter of course. A feature, in other words, not a bug.
 

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