France’s 2-0 defeat in the Ukraine suggests that they will not qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It is therefore likely that France will be the only former World Cup winners absent from the competition but are France a poor team or simply unlucky, a victim of the process of World Cup qualification?
Last year, I wrote about how luck struck twice in the 2014 World Cup qualifying draw – firstly due to the draw itself and secondly because of the timing of the draw, more than a year before the beginning of the qualification tournament in Europe. France were particularly struck by bad luck in the draw itself as the nation was not only the highest ranked team in the pot of second seeds, just missing out on being first seeds to Greece who were 13th to France’s 15th at the time of the draw, but they also drew the top ranked team, Spain.
Compare France’s draw to Greece, who were just above them in the FIFA ranking and were thus seeded. Greece also finished second in their qualification group, but behind Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Greeks were also seeded for this play-off phase and look like qualifying after a 3-1 win against Romania. That two place difference in the FIFA ranking for the original draw in July 2011 has had a big influence on the respective fates of Greece and France.
Having finished second to Spain in Group H, a performance exactly as expected by the rankings, France were the highest ranked team in the unseeded pot, missing out on being seeded by one place as the Ukraine were ranked 20th and France 21st on the FIFA World Rankings at the time. Admittedly, this meant that France drew the lowest ranked seeded opponents but a place amongst the seeds would have provided the opportunity to play against Romania or Iceland, surely much weaker opponents.
The current ELO ranking – arguably a more accurate system – has France in 12th position, nine places higher than their place on the FIFA ranking. If this system had been used to draw the play-offs, France would have been seeded with Portugal, Sweden (another unlucky team perhaps) and Greece. This would not have stopped the French drawing the Ukraine but they would have had a greater chance of playing a much weaker opponent.
Conclusions will be drawn if France fail to overturn the 2-0 deficit in Tuesday’s second leg but these will almost certainly be incorrect. France are not in crisis – their ELO ranking has barely changed over the last two years, fluctuating between 12th and 15th in the world which makes them one of the best eight teams in Europe. The fact is that they have been undone by the vagaries of the draw system and, in the case of the play-offs, the fact that two one-off matches ultimately decide the fate of the runners-up. When major nations miss out on participation at the World Cup, it is often due to this type of bad luck. Stories about the decline of these teams come afterwards and are subject to outcome bias. They can, of course, also be described as Scoreboard Journalism.