x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Open draw by Fifa was preferable

The Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given is among those of us who feel that Fifa have given "preferential treatment" to the bigger European countries in the play-off draw for the World Cup.

The Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given is among those of us who feel that Fifa have given "preferential treatment" to the bigger European countries in the play-off draw for the World Cup. World football's governing body have decided to seed the teams on the basis of their world ranking, with each of the four top-ranked teams being pitted against one of the lower-rated quartet. "Had [Fifa] stated the rules from day one then that would have been fair on everyone. We deserved to finish second, Russia and Portugal deserved to finish second, so I do not see how it should be different for them and for us," said Given.

"You would just like to think it would be fair for everyone. Why should these teams get preferential treatment? It should be the same for everyone." Make no mistake, Fifa have put a priority on giving the big teams a better chance of reaching South Africa. In one pot, the four seeded teams of Portugal, Greece, Russia and France have avoided each other and can start thinking about two-legged play-offs against one of Slovenia, Bosnia, Ukraine or Ireland.

Imagine if Portugal could draw France? No World Cup for either Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco, or Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema. It just would not make financial sense for this to happen. The decision ensures Europe's traditional powers - those with larger populations and sufficient armchair viewers to satisfy the World Cup's cadre of blue-chip sponsors - have the best chance of reaching the finals.

Clouded, perhaps, by the need to balance the books, Fifa president Sepp Blatter may see it as a finance-related necessity to have Europe's big guns Africa-bound next summer, but at what cost? France and Portugal may have struggled through qualifying, but their squads are brimming with experience and class. They are favourites to progress even before the draw is held on Monday. Guus Hiddink's Russia, however, are perhaps the most dangerous side of all - only Germany stopped them winning Group Four.

Realistically, the lesser-ranked teams will be praying they are drawn against Greece. The underdogs could yet spring surprises. Ukraine have Andrei Shevchenko, Ireland have Given's safest of hands, Bosnia's Wolfsburg duo of Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimovic are burgeoning stars, while Slovenia showed in 2002, under the now UAE coach Srecko Katanec, that they can reach the biggest tournament of all.

The chance of these players to either make a name for themselves, or say goodbye, on the biggest stage of all is now a pipe dream for many. There was almost parity between the eight countries left in - with them taking between 18 and 22 points from 10 group games, indeed six of them took between 19 and 21. Some may then say that this loaded draw should not be a problem, but surely an open draw would not have been too much to ask.

Fans know big nations should not need get-out-of-jail-free cards. Qualification is not a board game. It is a process played out, over months and years, across the playing fields of Europe. If teams fail to qualify, that is their problem and theirs alone. England's failure to reach the 2008 European Championship did not derail the tournament's runaway success. Blatter should take note. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae