The stench of corruption: FIFA’s “special” ranking

Extraordinary FIFA Executive Committee Meeting
Photo: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

Originally posted by Pharaohs XI Editor Hosam El-Aker on KingFut

“Fishy,” a term often used to evoke suspicion, isn’t strong enough to describe the tenor surrounding FIFA’s oddly-timed decision to issue an extraordinary “special” ranking to decide top seeds for forthcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Africa.

The ominous, repugnant stench of rotting fish was immediate and unmistakable, all the way from Zurich. Just days after Egypt cemented a spot in Africa’s top five – enough to secure a top seed ahead of the group draw for 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying– FIFA decided it would create a “special” ranking outside of its regular monthly edition that could only change one of those top five spots, and that could only replace it with one other team. Enter Tunisia, exit Egypt.

Its timing, its contents, everything about it reeked… to Egyptians and many non-Egyptians alike.

Who are the parties responsible for the advent of these “special” rankings, aside from FIFA? Nobody knows for sure, but the elephant in the room was always Tunisia. What we know for sure is that Tunisia stood the most to benefit from the special ranking, and that Egypt stood the most to lose.

Is it possible the Tunisian Football Federation (FTF) somehow lobbied FIFA, either ‘by hook or by crook,’ as the saying goes?

It certainly has a history of doing so, most recently to the tune of two protests during 2014 World Cup qualifying and one during 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying. Ask Cape Verde about that.

Uncoincidentally, it was the FTF itself which broke the news of a “special” ranking on its website. Strangely, there was no formal, public word from FIFA itself. Messages to its media office largely went ignored. Other responses were insultingly vague.

International football blog and FIFA World Ranking guru We Global Football (WGF) had this to say the day the special ranking was revealed:

“There’s one obvious culprit who complained to FIFA: Tunisia.

“The only federation publicly indicating the FIFA decision on the special rankings was: Tunisia.

“This whole thing may be one of the shadiest moves we’ve seen in awhile…

Egypt should launch every formal protest measure in existence.”

That was all the way back on April 8.

Football Rankings Info, another popular group specializing in the FIFA World Ranking, called the special ranking “shady” and “truly unfair.”

Is it possible that this is all just a wild coincidence? Anything’s possible. But what kind of incredible confluence of events and circumstances would that have to entail? History tells us snowballs have a better chance of surviving a trek through the Sahara than FIFA does of being clean.

How would the FTF have this much sway with FIFA? We know how scandalous world football’s governing body is. We know that bribery has been part and parcel with the way it conducts business. The intricacies of everything involved are speculatory at this point. What we do know as fact, however, speaks more than enough volume as it is… a fiasco that smells of a fix.

Multiple irregularities

FIFA has tried to frame its “special” ranking in such a manner as to appear objective; a mathematical formula unopen to interpretation.

That may be enough to pull the wool over the casual supporter’s eyes, but more keen observers of the game smelled a rat from the moment the FTF announced FIFA’s intentions.

For one, the issuance of the “special ranking” was in violation of Page 5 of FIFA’s “2018 FIFA World Cup Preliminary Competition Format & Procedures – African Zone,” which states, “the draw date, location and procedure for Round Three will be confirmed by the end of Round Two by the Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.”

Round Two ended in November 2015.

The discreet “special rankings” memo regarding Round Three (the group stage) was not sent to African football associations until April 2016.

Not only were Round Three Procedures issued five months after the deadline, FIFA offered no detail as to what these rankings would entail or how they’d be derived. There were also no details offered in any official, public capacity like the Procedures for Rounds One and Two, but only through an ambiguous memo sent privately to African Associations, and only after it became known which African teams would comprise the top five in FIFA’s June 2016 Ranking.

This suggests that FIFA not only didn’t approve of Africa’s top five in its regular June ranking, but that it wanted to wait to see the results of AFCON qualifiers played June 2-5 before publishing any details that may compromise its intended endgame.

Why weren’t these procedures announced before FIFA’s own deadline?

Why did FIFA wait until its June Rankings were finalized (Egypt fifth in Africa and a top seed, Tunisia a second seed) before quietly announcing these procedures?

Why was the regular FIFA World Ranking used for Rounds One and Two, but not Round Three?

Why weren’t Round Three Procedures made public – complete with officially published documentation – like Round One and Round Two Procedures, instead of the discreet memo sent to African FAs we wouldn’t have even known existed if not for a brief article on the FTF’s website?

Why were no details given as to how FIFA would calculate its “special” ranking?

Why wasn’t an exact release date given, instead of a range of dates? Release date has a direct effect on ranking order and who ends up being a top seed.

None of these questions should exist, and wouldn’t have to if FIFA conducted itself  with any transparency.

Not only is Egypt fifth in FIFA’s June World Ranking, Egypt would remain fifth if the rankings were recalculated during the vast majority of June, even with the latest round of AFCON qualifiers factored in. FIFA instead chose to issue an off-schedule recalculation of its monthly ranking on one of the few days in which Egypt falls out of the top five, even though the group draw for Round Three isn’t until June 24.

WGF’s take on this?

“Arbitrary, offensive, bogus.”

Hany Abou Rida

Though the buck ultimately stops at FIFA, and only FIFA can be held responsible for its own corruption, this doesn’t absolve the Egyptian Football Association’s (EFA) Hany Abou Rida – a FIFA Council member and close confidant of notoriously corrupt ex-FIFA Council member Mohammed bin Hammam – for his unacceptable screw-ups.

Abou Rida repeatedly assured and reassured the masses via television that Egypt would remain a top seed (Pot 1) following its 2-0 AFCON qualifying win over Tanzania, citing his contacts at FIFA. He didn’t have to do so… he could have easily said he didn’t know what would happen.

Was he lying then? Were his FIFA contacts lying to him? Did he collude with the parties involved? How can someone who has been a FIFA Council member for seven years be given such phony information from what he called his “FIFA contacts”?

A frightening sidebar to Abou Rida’s involvement is that he’s running for the EFA presidency in September, and at least prior to this blunder, was the favorite to win.

Principle, corruption, and impunity

At the end of the day, quality of play should ultimately determine who qualifies for the World Cup more than anything else, but that’s beside the point. To dismiss the significance of who you have to play to get there is naive, and to be stripped of the right to play lower-ranking opponents after having objectively earned it is unacceptable.

The special ranking mess is a matter of principle. If FIFA can get away with essentially hand-picking seeds, where does it end? Who’s to say it won’t continue to make things up on a whim, throwing another irregular hurdle Egypt’s (or anyone else’s) way should it benefit an opponent with the lobbying power, sway, and/or money to make it happen?

This is something every fan, Egyptian or not, should be worried about.

When someone violates your trust, do you still put equal trust in everything else they tell you? If you do, allow me to respectfully call you naive.

This was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back for many Egyptians, who have long been suspicious of FIFA ever since an order to replay a 1994 World Cup qualifying, group-clinching win over Zimbabwe, and rejected protests from Egypt on similar grounds since.

To launch an appeal as aforementioned neutral observers have suggested – with a clear breakdown of irregularities and violations as we did above – however futile it may be, is the least Egypt should do.

In addition, acting EFA members need to push for this case to be taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport if they care at all about doing their jobs.

Any failure to take these measures by Abou Rida and his cohorts should result in his immediate banishment from any football-related activity in Egypt.

Don’t hold your breath on any of this actually happening. The best we can do as fans and journalists, meanwhile, is to present the world with the facts, which in this situation overwhelmingly lend to what has become an all too familiar theme with FIFA… suspicious irregularities that compromise what was once “the beautiful game.”

Personally, I can handle losses, however devastating or heart-breaking they may be. The Pharaohs have given me enough joy to be worth the heartache that comes with being emotionally invested in team sports in general.

What yesterday and today have taught me, however, is that I may not be able to handle blatant, impune corruption. Quite honestly, I lost a little bit of my appetite for football with yesterday’s news. I suddenly cared a little less. And though I suspected it was coming the day the “special” ranking was invented, I was still somewhat surprised. Perhaps I was naive to have held onto that surviving, though fleeting belief that maybe, just maybe successes and failures in football happened because of merit. Instead, I’m left to believe that football has become a microcosm of the world as a whole… where power, money, and resources are the ultimate form of governance behind a vale of politicians and the illusion of fair play.

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