FIFA rankings to reveal World Cup top seeds
GENEVA -- Brazil vs. Italy. Twice a World Cup final, it could be the World Cup opening match in Sao Paulo on June 12.
And the second match the next day could be a 2010 final repeat: Spain vs. the Netherlands.
Thank the FIFA rankings that decide which teams are seeded if the World Cup receives such a blockbuster kickoff.
The often-criticized rankings will surely be criticized on Thursday when they decide the eight top seeds in the World Cup groups being drawn on Dec. 6.
The powerful Dutch, runners-up in 2010, and Italians, 2006 champions, should miss out despite going unbeaten through qualifying, according to unofficial calculations provided by FIFA's website.
Belgium and Colombia are likely in, despite failing to qualify for the 2010 tournament. They will join Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina plus Uruguay, if it beats Jordan in a playoff.
Also likely is Switzerland, which will spark questions about how FIFA grades national teams over a four-year results cycle.
Indeed, Switzerland's surge up the rankings -- fueled by a 14-match unbeaten run in qualifying and friendlies -- might cast doubt on the value of being seeded.
The intention of seeding is rewarding the best by ensuring they avoid the other strongest teams in the group stage.
Host Brazil is automatically seeded in Group A. The decision to allocate the other seven seeds by the October rankings alone was agreed on by the FIFA executive committee only this month.
That leaves the Netherlands, Italy and England -- all seeded at the 2010 World Cup when FIFA rankings were again decisive -- lurking as potential opponents for Argentina early in the tournament.
England coach Roy Hodgson expects "two very, very good teams in every group," with FIFA set to allocate the other places by geographical spread rather than ranking.
"It's pretty unnecessary to worry too much about whether we are the first or second out of the hat," Hodgson said on Wednesday.
Still, Lionel Messi and Argentina might prefer to face Switzerland instead, after their 3-1 victory in a February 2012 friendly at Bern where the world's best player scored all three.
Switzerland's young team is certainly better since failing even to reach the 2012 European Championship.
Euro 2012 was almost the perfect place to score ranking points in a FIFA system which gives greater weight to recent results, competitive matches, beating higher-ranked opponents, and wins against European and South American teams.
So Italy's slip beneath Switzerland is a little mystifying given its run to the Euro 2012 final, including beating Germany in the semifinals.
However, Italy is penalized for drawing its final qualifiers 2-2, in Denmark last Friday and at home to 55th-ranked Armenia on Tuesday. Victory in either would have guaranteed a seeding in Brazil.
"I'm not disappointed. The goal was qualifying," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "At the European Championship we weren't a top seed either and we finished second, so we shouldn't let it bother us. It doesn't worry me."
Both could join an illustrious group of unseeded European teams at the World Cup draw in Salvador de Bahia following an eight-team playoffs round next month.
Portugal and France both could have fared better under FIFA's old system of seeding teams based on performances at recent World Cups. France being runner-up in 2006, when Portugal got to the semifinals, counts for nothing now.
Though Portugal also reached the Euro 2012 semifinals and France was a quarterfinalist, both have dropped below a Swiss team which neither has played in the past four years.
France has further gripes about FIFA's seeding by rankings, because it placed second to Spain in the only European qualifying group with five teams rather than six.
Coach Didier Deschamps this week called it a "double punishment" that France had two fewer qualifiers to earn ranking points, and will likely be edged by Ukraine for seeding in the European playoffs being drawn on Monday.
"From my point of view it's not very logical," said Deschamps, whose route to Brazil could be directed through Portugal.
The Netherlands, which took the top spot from Spain in the August 2011 rankings, did play Switzerland but drew 0-0 in Amsterdam in November 2011.
The Dutch might yet be seeded if Uruguay slips up, but could have edged the Swiss by beating 88th-ranked Estonia in Tallinn last month. They needed a stoppage-time goal to draw 2-2.
Switzerland, however, can also suggest one key result which raised its ranking and perhaps justifies its top-seed status.
In August, when so many teams treat their friendlies lightly, coach Ottmar Hitzfeld's team beat Brazil 1-0.
AP Sports Writers Rob Harris in London and Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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