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FIFA more or less rigged the Women’s World Cup bracket to ensure healthy ticket sales, TV ratings

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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Germany and Argentina are No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in the latest FIFA world men’s soccer rankings. Now imagine if FIFA rigged the World Cup draw so that those two soccer titans met not in the semifinals or final, but prematurely in the quarterfinals.

They’d never be that dumb, right? But FIFA sure has no problem doing it in the Women’s World Cup, where making sure the stadiums are filled takes precedence over ensuring any sort of compelling competition.

As pointed out Thursday by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, Germany and France — the world’s No. 1 and No. 3 women’s teams — will meet in the quarterfinals should they win their round-of-16 games, as expected, at this year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. It’s all because — unlike at the men’s World Cup, where the seeded teams are randomly dispersed into groups — the seeded teams at the women’s World Cup are assigned to groups before the draw. By placing Germany in Group B and France in Group F, FIFA ensured a likely meeting in the quarterfinals.

When asked why FIFA would do that, a spokesperson told Wahl that it’s all about avoiding the bad optics of empty stadiums (more on that in a minute) and low television ratings.

Basically, FIFA feels like it needs to put certain teams in certain cities to sell tickets and in certain time zones to help with TV ratings back home.
“Similar to previous draws for FIFA Women’s World Cups like Germany in 2011, teams are seeded … and allocated into specific groups for ticketing and promotion reasons,” the FIFA spokesperson replied. “Whilst the interest in the FIFA Women’s World Cup has grown significantly over the last years, the success and great interest from the public in the tournament in Germany in 2011 can’t be compared to the Brazil [men’s] World Cup. Filling the stadia is a FIFA and host association key objective. The allocation of teams to venues, the ticketing and promotion plan and the ticket price strategy are among the key factors for the overall success of the event.”

Wahl also asked why FIFA couldn’t randomly determine where the group winners were placed in the knockout-round bracket instead of pre-determining their landing spots. The spokesperson didn’t provide an answer.

The games will be beautiful, but could three ugly factors dampen this year's the Women's World Cup? The Post's Marissa Payne previews the soccer tournament. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

If FIFA wanted to help ensure the advancement of Canada and the United States — who obviously are the tournament’s biggest draws, both in terms of ticket sales and television ratings  —  they did a great job. As Wahl points out, they are the only two seeded teams who would avoid having to play another seeded team until the semifinals.

As Stephen Wade of the Associated Press points out, this is nothing new for FIFA at the Women’s World Cup.

In 2007, FIFA arranged the bracket so host China would not have to play North Korea — the world’s sixth-ranked team at the time — until at least the semifinals.

At this year’s Women’s World Cup, the organizing committee has set a ticket-sale target of 1.5 million, and the New York Times reports that 1 million of those tickets have been sold. But 95 percent of those tickets were sold to people who live in North America, so organizers of the tournament really, really want to see the United States and Canada advance as far as possible to avoid the empty stadiums seen so far in Montreal (only 10,175 showed up at Olympic Stadium — capacity 61,004 — to see South Korea and Brazil on Tuesday night) and Moncton (where a doubleheader Tuesday drew just 11,686 despite a CBC report that tickets were being sold for $5 before the match).

Under the organizers’ best scenario, Canada in the United States would meet in the final, though both teams likely would have to win their groups for that to happen.

With a win and a draw, the Canadians have likely ensured their passage to the knockout round (even though their only goal through two matches was on a stoppage-time penalty kick in the opener against China). The Americans play their second match Friday night against Sweden, another team that could have a FIFA gripe: Despite being the world’s fifth-ranked team, the Swedes were not a seeded team in the tournament, with FIFA instead selecting Brazil (world No. 7). So Sweden got randomly placed in the so-called “Group of Death” with the United States, Nigeria and Australia.

Still, FIFA’s tinkering with the bracket could still backfire. If the United States wins Group D and Canada finishes second in Group A, they will meet in the quarterfinals, just like Germany and France probably will.