Just How Unfair Is The U.S.'s World Cup Draw?

What's the best way to pick a sport's ultimate champion? Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the fickle nature of competitions, from the World Cup to the NFL playoffs to college football playoffs.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it's time now for sports. College football is winding down, the pros have their eyes on the playoff - and in that other football, soccer, the World Cup draw is done. So, this week is all about tournaments. Mike Pesca has some thoughts on how they are put together. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Good morning. There are some people who would say our football is the other football, but they don't live here, so let's stay with the conceit.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, let's start with college football. Yesterday's games kind of shook up the BCS. Looks like everyone's picking Auburn and Florida State to play for the title, huh?

PESCA: That's right. There were two undefeated teams going into yesterday. Florida State was one. They beat Duke, staying undefeated. Ohio State lost to Michigan State, meaning there are a slew of one-loss teams. So, of these - nine I counted, by the way - of these one-loss teams, it seems that Auburn has the best case to be invited to the championship game. That will almost certainly be what happened. And the reason is that they play in the SEC, the toughest conference. And they beat the best competitor, Alabama, and then that happened rather recently. So, even though you could make a good case that maybe Alabama is a better team that Auburn, hey, Auburn beat Alabama. No rational person would (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: Gotta win the game, yo.

PESCA: That's right.

MARTIN: OK. So, this is kind of a crazy way for a season to wind up. This is the last year, though, for the BCS. What happens after that?

PESCA: They're going to a playoff. It will be a four-game playoff, at least in the beginning and maybe for a while. Interestingly, if this year were a four-game playoff, even though I was just speaking about how there's pretty much consensus that Auburn deserves the shot for playing for the national championship, I think if you had to pick four teams, there'd be a huge amount of controversy. I think teams like Baylor and Michigan State would have great cases for the fourth seed. It would be a much better debate than this year's debate would be. I don't know. It would probably be a much fairer tournament but more feelings would be hurt.

MARTIN: What about the World Cup? How does soccer pick its field?

PESCA: You know, so, the World Cup's like college football in that the teams really don't all get to play each other. And the top eight teams get separated but then after that what FIFA, the governing body, does is they want to have geographic diversity. But, really, most of the best teams are in Europe but they don't want all the other European teams playing each other. So, you get a situation where the USA has to play Germany and Portugal, teams, according to FIFA's own rankings, are both in the top five. How is that fair? Fair? It sort of rhymes with FIFA but it doesn't ever really. The Netherlands and France in the same conference. It's really tough to do but I don't know that FIFA does a good job.

MARTIN: Real quick - what does the NFL do and what's the best system?

PESCA: The NFL, they invite eight teams per conference and it's a nice little - or six teams per conference - it's a nice little playoff. All the other American leagues, the teams pretty much play each other. So, in the World Cup and college football, you have the teams who don't really play each other, and it's easier to construct a tournament when the teams have the same basic basis for who they play, and you could just go by one loss record. The best system? I don't know. NBA is pretty good. A bunch of seven-game series. But you know what's interesting? The English Premier League - no playoffs at all. Unsatisfying to Americans but you can't say it's not fair.

MARTIN: Flip a coin - NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks, Mike.

This is NPR News.

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