ABU DHABI// As the footballing world turns its gaze towards Abu Dhabi's inaugural hosting of the Club World Cup, one of Fifa's most powerful figures yesterday admitted that the sport's governing body "made a mistake" in the seeding process for the European play-offs section of the World Cup. Jerome Valcke, Fifa's general secretary who is in the capital to oversee the showpiece event, confessed that the last-minute decision to seed teams for the four play-offs, which came just a fortnight before the last round of matches in Europe's nine qualification groups, should have been made earlier.
"There was no rule and that was a mistake," said Valcke, speaking at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel. "Next time we will change this. Even before the qualifiers for the World Cup in 2014 start, we will say the seedings will be under the following rule." France, Portugal, Russia and Greece were all seeded for the draw as they were the four highest-ranked sides of the eight play-off teams. The controversial change caused outrage in Ireland, who were unseeded and handed a tie with France after finishing second in their qualification group.
Ireland's dismay at the system was compounded when the striker Thierry Henry's handball sent France through at the expense of Giovanni Trapattoni's men in the most controversial circumstances imaginable. Valcke believes the seedings were fair but accepts claims the change of policy should have been disclosed at the beginning of qualification. "It was a late decision, one which would have created no noise at all had Henry not touched the ball with his hand," said Valcke.
"Next time, we should make a decision on the seedings before the competition has started. But the way teams were seeded this time was the best sporting way to utilise their recent results." The Henry incident led to renewed calls for additional referees. Valcke was in Cape Town last week when Fifa's general committee decided not to introduce two further match officials at the 2010 finals. Had the executive committee been convinced of the merits of the system then the proposal would have had to be ratified by football's rule-making body in Zurich.
"It is not Fifa who decides whether this [referee] experiment can take place," said Valcke. "It is under the regulations of the International Football Association Board (IFAB), only the IFAB can decide whether such an experiment can take place. "That's what happened when it was decided we would run this experiment in the first phase of the Europa League. "If we want to extend it to other leagues, tournaments or competitions, we have to first go to the IFAB for a meeting.
"These are held once a year. It is very strict, which is one of the good things about football - the rules are the same for a long period of time. "The rules [over play-off seedings] were not changed. That was different, it was a change in the regulations of a competition. "Here [with additional referees] you are looking at the laws of the game and to do that you need to go to the IFAB, where we need a majority decision."
Valcke added that the Uefa president Michel Platini had urged Fifa not to include additional referees at the 2010 World Cup when he agreed to the Europa League experiment. "Platini said, 'Please make sure we are not using these two additional referees for the World Cup in 2010,'" said Valcke, who was appointed Fifa general secretary under president Sepp Blatter in July 2007, less than eight months after being sacked as the body's marketing director after failed sponsorship negotiations with two groups - MasterCard and Visa - bidding for the right to back the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
"He knew that we were not ready. It is a long process - we would be changing the laws of the game." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org