The only thing certain about Friday afternoon's World Cup draw would seem to be that some country or countries are going to feel like they're the victims of a vast global conspiracy. Jere Longman of the New York Times takes a look at the long history of conspiracy theories that have followed the announcement of the fields for past tournaments.
Science fiction writers would be hard-pressed to come up with such compelling narratives. Sophia Loren is accused of wearing a magnetic ring when making the draw in 1990, while the Germans were accused of heating and cooling balls so that they'd know when to pick Italy and stick them in the toughest group. That was before the last World Cup, in 2006. Italy went on to win the trophy, which should tell you a good bit about how much stock to put in the ideas that there are puppet masters pulling strings behind the scenes.
Longman speaks to soccer watchers who think that these theories are created because of deep-seated nationalist feelings tied into soccer. That makes sense. Why else would you be focusing on ping pong balls than the lovely Ms. Klum?
The lack of those feelings are cited as the reason absurd reactions are absent from the professional sports leagues we prefer in the United States. It makes sense, until you remember the 1985 NBA Draft lottery. The Knicks had been bad for years, a situation that is all too familiar, and desperately needed a jolt of talent and excitement when David Stern opened the envelope for the team that won the first pick and the right to draft Patrick Ewing.
Plenty of people thought that was fixed, just as there are those convinced that the Steelers get special consideration from the NFL and others who believe the Detroit Red Wings will never be treated the same way as the rest of the teams in the NFL. Those thoughts may not be picked up with the fervor surrounding the World Cup, but American sports fans are hardly innocent when it comes to seeing nefarious hands involved in setting the table for certain teams or players.
Longman writes that FIFA, soccer's governing body, opens the door to these kinds of crackpot theories because they constantly change the rules for seeding the teams in the draw. What then do we say about the NCAA and their methods of filling the brackets in basketball and coming up with a national champion in football?
We may not see black magic at work when Illinois gets a 10-seed and Rhode Island is sent to the NIT, but it is just as arbitrary and imperfect. At least you can't get into the World Cup without hosting it or winning a spot on the field. You can't say that about the BCS, which makes you wonder if we're looking in the wrong place for the real conspiracy.
Maybe that sounds irrational, but there isn't much rational about sports fandom. Whether you're rooting for your country's soccer team or the local baseball outfit, sports are always seen through a prism that conforms to your preferences and biases. Crazy? Maybe, but that's the way we like it.