The Slatest

The Strongest Evidence Behind the Dubious Claim That the World Cup Draw Was Rigged

This being the Internet and this being the world’s most popular sport, it didn’t take long after Friday’s World Cup draw for people to begin espousing conspiracy theories making the somewhat dubious case that the eight four-team groups in the global soccer tournament were never actually left up to chance as FIFA contends.

Nothing necessarily new here, of course. Conspiracy theories surrounding sports draws and lotteries are about as common as UFO sightings—and with so much of the world watching this particular one, it was only a matter of time before someone on the Internet cried foul.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about the evidence being offered by such FIFA truthers is that journalists, try as they might, haven’t been able to completely debunk the X-Files-themed evidence being offered as proof. At least not yet.

So, without further ado, let’s take a short walk down conspiracy-theory lane and examine the strongest evidence being offered by those futbol fans convinced that something was amiss in Costa do Sauipe on Friday. (Tinfoil hats optional.)

Exhibit A: The All-Knowing Spanish-Language Twitter Account

The first piece of evidence that gained traction online on the day of the draw came via Twitter handle @FraudeMundial14. The Spanish-language account appeared to predict the members of Group F—Argentina, Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia—one day before the actual draw. “We profoundly regret that such a pure sport is tainted by an international organization that acts based on its economic interests,” noted one tweet. Yet another tweet pointed out: “it isn’t our intention to destroy all expectations of the cup draw. That’s why we will only publish the group in which Argentina will participate.” A whistleblower with a soul, apparently.

Eurosport took a closer look at the account, quickly dismissing those saying the person who wrote the tweet merely changed the timestamp. So what else could explain it? Well, someone could have set up half a dozen accounts and then used a third-party program to write up the 500-odd combinations for Argentina’s group. Then, once the draw was final, the person would have simply needed to delete the incorrect tweets. Eurosport seems to like that idea.

“Not exactly simple, we’ll grant you, but a lot easier than deceiving the world by fixing the World Cup draw,” notes the European sports network. “Even if the idea of it is a lot less entertaining.”

Exhibit B: The Hands of FIFA

Case closed then? Not exactly. First, there’s the question of how Argentine newspaper La Nación claims two of its reporters were independently assured Argentina would be placed in Group F. And then, on Sunday night, more fuel was added to the conspiracy-theory fire after video began making the rounds on social networks that seems to raise even more questions.

Set to X-Files theme music, the edited video, also in Spanish, raises two basic issues with how the draw was carried out. The process of selecting teams into groups was “bafflingly complex,” as Eurosport aptly described it, so we won’t get into nitty-gritty details here. All you need to know is that there were bowls on a large stage, each bowl with several balls, all of which had little slips of papers rolled up inside. FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke was charged with opening the balls with country names, whereas Brazilian actress Fernanda Lima was charged with opening those balls that decided the positions each country would have within the group.

The video points out two key differences between the way Valcke and Lima did their jobs: First off, when Valcke is handed a ball, he takes it out of sight for a second and you never actually see him taking the piece of paper out of the ball. Contrast that with the way Lima opens the ball and takes out the paper in plain view.

Exhibit C: The Unrolled Strips of Paper

Then comes what is perhaps the most (a relative term, we remind up) convincing suggestion that something fishy was going on. When Lima lets go of her slips of paper after holding them up to the camera, they each immediately roll back up, just as you’d expect from a paper that had been rolled tightly into a ball. Yet the papers that Valcke holds up to the camera in the video don’t roll up quite as quickly nor tightly when he lets go. The implication? The members of the group were fixed, but their order was left to chance.

Of course one possible explanation would be that the sheets with the names of the countries were rolled up at a different time, and maybe even by a different hand, than those with the positions on them. So as damning as the video may appear at first blush, it’s far from a case-clinching argument.

The Alleged Motivation

Setting the evidence aside, there’s also the question of why FIFA would go through the trouble of rigging a draw being broadcast live around the globe. 

Brian Tuohy, writing for Sports on Earth, raises the possibility that FIFA would want to punish certain teams, as if the soccer authority has some grudge against the United States, for example. But it could make sense to look at it from the other side. Who did the draw appear to benefit? Brazil, the host country, and Argentina, which is home to the world’s best (and most popular) player, Lionel Messi, found themselves in two of the easiest groups. And as a bonus, the way the groups were set up means that South American superpowers Brazil and Argentina could actually face each other in the final.

Conspiracy or no conspiracy, few people could argue that a final between the host and the team with the world’s best player—two teams that just happen to be perennial soccer rivals—would certainly make for some good television.

Other World Cup coverage in Slate: