Tartan threat to England seeding for World Cup

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The Independent Online

Scotland's ascent yesterday to their highest-ever position in the Fifa world rankings was good news in more ways than one for Tartan Army fans, but could prove a nightmare for England and their beleaguered manager, Steve McClaren – or whoever replaces him if he is sacked. The repercussions could hound England into the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, where a berth as top seeds is at stake.

Despite Scotland's mixed month in Euro 2008 qualifying – they beat Ukraine 3-1 and lost 2-0 in Georgia – they rose one place to 13th, their best since the rankings were started in 1993.

England, after a 3-0 win over Estonia and a 2-1 defeat in Moscow to Russia, fell two places, from ninth place to 11th. So far, so good, for Scotland. And so far, so bad, for England, with the Auld Enemy on their tails. But it gets better, or worse, depending on where your allegiance lies.

Uefa, European football's governing body, confirmed to The Independent last night that the seedings for the 2010 World Cup qualifying – for which the draw takes place on 25 November – will be dependent solely on the next Fifa rankings, which appear on 23 November.

As things stand, England are the ninth-best nation in Europe: Argentina and Brazil are the only non-European nations in Fifa's top 11. As such, England would be among the nine top seeds for the 2010 draw, and guaranteed not to meet giants such as Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Scotland, as things stand, will be in the second pot of seeds, which would be a huge improvement in itself on their seeding for Euro 2008 qualifying, when they they were fourth seeds and hence ended up in the toughest section alongside Italy, France and Ukraine.

Yet the potentially killer blow for England – and utopia for Scotland – could arrive if England do badly in their two games between now and the next rankings while Scotland do well. England face a friendly with Austria then a Euro 2008 qualifier with Croatia while Scotland play Italy.

Scotland could leapfrog England to 11th place in Fifa's rankings – and hence earn top-seed status for 2010 qualifying – while England could fall to second-seed status. Fifa's finest number-crunchers were wary yesterday of predicting that, but a spokesman for the world governing body's information services department, which weights all results from the past four years to produce the rankings, said: "After a quick calculation, it might be possible, if England lose both [their] matches [and Scotland win]."

So not only are England staring down the barrel at exclusion from Euro 2008, they possibly face an uphill task to the World Cup in South Africa before a ball has even been kicked. England are already reliant on other results going their way and then beating Croatia to reach Euro 2008. Scotland would certainly qualify for Euro 2008 if they beat Italy on 17 November, while a draw would be enough if France lost in Ukraine four days later.

The seeding for 2010 qualifying is important because there are 13 places up for grabs for 53 European teams, who will be divided into nine qualifying groups. Therefore only the group winners are certain to go through, while the eight best runners-up from the nine groups will have to compete in two-legged play-offs for the four other slots.

Scotland would be delighted with second-seed status for 2010, and almost delirious if they achieved better. Since Alex McLeish took over as coach in January from Walter Smith, who laid the foundations for Scotland's renaissance, Scotland have won seven games from nine, including beating France in Paris.

England, on the other hand, have wobbled under McClaren, drawing at home to Macedonia in Euro 2008 qualifying and dropping away points in Israel, Croatia and Russia. They still expect first-seed status for 2010, and anything less would be a major blow.

Elsewhere in the rankings, Argentina returned to No 1 after winning both their first qualifiers for 2010, 2-0 in Venezuela and then 2-0 at home to Chile. Brazil are second while Italy, who topped the rankings last month, fell to third despite two wins of their own. The World Cup holders matched Argentina with two 2-0 wins in October, over South Africa and Georgia, but gained fewer ranking points because of Georgia's own low ranking and the fact that the game against South Africa was a friendly.

The Italians also dropped points under Fifa's rolling system for calculations, with a heavily weighted win over Ukraine in October 2006 now being devalued.

The Republic of Ireland stay in 32nd place as they look for a new manager following Steve Staunton's exit, while Northern Ireland also stand still in 36th place. Wales have dropped five places to 58th.

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