NOW we know the 32 nations that will be heading to the World Cup. The cast of those who miss out includes a side that reached the semi-finals in the past two tournaments (Holland), a four-time winner and Euro 2012 finalist (Italy) and the side that won the past two Copa Americas (Chile).

Three of the last four champions of Africa (Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Zambia) will also be staying at home, as will three semi-finalists from the past two Asian Cups (UAE, Iraq and Uzbekistan). And while we are at it, so too will the last two finalists of the Gold Cup, Concacaf’s continental equivalent, Jamaica and the United States.

If nothing else, this tells us is that international football is not permanent. There is such a thing as social mobility and it is often not based solely on a “golden generation” or the birth of some all-conquering superstar who carries a team. The base has expanded: there are more countries who can be competitive and the gap between the very best and the middle tier has contracted. Pretty much the polar opposite of what has happened in club football.

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The argument over what constitutes the “highest level” of football is a tired and empty one. It is obvious that even the best national sides in the world would struggle to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals. It is not just the concentration of talent that exists in club football, it is the fact that these sides train together all year long under top managers who are given time to work. The product, inevitably, will be better.

But that shouldn’t matter. A higher standard does not automatically imply a more attractive proposition. In fact, the inclusiveness of the international game and the fact that all matches can become tight affairs ought to be the selling point.

The two 2014 finalists, Germany and Argentina, won just four of seven games each in the 90 minutes. And of the 14 combined games they played, just two were decided by a margin of more than a single goal. This simply doesn’t exist at the highest of club football, whether domestically or in the Champions League. And it is a strong selling point: we may not be able to offer top quality, but we can offer top drama and uncertainty.

THAT said, this World Cup qualifying campaign, and the forthcoming draw, serve as reminders that perhaps it is time to, once again, revise the Fifa rankings. Because, yes, they do matter. When the draw rolls around on December 1 you may notice that Poland will be in Pot 1 while the likes of Spain, England and Colombia will not be top seeds. And that may surprise you since Poland failed to qualify for the last World Cup and exited Euro 2016 at the quarter-final stage, winning two of four games.

But it is merely a function of playing the Fifa rankings game, something they have done better than most. The rankings are calculated over a rolling four-year period (in this case, going from November 2013 to October 2017). They award points based on the nature of the game (competitive or friendly), the ranking of the opponent and, obviously, the result. An average for each match played is then calculated, with recent results counting more.

What this means is that if you are clever, you can pick the right opponent at the right time in your friendly matches and maximise your average. Or, in some cases, pick no opponent at all, because if your competitive results are good, then why jeopardise them by throwing a friendly into the average?

Which is what Poland did. Drawn into a weak qualifying group (Denmark, Romania, Armenia, Montenegro and Kazakhstan), they realised they had little to gain from playing friendlies. So they kept those to a minimum. They played just eight friendlies in the three years leading up to the draw. England, Spain and Italy – three sides who most definitely did not play the Fifa rankings game – played 14 in that period. And all three are ranked lower than Poland.

They are not the only ones. Countries like Romania and Switzerland have done the same. In fact, Romania were one of the pioneers. Just over two years ago, they ranked as high as seventh in the world despite failing to qualify for Euro 2012 or the 2014 World Cup and finishing second in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

It seems obvious that this “bug” in the machine is something Fifa ought to address in double-quick time.

THERE seem to be few things we enjoy more than tearing down public figures. So maybe the backlash against Gary Lineker for agreeing to host the 2018 World Cup draw on December 1 should not surprise us.

Lineker will be presenting the event alongside a Russian journalist, Maria Komandnaya, and will, no doubt, be paid handsomely for it. Given that he has been a Fifa critic in the past (calling it a “revolting organisation” with “nauseating” levels of “corruption”) some took the opportunity of calling him a hypocrite. He is happy to rip Fifa to shreds from the safety of the Match of the Day sofa, but when they hand him a bagful of cash, he toes the line and becomes their stooge.

First and foremost, the bulk of Lineker’s attacks on Fifa were related to scandal and the Sepp Blatter administration. Most of those folks are gone and many are on trial. The new regime under Gianni Infantino, for the time being at least, has avoided scandal and accusations, at least relative to the Blatter era.

But this might also be a good time to remind ourselves that Lineker is not a journalist nor an investigator. He is a former footballer turned presenter and independent contractor. Sure, he is forthright on social media and isn’t afraid to be controversial at times, but fundamentally he is in the entertainment business. People pay him and he reads off a teleprompter.

By taking the Fifa gig, he is not being hypocritical and there is no conflict of interest. Besides, if you rely on Lineker for your Fifa news and you believe this will somehow compromise his objectivity (something he denies), then you are the one with problems, not him.