Early Doors

Did FIFA fix the World Cup draw? Or is it a fantastic hackers’ coup?

Social networking websites are buzzing with conspiracy theories over the World Cup draw after a user on Twitter apparently correctly predicted two major elements of the draw.

But while the Tweets - all written in Spanish - have been shared tens of thousands of times around the world, many are already claiming that it's nothing more than an elaborate hoax by a group of computer hackers.

The Twitter account "Brasil 2014 Fraude" was newly-opened just a day before the draw, and at around 8pm British time the night before the draw it appeared to have correctly predicted that Italy would be the European team moved into Pot 2, and that Argentina would be in a group with Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia.

Using the hashtag #FifaFraude, the string of messages started out with a bold declaration against FIFA, claiming almost unbelievably that the tournament winner has already been chosen. You can read the original Spanish Tweets here, but here's our translation:

"We profoundly lament that a sport that is so pure is manipulated by an international organisation that acts on its economic interests… We are not trying to rid the World Cup of its excitement and euphoria. However, if this corrupt manipulation goes on we will consider ourselves obliged to publish the name of the winner of the competition, which has already been dictated by Blatter and his company from Switzerland.

"On the other hand, neither is it our intention to ruin all the drama of the World Cup draw. With that in mind, we will only publish the group in which Argentina will play. Let's begin."

Then followed the next two Tweets, which you won't need Spanish knowledge to understand. The first predicts correctly that Italy would be the team that came out of Pot 4 and put into Pot 2, while the second names Argentina's three group stage opponents:

There have been conspiracy theories running for years about possible ways of fixing the draw, with the favourite being that the balls are heated up somehow, or perhaps even vibrate via remote control, to let those doing the drawing know who to pick out next.

But the idea is ridiculous: the very best teams are already kept apart in the group stages thanks to the seeding system, and it seems ridiculous to believe that Geoff Hurst, Zinedine Zidane and Lothar Matthaeus would all be willing participants in a conspiracy.

Yet how could this prediction have been done the night before the draw took place?

The obvious answer is that the timestamps on the messages can be changed. Twitter itself stamps the messages with a time according to each user's timezone, so you could set your computer to pretend it's in in Western Samoa and therefore 11 hours behind GMT.

Bahia, where the draw took place, is only eight hours ahead of Samoa, negating this possibility since the messages appear to have been posted well over 12 hours before the draw.

So what else would explain it? A major security breach inside Twitter itself could be at the heart of it, but if that had happened we'd be confident that (a) the breach would have been widely publicised, and (b) all sorts of people would have been Tweeting like mad pretending to have predicted things far more interesting and scurrilous than Argentina's group for the World Cup draw.

So if there's no breach at Twitter, what else might have happened? The predictions only sprang to Twitter fame after the predictions were made, leading many to suggest that the account could simply have posted all the possible combinations and then deleted all the incorrect Tweets.

The problem with that theory is that all the Tweets were sent within a couple of minutes of each other, suggesting that they had been coped and pasted in one after another from a pre-prepared script.

That would be easily done for the Italy Tweet, but given that there were around 500 different possible combinations for Argentina's group then things must have been more complicated, apparently ruling out the possibility. But common sense still says that this just has to be a hoax - it must be, surely, they couldn't have fixed the draw, right?

And one person on chat website reddit appeared to have the answer. A user going by the name of "richvoshtssorsomethi" explained on a thread how easy it would be to generate Tweets containing all the different possible combinations of Argentina's draw, then use a third-party programme (an API) to send the Tweets automatically, all at the same time.

Then, when the draw actually happens, all the hundreds of incorrect Tweets are deleted, and the correct one is left. If the account is left private until all that is done, and subsequently changed into a public account, the 'true' prediction can be publicised after the event with nobody ever having a chance to see the incorrect prediction Tweets.

Yet even this scheme runs into a problem: other users on reddit claimed that Twitter limit the number of Tweets that can be automatically sent by an API to 100 an hour, far too few to guarantee predicting the right group.

That's the moment when you'd be forgiven for starting to think about the draw a bit more, and it's many conveniences for FIFA: Brazil and Spain can't meet until the final, assuming that they both win their groups; the semi-finals, if all matches go according to expected form, will be Brazil v Germany and Argentina v Spain; so a Brazil v Argentina or Brazil v Spain final are both strong possibilities.

Then there are the groups of death: three this time, rather than the usual one, meaning good early TV ratings and interest spread widely across the tournament. Splitting the groups of death also dilutes the chances of one of the 'big' teams (by which we mean ones which attract high TV ratings) going out early.

Other things start occurring to you then, such as the easy draw handed to Sepp Blatter's Switzerland and Michel Platini's France. And then there was the sight of Uruguay legend Alcides Ghiggia "accidentally" dropping one of the balls during the draw as he handed it to co-host Fernanda Lima.

We all assumed at the time that he fluffed the handover in order to get a look up her very short dress as she bent over to pick it up, but could it instead be that the red-hot, vibrating ball merely shocked his ageing fingers…?

So maybe, just maybe, there could be something in this after all…?

And then it occurs to you that by setting up just half a dozen different Twitter accounts, the hackers could cover all the bases without falling foul of Twitter's limitations. The fake accounts containing incorrect predictions are all subsequently deleted, as are all the incorrect predictions from the sole remaining account that contained the correct prediction. The account is then taken off 'private' mode, and the fun begins.

Not exactly simple, we'll grant you, but a lot easier than deceiving the world by fixing the World Cup draw. Even if the idea of it is a lot less entertaining.