Group of Death?

An analytical look at the potential permutations to worry about ahead of Friday's World Cup draw.

Last Updated: 05/12/13 at 16:17

At 1pm local time (4pm GMT) on December 6th, the eyes of the world will be firmly fixed on the dream holiday destination of Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. For it is here that the draw for the 20th FIFA World Cup will take place, with the 32 competing teams now booked on the plane.

The teams have already been seeded and clustered into pots; separated according to current FIFA ranking and region. In simple terms: the organisers aim to keep the top teams apart and ensure cross-continental encounters in the group stages...

It all sounds fairly straightforward. Although the seedings always throw up surprises owing to the volatility of the FIFA rankings, not least that Switzerland (ranked 7th at the time the teams were seeded) and Colombia (4th) will be among the top seeds. Brazil were ranked 11th by FIFA (just behind England) at the time of the seeding which is largely because - as hosts - they qualify automatically and hence have played fewer competitive matches. Still, their ranking (which has since risen to 10th), is hard to comprehend given the precocious talents of Neymar and co, plus the fact they recently beat reigning World Cup champions Spain 3-0 to claim the Confederations Cup.

Cue the inevitable debate about the FIFA rankings, the dreaded "group of death" and perceived "easy routes" to the second round. It seems that Switzerland have been written off as the top-pot team that every other country should want in their group. While apparently the "worst possible scenario for England" would be to draw Spain, Germany or Brazil from Pot 1, the USA (Pot 2) and Ghana or Chile (Pot 3). Apparently. And let's throw a few clich├ęs into the mix as well shall we? How about: "There is no such thing as an easy group?" Yes, that'll do nicely.

But how accurate are the widely held assumptions about the so-called groups of death? And how much do we really understand about some of the competing countries? Few Englishman would have expected the Chile team to comfortably overturn their national side at Wembley a few weeks ago. Maybe the FIFA rankings were right to place Switzerland among the top seeds after their impressive qualifying campaign?

By applying a unique statistical model, we are able to more accurately define the relative strengths of all 32 qualified teams and - in doing so - understand which countries you really want to avoid.

The results may surprise a few...


Brazil are underrated

That may sound strange, but FIFA had Brazil ranked 11th. Our objective analysis shows that host nation Brazil is in fact the strongest team in the tournament. As hosts, of course, they'll routinely be placed in Group A and will be one of the favourites. Although we won't truly know if they have the best chance, until the groups are finalised and we've run our post-draw prediction model.

South American teams will dominate

Indeed it's a South America 1-2-3, with Argentina and Colombia the 2nd and 3rd strongest teams respectively, behind Brazil. Reigning World Cup champions Spain are 4th, with Europe's other leading contender, Germany, in 5th. So it seems that FIFA's ranking for Colombia (and subsequent seeding into Pot 1) was justified and fans of Pot 4 hopefuls England, Netherlands, Italy and Portugal should be careful who they wish for come December 6.

The strength of South American teams (Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador also appear in our Top 10) is further enhanced by the tournament location. Competing nations from other continents should not underestimate the impact of home advantage - no European team has ever won a World Cup on South American soil. Indeed, of the six previous occasions the World Cup has been played in the continent, South American teams have won each time. Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 as the host nation and again the last time the competition was played in Brazil in 1950. Two of Brazil's five World Cup victories have come in Latin America - winning in 1962 (staged in Chile) and again in 1970 (in Mexico).

Belgium are overrated

Our model suggests that the FIFA seedings were right for six of the top eight teams in Pot 1, but shows that Belgium and Switzerland are overrated. Despite Belgium's superstar squad (Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and co) and Switzerland's unbeaten qualifying campaign, our model ranks them 14th and 16th respectively from the 32 qualified teams - behind Netherlands, Russia, England and Portugal. So fans of teams in Pots 2, 3 and 4 should indeed hope to meet Switzerland, but should also not be afraid of playing Belgium.

We assume too much

Our model also suggests that teams should be slightly more wary of playing Mexico (ranked 21) than the USA (22) from Pot 3, and should also see Nigeria (18) as a much bigger threat than Ghana (27) from Pot 2 - despite recent news speculation that USA and Ghana would present the biggest "group of death" threats for England. Perhaps we assume that Ghana are stronger, because four years ago in South Africa we saw them reach the quarter-finals.

Don't underestimate France

According to our model, France (8th) are much stronger than FIFA's ranking (21st) would suggest. This may raise some eyebrows given their struggles at the last World Cup, but a closer look will reveal a strong qualifying campaign where France went the distance with Spain and only finished three points behind them. Conversely, our model suggests that Italy are weaker (20th vs 8th) than the FIFA rankings suggest. Italy qualified with ease, but in a relatively weaker group. This, coupled with only two victories in the last eight games (they've recently drawn with Armenia, Denmark and Nigeria), explains their lowly position in our rankings.

So the real group of death for England - according to objective data, not perception - would be Brazil, Mexico and France. The easiest route to the Round of 16 would undoubtedly be Switzerland, Honduras and Algeria.

Of course there is always a context to the data. Despite Italy's lowly ranking in our model following recent poor performances, they have a history of rising to the big occasion. Perhaps the truth is that there really is no such thing as an easy group. Hence the allure of the World Cup and why it captures the imagination of football fans across the globe. But at least we know now for sure, what the real groups of death could look like come December 6th...

What do you think is the true Group of Death? Let us know in the comments section below.

A version of this article originally appeared on Football Fanalytics

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