How to kill off World Cup 'group of death'

December 6, 2013 12:50 AM

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How to kill off World Cup 'group of death'

Some countries are probably looking forward to the World Cup draw more than others. Ivory Coast fans, whose team always seems to end up in the dreaded "group of death" - like Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006, then Brazil and Portugal in 2010 - may be preparing for the worst.

There is also a reason for all Europeans to be nervous, as I will explain later.

Consider how the groups are formed. Already the teams have been placed in four pots of eight teams - though it has yet to be decided which one of nine European teams will end up in pot three. The groups will consist of one team from each pot.

All the seeded teams are in pot one. This ensures that they don't have to play each other until the later stages of the competition.

All the unseeded European teams are in pot four, apart from the one that will end up in pot three - this was originally expected to be France, but Fifa announced this week that any European team may be picked. A random choice will be made.

In the other two pots are teams from Asia, North and Central America (pot two), and those from Africa plus two unseeded teams from South America (pot three).

Now let's look at the deadliest group that could possibly be drawn from the pots.

To do this, we first have to rank the teams by strength. One way would be to use Fifa's world rankings, but as I explained last week playing friendly internationals can cause a team to sink way down the Fifa rankings, even when it wins. So we will use a modified Fifa ranking that ignores friendlies.

Using this ranking system, pot one, containing the top seeds, comes out the strongest, with an average ranking of 6.25, followed by the European pot (pot four) with an average in the mid-teens. It would have been 14.25 if France (ranked 15th), had found itself in pot three, as had been expected until Fifa made a U-turn this week. It will be slightly more or slightly less if one of the other European teams ends up there instead.

This is why Europeans should be nervous. Teams in pots two and three may easily find themselves in a tough group, as they will face two teams from the "strong" pots (pots one and four) rather than just one.

Fifa value games between European and South American teams more highly than any others.

If England were to play Spain and beat them they'd get more Fifa ranking points than the Ivory Coast would get for a similar victory. It's one reason why just three teams from outside Europe and South America are in the world's top 30 - the USA, the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

For the sake of argument, we will assume in what follows that it is France in pot three.

If so, the strongest group that could be drawn, following Fifa rules, is: Spain (ranked 1st), USA (11th), Chile (8th) and the Netherlands (5th). This group contains four of the top 11 teams in the world. You might describe it as the ultimate group of death.

The weakest possible group would have champagne corks popping in Bogota: Colombia (14th), South Korea (50th), Algeria (39th) and Croatia (which ties with Mexico for 22nd place in our ranking). In this hypothetical group, the average ranking is 31.25.

In other words, the gap between the toughest and the weakest groups in terms of average world ranking is 25 places.

But there is a different way the pots could be organised, and that is simply to place teams in pots according to their world ranking (minus friendly games, of course).

The deadliest group possible using this method, and obeying Fifa rules, is: Spain (1st), Switzerland (9th), Ivory Coast (19th) and Australia (36th). Average ranking 16.

The weakest group is: Chile (8th), Greece (17th), Cameroon (34th) and South Korea (50th). Average ranking 27.25.

This time the difference between the toughest and weakest groups in terms of average world ranking is just 11 places.


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