On Friday, a friend of mine on Facebook posted “Here’s to hoping my finals don’t go as poorly as the USMNT group draw.” “Oh sh*t!” I thought, and immediately checked the damage. My worst fears were confirmed. Well, some very bad fears, at least. The USA was in a certified “Group of Death”. With 184 days before the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve been wondering: just how bad is it?
Right now Googling “group of death” produces the headlines “World Cup 2014 Draw: Group G another Group of Death with Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana” from SB Nation, “U.S. draws into ‘Group of Death’ for 2014 World Cup” from Yahoo Sports, and “U.S. drawn into World Cup ‘Group of Death’: Ghana, Portugal …” from USA Today. But also among the top hits are “Spain Have Nothing To Fear From Group Of Death” from Football365.com, “Australia in World Cup ‘Group of Death’ after draw” from The Australian, and “World Cup 2014 draw: Spain and Holland in ‘group of death …” from The Guardian. Group G consists of Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the USA while Group B features Spain, Netherlands, Chile, and Australia. There’s another group, Group D, with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, and Italy, that reportedly has experts saying “like, yeah, that’s pretty messed up dude” as well.
In his article “World Cup 2014 Groups of Death: From Deadly to Deadliest” on Pro Soccer Talk at NBC, Nicholas Mendola ranks Group B deadly, D deadlier, and G deadliest, seemingly using the combined FIFA World Rankings as a proxy. That’s obviously not perfect, but a reasonable place to start. In his discussion of Group G, where the Americans landed, he points out that all four teams advanced out of their groups in South Africa four years ago. That’s intimidating (yikes!), but Group B features three teams who advanced last time, and Australia didn’t based on their insufficient goal differential, having the same record as Ghana in 2010’s Group D.1 Also Spain and Netherlands faced off in the 2010 Final, only to meet in their first match of the tournament this time around. So really, just how bad is it? Which groups are “easy”, which “deadly”, and which “deadliest”?
I looked at teams’ world rankings, prior world cup appearances, and prior appearances beyond the initial group stage. The method is a little more complicated than Mendola’s2, but not much. This is a question without an answer, especially until the tournament starts. Back in 2006 the USA also seemingly found itself in ‘the group of death’, but with all four teams still being ‘alive’ heading into their final group game, I recall commentator Tommy Smyth pointing out that really, it was the group of life! Of course it depends what you mean. ‘Group of death’ is a Wikipedia page (like, duh), which includes the following definition:
A group of death in a multi-stage tournament is a group which is unusually competitive, because the number of strong competitors in the group is greater than the number of qualifying places available for the next phase of the tournament.
So we’re looking for “strong competitors”. The spirit of the term suggests that they be evenly matched, despite Smyth’s humorous point that technically, a ‘group of death’ would be two good teams quickly eliminating two bad teams. So I looked at teams’ world rankings, world cup appearances, and appearances beyond the initial group stage to gauge strength, and the standard deviation of those measures within the group to determine parity. I would love, absolutely love to include player performance (probably via total club salaries earned by a national team’s players), but rosters aren’t set just yet, so we’ll keep it simple.
Strength of World Cup Groups by Averages (standard deviations in parentheses)
||Avg FIFA World Ranking (Nov.)
||Avg Prior World Cup Appearances
||Avg Prior Times Advanced
|A: BRA, CRO, MEX, CMR
|B: ESP, HOL, CHI, AUS
|C: COL, GRE, CIV, JPN
|D: URU, CRC, ENG, ITA
|E: SUI, ECU, FRA, HON
|F: ARG, BIH, IRN, NGA
|G: GER, POR, GHA, USA
|H: BEL, ALG, RUS, KOR
Is Group G the group of death? Maybe. The average world ranking in Group D is only three lower, and historically teams in Group D have had the most success, averaging 11 appearances and 7.75 trips past the first round per team. Standard deviations of 5.1 and 4.09, respectively, indicate those results aren’t concentrated in just one or two teams. I think we can throw out Group B, with Australia decidedly weakening it. (Unless the Aussies should win some games come summer time, then forget I said anything.) The average world ranking of D is 21, but the standard deviation is an even greater 22; Chile ranks third highest in the group at 15th, but Australia is way down at 59th, the lowest ranked team in the tournament. If you add the rankings of all teams in Group G (47) or Group D (57), you get a lower number than Australia’s 59. So despite featuring last Cup’s final two teams, group B is out on parity. D and G both look mighty tough.
Which groups have less quality? Well the average ranking in Group H is the worst of any at a 28.25 (remember, it’s a 32 team tournament). Group H is also in the lower half of groups in historical measures. Group C has a high average rank of 20.25, third highest, but its teams have little historical success, with 12 prior appearances and three trips past the first round fairly evenly distributed among Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. Let’s stop looking at groups as wholes and start looking at them from the perspective of just one team.
Who got off easy? Argentina, no question. In addition to being in their element in South America (theoretically), they drew a Bosnia-Herzegovina team playing in its first tournament as its own nation (being formerly part of Yugoslavia), ranked 21st, Nigeria, ranked 36th, and Iran, ranked 45th. Not bad when you’re in a 32 team tournament and face two teams outside the top 32 in the world in your group. Yeah, Argentina looks nearly as good in their group as Australia looks bad in theirs. Belgium, at 11th, and 11 ranks ahead of next best in their group Russia, and Switzerland, 8th, also 11 ranks ahead of next best in their group France, also appear to have relatively easy paths to the Round of 16.
Is there a worse collection of three teams the USA could be with? Certainly, yes. In a nutshell, the draw works as follows: the hosts Brazil, and the seven highest teams in the October world rankings (when qualifying ended) constitute Pot 1, and each get their own group. They each draw once from Pot 2, the remaining African and South American teams, Pot 3, the remaining Asian and North and Central American teams, and Pot 4, the remaining European teams.3 Here’s that same table from before, but for Pots instead of Groups:
Strength of World Cup Pots by Averages (standard deviations in parentheses)
||Avg FIFA World Ranking (Nov.)
||Avg Prior World Cup Appearances
||Avg Prior Times Advanced
|1: BRA, ESP, COL, URU, SUI, ARG, GER, BEL
|2: CMR, CHI, CIV, ECU, NGA, GHA, ALG
|3: MEX, AUS, JPN, CRC, HON, IRN, USA, KOR
|4: CRO, HOL, GRE, ENG, ITA, FRA, BIH, POR, RUS
So stop hating FIFA, because they did an okay job. It’s impossible (with one exception; check out footnote three) for teams in the same pot to be in the same group, and the pots are tiered fairly well by region and skill. Pot 1 is clearly the best teams, 4 the second best, 2 the third, and Pot 3 contains the weakest teams. There’s much more variation in Pot 3, but to eliminate that FIFA would have to break up the regions. It would be silly if after playing Honduras multiple times in qualifying, we went to Brazil and played them again in the first round of the tournament. It’s a bummer to get a tough group, but it would be pretty lame, worse I think, to have a group consisting of two good European teams and two bad European teams. FIFA’s current system is fine.
Within that system, what’s the worst that could have happened to the USA? Going off world rankings, it’s getting drawn by Spain (1st in the world) along with Chile (15th) and Portugal (5th). The odds of that happening were roughly 0.19%, or nineteen in every ten thousand. Given that the USA is the highest ranked team in Pot 3, theoretically that’s the toughest possible group all around. In reality the USA did get Portugal, and Germany is in fact second in the world, but Ghana is 24th. In fact, three teams in Pot 2 rank higher than Ghana.4 Of course, say you thought Brazil is the toughest in Pot 1, as they’re 10th in the world, are the host country, and they’re %@#%ing Brazil. It is possible the USA (or some other poor team in Pot 3) could have got Brazil, Portugal (5th in the world), and Italy (7th). Goodness me that is terrifying. Good thing the odds of that happening were roughly 0.04%, or four in every ten thousand. I’m certainly glad it didn’t happen.
What did happen is the USA ended up with Germany (2nd), Portugal (5th), and Ghana (24th, 31 total), no slouches any of ’em. But hey, from Germany’s perspective, they’re probably not too happy either seeing as they drew the highest ranked team in two of the three pots.5 Or consider how Costa Rica feels, being with Uruguay (6th), Italy (7th), and England (13th, 26 total)! In fact, Costa Rica might have it even harder-er, with Uruguay’s presumed familiarity with the continental atmosphere. At least the USA didn’t get any South American nations.
The bottom line is: I don’t hear Costa Rica complaining. Well, I’m not really listening. They probably are. But no, the bottom line is: NO WHINING American soccer fans! I whined along with everyone else in 2006, and look where it got us: an early exit with one draw and two losses. In 2002 we shocked Portugal 3-2, and played our best game of the tournament in a 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals. (Also, our head coach is German, and coached them to third as hosts in 2006.) In 2006 and 2010 we’ve played Ghana competitively, despite losing. We’re due. We should be ready. Buck the f$%^ up. And always remember the wise words of the late, great German player and coach Sepp Herberger:
The ball is round. The game lasts 90 minutes. Everything else is pure theory.
Oh yeah, and sometimes the game lasts more than 90 minutes. USA!!! USA!!! USA!!! I can’t wait.