Back in December, the draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil produced eight groups that vary wildly in difficulty.
This is a problem.
FIFA owes it to the soccer world to use a draw system that both rewards performance in non-World Cup years, and eliminates the randomness of group quality that has become a significant factor in the outcome of the tournament.
We’ll explain more below, but first, here’s the full draw (via @ESPNFC):
1. Based on Nate Silver’s Soccer Power Index ranking system (via ESPNFC’s World Cup preview), the third-best team in groups B (the Netherlands) and D (Italy) would be the best team in Group H.
2. Mexico, which needed a last-second miracle to finish fourth in CONCACAF qualifying, is the second-best team in its group. The United States, which finished first in CONCACAF qualifying, is the third-best team in its group.
3. Group H is so weak. Its highest-ranked team (Belgium) is ranked lower than the highest-ranked teams in all the other groups. Its second highest-ranked team (Russia) is ranked lower than the second highest-ranked teams in all but one other group. Its third and fourth highest-ranked teams are ranked lower than the third and fourth highest-ranked teams in all the other groups.
4. The difference between the average team in the strongest group (Group D) and the average team in the weakest group (Group H), is 19 spots in the SPI rankings.
These groups are uneven — laughably so — and it will have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the World Cup.
Here are the groups, ranked from strongest to weakest based on average SPI ranking (via ESPNFC’s World Cup preview):
- Group D: Uruguay (8), England (9), Italy (12), Costa Rica (23) [average team rank: 13.0].
- Group B: Spain (3), Chile (5), Netherlands (10), Australia (44) [average team rank: 15.5].
- Groupe G: Germany (4), Portugal (14), USA (21), Ghana (27) [average team rank: 16.5].
- Group E: France (7), Ecuador (11), Switzerland (22), Honduras (32) [average team rank: 18.0].
- Group C: Colombia (6), Ivory Coast (16), Greece (26), Japan (36) [average team rank: 21.0].
- Group F: Argentina (2), Bosnia-Herzegovina (15), Nigeria (28), Iran (39) [average team rank: 21.0].
- Group A: Brazil (1), Mexico (24), Croatia (30), Cameroon (38) [average rank: team 23.25].
- Group H: Belgium (13), Russia (17), South Korea (33), Algeria (66) [average team rank: 32.25].
There is an obvious gulf between the strongest group and the weakest group. This gulf becomes even more obvious when you eliminate the fourth-ranked team in each group and just look at the strength of the top three teams.
Here’s the average ranking of the top-three teams in each group based on SPI:
- Group B — 6.0
- Group D — 9.6
- Group G — 13.0
- Group E — 13.3
- Group F — 15.0
- Group C — 16.0
- Group A — 18.3
- Group H — 21.0
That makes no sense. Group B is three-times stronger than Group H.
So why is it like this?
FIFA’s “pot” system for the World Cup draw is flawed.
For those who aren’t familiar with how the draw works, all 32 teams are divided in four pots. The eight groups are then made by taking one team from each pot. Pot 1 consists of the seven highest-ranked teams in the world, plus the host nation. Pots 2, 3, and 4 are made along geographical lines.
Here’s why it’s so screwed up.
1. FIFA uses its own awful “FIFA World Rankings” to pick the top eight teams. The FIFA World Rankings stink. It doesn’t take goal differential or home field advantage into account, among other complaints. That’s why Switzerland (22nd in SPI) and Belgium (13th in SPI) ended up in Pot 1 over Chile (5th in SPI) and France (7th in SPI).
FIFA has the right idea in placing the top eight teams in the same pot. But the rankings they use don’t actually reflect the top eight teams in the world.
2. The pots are made by geography, not merit. Unless you are ranked in the top seven in FIFA’s rankings, it doesn’t matter how you play in non-World Cup years as long as you qualify. The Netherlands and Greece (both in Pot 4) had the same chance of landing with Spain’s group, even though the Netherlands was the first team in Europe to qualify for the World Cup and Greece needed a playoff to get in.
If FIFA used merit-based “tiers” rather than “pots,” they’d get much more even groups. Teams that play well in qualifying would get rewarded by being placed into a higher tier, and teams that play poorly in qualifying would get punished by being placed into a lower tier.
It would eliminate what happened this year — when the U.S. dominated CONCACAF qualifying (saving Mexico in the process), only to get a tougher group than Mexico.
But that’s not what FIFA does.
Under the current system, each pot has such a random hodgepodge of teams that you’re bound to get a few incredibly hard groups and a few incredibly easy groups instead of eight even groups.
*This post has been updated to reflect current SPI rankings. It was originally published in December 2013.
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