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In a separate post, I shared some thoughts about the economics of sports and the peculiarities of soccer generally. Fans of the game, and those who know me personally, will quickly see through my ruse in writing on the subject: “You’re don’t really care about public policy, you just want to talk about the World Cup.” Not true! (Ok, well, a little bit true.)
But this post is just that: a post about the World Cup. It is my thoughts on who will win and why. For you sports fans that still don’t get soccer and why a scoreless draw can be exciting, maybe this post can help provide some context. Or not. For those of you who care to learn your geography through other means than sports, or who don’t care about sports at all, well, you may just want to sit this one out.
Who will win the Cup: In which a statistical perspective sheds light on what it takes to be the best in the world
Let’s talk about tennis for a minute. The data are revealing. If you have not already won a Grand Slam event, the odds are stacked against you. In other words, winners keep winning. Expressed differently, there are far fewer winners of a single slam than there are winners of multiple slams. It’s hard to win, but much easier, statistically, to keep winning. This turns out to be just as relevant to football. (We’ll quit calling it soccer now that only the purists are reading this blog.)
The World Cup began in 1930. There have been 19 tournaments since then, with the matches in Brazil this summer marking the 20th anniversary. Only eight nations have won the trophy in over 80 years. Of those eight, five are multiple winners. France and England each won just once, and it was when they were the tournament host. Hosting a tournament confers a clear advantage for the home team. Spain is the only other single winner; they are also the defending champions. In all, 76 nations have been represented in the tournament, which now hosts 32 teams.
So with these facts safely tucked away, let’s ask the question a different way. Who among the teams going to Brazil really believes they can win? Not, can play well. Not, will match up against other teams or can advance out of their group. No, who among the teams has a conviction that they can win? The answer to that question will narrow the field, and will do so in ways that aren’t reflected by the nominal team rankings.
- The host country almost always believes it can win. It believes this with some justification. Nearly a third of winning nations (6 in all) did so when they hosted the tournament. More recently, as FIFA (football’s governing body) sought to make the sport more global, the tournament was hosted in countries without a rich footballing tradition: the US, South Korea/Japan, and South Africa. Those nations may have fantasized about a win, but they never believed they would raise the trophy.
- Previous winners have an edge.
- Defending champions believe they can repeat. Italy and Brazil have won back-to-back championships, and while it is not a common event, the belief is there.
Ignoring everything else for now (injuries, susceptibility to tropical heat, player selection) and based on these statistics alone, listed below is who is likely to advance:
To these we can add Argentina. And Uruguay (as a dark horse). These choices will come as no surprise to fans of the game, but the underlying reasons are what’s important.
Of these six teams, only two teams have an unshakeable belief in victory: Brazil and Germany. Once the rosters are set and we take a fresh look at the groups, we’ll see what progress we can expect from our two frontrunners and the remaining two to four contenders. Comments made to the media last month by England’s team captain, Gerrard, illustrate what it means not to have this belief: “It would be very stupid and naïve of me to stand here and say we’re going to win it.”
Against this background, we can think about who is selected for the national teams. For Klinsmann to leave Donovan off the US team was an odd and potentially devastating choice. Contrast it to Joachim Löw’s decision to include Miroslav Klose. At age 35, he is far from his prime, and while he was good at Lazio (in Italy where he plays professionally), there were other choices for the German national team. Klose’s motivation is to set a World Cup goal scoring record—and that was enough for Löw. He wanted someone who believed both in his own goal-scoring prowess and the team’s success. The same can be said for the inclusion of Pirlo (age 35) on the Italian squad and for Xavier Hernandez (age 34) on the Spanish team. Coaches who believe their team can win will find players who share that conviction. Donovan did (or at least he believed that the US would find a way to win any given game). It is far from clear that Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore, for example, believes it.
The Groups: Why the luck of the draw matters so much
The contestants are drawn into eight groups of four teams each. Three points are accorded for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. The top two teams of each group advance to the “knock-out round.” For the remaining 16 teams, a loss means they are out of the tournament.
Even the casual observer will quickly see why the group in which the team plays, and the subsequent pairings, are so important. An unlucky draw, one in which two or three of one’s opponents are highly rated, can effectively mean the tournament is over before it begins. This is the case for the United States. The opposite can also be true, where a single strong team is likely to dominate the group. This is the case for Brazil. Further, the subsequent pairings pit the number one team in Group A against the runner-up of Group B, and so on. This can create significant incentive to win the group in order to avoid a particular opponent.
Here are the groups and my prediction for who will emerge from them. Am I confident in these choices? Absolutely! Dart-throwing monkeys and soothsaying octopi notwithstanding, I expect to be 100 percent accurate, because pundits always are.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Brazil wins the group. And second place goes to…? Croatia. Why Croatia? Luka Modric, who plays for the championship-winning club Real Madrid, is a big part of the answer. The other part is that Mexico has suffered recent injuries and lacks the confidence to win two matches (after the presumed loss to Brazil). Their best hope is to advance on goal differential over Croatia (one win, one draw, and one loss). Cameroon is not to be taken likely. Veterans like Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea) and Alex Song (Barcelona) will give any team problems. The depth, however, is not there. And while I have no African teams advancing out of group play, Cameroon may be the exception.
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
This is a very tough group. You have last year’s finalists (Spain and Holland), and a deeply talented Chilean squad. Australia would be fortunate to garner a single point. There is also the added burden of knowing that the team that finishes second in this group will almost certainly face Brazil in the first pairing of the knock-out round. In other words, this group is a toss-up. Based on the assumptions at the beginning of this blog, I’ll pick Spain to win. Second place to Chile, but this is a guess at best. Having watched both teams only a handful of times, it’s clear that each has real firepower.
There is a separate game fans like to play. It’s called “Who is the best footballing nation never to have won the Cup?” Spain led that competition for decades, finally breaking the curse four years ago. The title is now held by Holland, a great footballing power and runners-up in 1974 (to Germany), 1978 (to Argentina), and 2010 (to Spain). They’ve led the way in the concept of “total football” that ushered in a new attacking philosophy. If they were unable to advance out of their group – a real possibility – it would be a colossal blow. The $800 ticket to watch Holland and Chile play on June 23rd in Sao Paulo may well be worth the money. It will be the final group game. Expect the loser to be out of the tournament, crushing the hopes of a nation.
Group C: Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan
If there’s a group of death, why can’t there be a marshmallow group? That’s not fair, though none of these nations has made a deep run in any World Cup. Columbia has played some impressive football in qualifying, and there are top-notch players for the Ivory Coast (Drogba and Gervinho ) and for Japan (Kagawa and Honda). My picks? Columbia to win the group, with Ivory Coast and Japan vying for the coveted second spot. Japan will surprise everyone and finish second.
Group D: England, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Italy
Yikes. Three former Cup champions and the toughest of the Central American teams. But let’s just cut to the chase. Italy wins the group, followed by Uruguay. Why? Because Italy feasts on England and because Uruguay’s brilliant striker – Luis Suarez – will want to show up his Liverpool team mates on the England team (Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Sterling, Sturridge and Flanagan). Italy will best Uruguay because their stifling defensive tactics, honed over decades, have served them well. Only Brazil have hoisted the trophy more often.
Before leaving this group, let me confess my allegiance to the Liverpool Football Club (YNWA!). The Uruguay-England match-up will have special significance to all LFC fans, but the real hope is that none of the players suffer injuries.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
The composition of the groups is always devilish, but especially in this tournament. Group E should present the least obstacle to the advancement of the European teams. France to win, Switzerland to finish second. Honduras and Ecuador are unlikely Cup participants in the first place. Ecuador may have acquitted itself well in tough qualifying rounds, but they did so by winning at their high-altitude home stadium. Take them out of that rarified air and they struggle.
Group F: Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina
An easy group for Argentina to win, with Bosnia-Herzegovina as runners-up. And meta-data aside, Argentina is a formidable team, deeply talented and brimming with optimism. Second place is less certain, though Bosnia-Herzegovina have more depth and more consistency than Nigeria. African teams, even with star players, tend to struggle at the World Cup. Iran, well, they may have a dedicated fan base, but a last place finish is likely. Back to worrying about sanctions and a weak currency.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
This is not the group of death. Germany to win, Portugal to finish second. Of course, all eyes (all US eyes, that is) will be on this group. The omission of Landon Donovan will be blamed for the US gaining only a single point in its three matches (drawing against Ghana), but the result would be the same even if the US could bring 44 players and had unlimited substitution. There is simply not enough talent for Klinsmann to draw upon. The inclusion of young German-American players may help for 2018, but will do nothing for this tournament. The faithful will be hoping for a win against Ghana on June 16th, followed by a stunning draw against Portugal in the rain forest of Manaus on the 22nd. Those hypothetical four points – along with a favorable goal differential – would then just be enough to edge Portugal for second (assuming everyone loses to Germany, and Ghana loses to everyone). Pure fantasy. Portugal have world class players (including the best on the planet, according to many fans, and not least to Ronaldo himself) and they show well at the World Cup. When they lose, it is often to eventual Cup winners (though as Andy Coe reminds me, Portugal lost to the US in the 2002 Cup). They are also in contention for the best team not to have won the tournament, along with Holland.
The US will go home and talk about rebuilding. There is a bridge I can sell you if you expected more, but the bridge would also need to be rebuilt. Our failing infrastructure goes beyond football.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea
This group mirrors Group A: a single dominant team with a three-way fight for second. Yes, Belgium is that good. They finished top of their qualifying group in Europe and they have strong and experienced players. Two of the best keepers in the world, a great defense (led by Kompany) and Mirallas, Benteke, and Lukaku are part of a formidable squad. Their lack of World Cup accomplishments shouldn’t matter at this stage. It’s interesting to look ahead for Belgium if they won the group: a meeting with, most likely, Portugal. This is a stretch, but then I have high expectations of Belgium. They’re my European dark horse and a run to the quarter-finals would not surprise me. Belgium-Argentina? Definitely a possibility.
Second place is a race between Korea and Russia, and who wouldn’t want to see Korea advance (I mean, other than Putin). Korea do well at the World Cup generally, so they are my prediction.
Beyond the groups (but don’t call it the Sweet Sixteen)
Looking beyond the group stage is like predicting the weather: we’re often right about tomorrow and almost never about the week after next. Still, we can make some general observations. First, the top half of the draw (Groups A-D) is tougher than the bottom half. Five of the eight former Cup holders are in those groups, as well as perennial power Holland. The bottom half has Germany and Argentina, plus France. By the time the first knock-out games are decided, however, the dynamics change. Germany, for example, could face Brazil in the semis.
While Brazil has numerous advantages going in – not least of which are familiarity with the food and the climate and the rabid fan base – they will be looking at formidable competition as soon as group play ends. They may also be less cohesive than other teams. Talent yes. Magic? Not as certain. The second place team in Group B (Brazil’s opponent if they win their group) would probably be Spain, Holland, or Chile. All very tough. Next up might be Uruguay. In short, Brazil’s road to the final is treacherous. I’ll go predict a Germany-Brazil semi-final. To suggest that Germany could win that match may raise an eyebrow, but if all goes well for the Germans, they will emerge fresher than the Brazilians, who face tough matches against fellow South American teams. On the other side, Spain could face Argentina in the semis. So Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Argentina in the semis.
And the winner is? Well, if you give me the prerogative to revisit my predictions after the group stage, I’ll simply quote Gary Lineker, the English footballer and commentator: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”