Who has it easy at the 2010 FIFA World Cup? (3)

In my previous two postings [here and here], I’ve outlined the draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, attempting to work out which of the eight groups is the hardest. I’ve also used two methods to try to work this out, which I’ve described as “Group Type” and “The Minnows’ View.”

In this posting I look at the two other indicators I deployed for this exercise, which I call “The View From The Top” and “Mind The Gap.”

Just to recap, here are the first round groups:

Group A Group B Group C Group D
South Africa Argentina England Germany
Mexico Nigeria USA Australia
Uruguay South Korea Algeria Serbia
France Greece Slovenia Ghana
Group E Group F Group G Group H
Netherlands Italy Brazil Spain
Denmark Paraguay North Korea Switzerland
Japan New Zealand Ivory Coast Honduras
Cameroon Slovakia Portugal Chile

The View From The Top is the average ranking points of the bottom three teams in a group, therefore it is a true perspective of how it should look to the seeded team (apart from Group A, where unseeded France is the highest-ranked team).

Here’s how they look, using this indicator.

Group A: 736.33, equivalent to Columbia, the average would be ranked in 40th place.

Group B: 833.67, Bulgaria, ranked 27th.

Group C: 853, Nigeria, 22nd.

Group D: 834, Bulgaria, 27th.

Group E: 859.67, Nigeria, 22nd.

Group F: 668, Scotland, 46th.

Group G: 835.67, Denmark, 26th.

Group H: 862.67, Nigeria, 22nd.
[all ranking points taken from the November 20, 2009 update of the FIFA/Coca Cola World Rankings, with the relevant data cited here and here].

What the “View From The Top” indicator shows: This time Group H is the highest rated, this was also the case with the “Group Type” indicator (which established the average strength of each group). So the joint favourite, Spain, also ranked world number one, would seem to have the toughest average opponent in the first round. This is perhaps the least reported assessment from the World Cup draw to date and defies apparent wisdom.

The weakness of this indicator is that, like all averages, it gives no account to the range of teams. In a three-game contest, the prescence of two closely-ranked teams at the top would seem more complicated (see Group G where the 2nd- [Brazil] and 5th-ranked [Portugal] teams are drawn together). However, it is important to recall that the top two teams qualify for the later stages of the competition.

Perhaps this makes my final indicator worth a look: Mind The Gap. This is worked out by calculating the gap between the top and bottom teams in each group.

Group A: 745 points, equivalent to the gap between 1st-placed Spain and 21st-placed Australia.

Group B: 460 pts, equivalent to the gap between Spain and France (7th).

Group C: 307 pts, the gap between Spain and the Netherllands (3rd).

Group D: 431 pts, the gap between Spain and Portugal (5th).

Group E: 570 pts, the gap between Spain and Croatia (10th).

Group F: 782 pts, the gap between Spain and Israel (25th).

Group G: 1,193 pts, the gap between Spain and Uganda (78th).

Group H: 884 pts, the gap between Spain and Honudras (38th).

What the “Mind The Gap” indicator shows: The narrower the gap, the more likely there will be a “shock” result, e.g. the lowest-ranked team getting a draw or a win over the top team. Here, England’s Group C is the most interesting, which shouldn’t be a surprise. At ninth place, England is the weakest team to be the top in a group, while Slovenia at 33rd are the strongest of the minnows.

Because of the tendency of English soccer fans to assume that, because they haven’t drawn Germany, Brazil or Argentina in the first round, then naturally “we’re going to win it,” I think there’s a very strong reason to fear that, Algeria, for instance will be totally understimated. This is especially problematic when one considers that England will be the least well-suited team in Group C to play in the South African climate next June.
However, I don’t think the situation is quite as bad, given that the last thing I expect the Italian manager of England, Fabio Capello, to do is either fail to prepare his squad physically or allow the exuberance to turn into mindless arrogance.

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6 Responses to “Who has it easy at the 2010 FIFA World Cup? (3)”

  1. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Interesting stuff – but am not sure I concur with the headline conclusions.

    This is for two reasons. Firstly, I think the FIFA points system is a bit dodgy. I can’t honestly remember why. But for some reason it always seem to overstimate some teams (e.g. Mexico) and consequently underestimates others (e.g. middle-ish European teams). This may be because Mexico will spend a year playing Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador etc., and it’s damned hard to compare this to e.g. Serbia playing Russia, Holland and Italy.

    Secondly, it’s not really the gap between top and bottom that matters. On the “Mind the Gap” principle, compare these two hypothetical groups, with the numbers showing where the team is ranked in the FIFA rankings (I’m using position rather than FIFA points, but the same principle applies)

    Group A 1st 4th 8th 97th
    Group B 2nd 93rd 94th 95th

    The gap in group B is less and therefore on your criteria a harder prospect for the seeded team – but you’d have to say that group A looks a lot, lot tougher. It’s quite possible to see the top team on the planet fail to make it through group A, whereas the 2nd best team in the world would have to foul up monumentally not to make it past the group stages.

    England will go into all their games as heavy favourites, and can afford to foul up one game (and maybe even draw another). My hunch would be that Brazil will not be such heavy favourites against Ivory Coast or Portugal. So, I honestly think that Brazil are at a greater risk of falling at stage 1 than England 9although the risk is still slim).

  2. Antoine Clarke Says:

    Mark, thanks for the point about the gap. I was looking for a weakness and you’ve spotted it. Clearly a solution would be to take a combination of average and distribution (Group Type and Mind The Gap). The problem is that it is not clear how these should be weighted if at all.

    You made three other points that I want to comment on:

    1) Your remarks about Brazil is well noted. If there is one benefit of all the foreign stars playing in the Premier League, it is that we’re not going to underestimate a team which can boast Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou (both of Chelsea and Ivory Coast).

    2) As for the rankings, I’ve changed my mind. Until recently it was certainly the case that FIFA rankings overstated the position of some regions. However, the current top 10 indicates that eight are Europeans with Brazil and Argentina from the rest of the world. I think the changes brought in 2005 have improved matters. Details of this here:
    http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/ranking/procedure/men.html

    3) England: playing Algeria in South Africa will not be easy. It’s their final and back in 1982 (Spain…), they beat West Germany, so they know it can be done.

    USA are not afraid of England. Look at it from their point of view: a team they’ve beaten twice, no pressure and only 83 ranking points apart.

    Slovenia should be easy. Perhaps England will get through because the minnows will lift point from the USA or Algeria.

    One thing I do expect is good preparation by the England manager and the players to not get all giddy. Look at France in 2002 to see the sort of horror show that could be coming.

    I think there are only three genuinely weak teams at this world cup. Should be a good one.

  3. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Antoine,

    An intriguing discussion.

    1. In terms of bookies odds , my point about England having an easier run than Brazil is backed by the markets. The odds I’m relying on are listed here http://www.oddschecker.com/football/internationals/world-cup

    The odds quoted for the opponents of the seeded team to LOSE each game are, in England’s case;

    USA 11/2
    Algeria 11/1
    Slovenia 9/1

    In Brazil’s case:

    N. Korea 18/1
    Ivory Coast 4/1
    Portugal 4/1

    This illustrates my case that your “mind the gap” measurement is not helpful. If we assume (slightly – but not enormously – rashly) that (a) the seeded team will win their easiest match on the basis of the bookies odds (i.e. England will beat Algeria and Brazil will beat North Korea) and (b) 4+ points will be enough to qualify, but 3 points won’t be, then it follows that:

    a. England get 3 pts vs. Algeria and are a huge 50/1 to fail to qualify (by losing to both the USA and Slovenia)
    b. Brazil get 3 points v N. Korea and are just 16/1 to fail to qualify (by losing to both Portugal and Ivory Coast).

    2. You may be right about the FIFA rankings. I don’t claim to be an expert. If Brazil and Argentina are in the top ten along with 8 European teams, it seems they have got this about right at the top end. I’d be interested though if the system becomes less robust when comparing the alleged e.g. 46th best team in the world with the alleged best e.g. 78th team in the world.

    3. Algeria, 1982 and all that. You are not alone in this, but it’s a triumph of myth over science. The idea that the the 2-1 Algerian win over West Germany in 1982 in any way informs the likelihood of them beating England in 2010 is madness. There is no genetic, spiritual or institutional connection of any note at all. The world has moved on.

    I have no doubt in the build up to the England v USA game enormous play will be made of the USA’s shock 1-0 win against England in the 1950 World Cup. Grainy black and white footage will be dug up, and the few seconds that exist will be played a million times over. This is – I believe – the only competitive football match that has ever been played between the two nations. But it’s totally irrelevant.

    The same myth develops around “England always losing on penalties”. It is true that of 3 penalty shoot-outs in World Cup finals, we have won none. But this is really just a matter of (a) inches and (b) individual human frailty. The idea that David Batty’s woeful penalty against Argentina in France in 1998 will have an impact on, say, Ashley Cole’s chances of converting a sudden death kick against Serbia in South Africa in 2010 is just bizarre.

    If there is any evidence that the previous (under or over) achievements of your team/nation impact on the performance of the present squad, then I have never seen or heard it.

    Football has much history and mythology surrounding it, but is ultimately (perhaps sadly) a science.

    But people look for “answers” in nonsense. Or just try to find “amazing but true” titbits. (My favourite example of the latter…which I rolled out to the amusement of my friends until the 2002 World Cup final…. was that despite Brazil and Germany being two of the most successful footballing nations on Earth and despite 12 of the 13 post-war World Cup finals featuring either Brazil or Germany, the two teams had NEVER met each other in a competitive football match).

    A good example of the former is people noting that the (winning) hosts in 1996 were drawn against Mexico, France and Uruguay – exactly the same teams that the hosts have drawn in 2010. This apparently is a “good omen” for South Africa. It’s nothing of the sort. South Africa have drawn one of the hardest group of opponents imaginable and – in my view – are very unlikely to qualify for the second round.

    All of this said, I think the 11/1 on Algeria beating England represents sensational value and I have just put £50 on it!

  4. Mark Littlewood Says:

    for “1996” (in the penultimate paragraph above)…read “1966”. Apols for the typo.

  5. Antoine Clarke Says:

    I think 11 to 1 against Algeria to beat England is very generous, though in the group stages a draw should always be considered, especially for the opening games. The spread bet would be my recommendation, selling England short once the heavy mindless patriotic betting comes in. ;-p

    USA also beat England 2-0 in 1993 http://www.englandstats.com/matchreport.php?mid=697 . It was for a warm up competition (the US Cup) in the run up to the 1994 World Cup Finals (which England failed to qualify for). One problem was that the USA didn’t think of this as a friendly.

    The USA’s performances recently will not make them fear England: out in 2002 to the finalists Germany in dodgy circumstances, being the only team not to be beaten by Italy in 2006, and losing 3-2 to Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup last year (winning 2-0 and ending a 35-game unbeaten run for Spain in the semi). I’d say they were good value for 14th place in the world. The one blip is a 5-0 defeat by Mexico last year.

    The USA should qualify for the second stages anyway, which means that the real threat to England’s chances would be a slip up elsewhere.

    The reason I mention 1982, is because a lesser team that has NEVER beaten a top team will always have a belief problem. It gives something to live up to.

    If Algeria gets a win or a draw against England, I’d say it was 50% likely England go out in round 1.

  6. Michael Abellera Says:

    I still believe Brazil will make it this time. Hopefully this time, they will live up to their fans expectations. FIFA Updates – Source to your FIFA Updates needs.

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