World Cup 2014: uncovering the real group of death

  • By Blake Wooster, 21st Club in London
  • |
  • Updated 03 December 2013

At 13hr local time (16hr GMT) on 6 December the eyes of the world will be firmly fixed on the dream holiday destination of Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. For it is here that the draw for the 20th FIFA World Cup will take place, with the 32 competing teams now booked on the plane.

World Cup 2014 group draw

The teams have now officially been seeded and clustered into pots; separated according to current FIFA ranking and region. In simple terms: the organisers aim to keep the top teams apart and ensure cross-continental encounters in the group stages.

Qualified teams by pot and FIFA ranking:

  • POT 1 Top seeds
  • POT 4 UEFA
  • flagBrazil (11)
  • flagArgentina (3)
  • flagColombia (4)
  • flagUruguay (6)
  • flagSpain (1)
  • flagGermany (2)
  • flagBelgium (5)
  • flagSwitzerland (7)
  • flagChile (12)
  • flagEcuador (22)
  • flagIvory Coast (17)
  • flagGhana (23)
  • flagAlgeria (32)
  • flagNigeria (33)
  • flagCameroon (59)
  • flagJapan (44)
  • flagIran (49)
  • flagKorea Republic (56)
  • flagAustralia (57)
  • flagUSA (13)
  • flagMexico (24)
  • flagCosta Rica (31)
  • flagHonduras (34)
  • flagNetherlands (9)
  • flagItaly (8)
  • flagEngland (10)
  • flagPortugal (14)
  • flagGreece (15)
  • flagBosnia-Herzegovina (16)
  • flagCroatia (18)
  • flagRussia (19)
  • flagFrance (21)

Number in brackets was the team's FIFA ranking at the time of seeding (in October)
For an explanation of the Pot allocation, see HERE.

Sounds fairly straightforward. Although the seedings always throw up surprises owing to the volatility of the FIFA rankings, not least that Switzerland (ranked 7th at the time the teams were seeded) and Colombia (4th) will be among the top seeds. Brazil were ranked 11th by FIFA (just behind England) at the time of the seeding which is largely because – as hosts - they qualify automatically and hence have played fewer competitive matches. Still, their ranking (which has since risen to 10th), is hard to comprehend given the precocious talents of Neymar and co, plus the fact they recently beat reigning World Cup champions Spain 3-0 to claim the Confederations Cup.

Cue the inevitable debate about the FIFA rankings, the dreaded "group of death" and perceived "easy routes" to the second round. It seems that Switzerland have been written off as the top-pot team that every other country should want in their group. While apparently the "worst possible scenario for England" would be to draw Spain, Germany or Brazil from Pot 1, the USA (Pot 3) and Ghana or Chile (Pot 2). "Apparently". And let's throw a few clichés into the mix as well shall we? How about: "there is no such thing as an easy group"? Yes, that'll do nicely.

But how accurate are the widely held assumptions about the so-called "groups of death"? And how much do we really understand about some of the competing countries? Few Englishman would have expected the Chilean team to comfortably overturn their national side at Wembley a few weeks ago. Maybe the FIFA rankings were right to place Switzerland amongst the top seeds after their impressive qualifying campaign?

By applying a unique statistical model , we are able to more accurately define the relative strength of all 32 qualified teams, and - in doing so – understand which countries you really want to avoid.

The results may surprise a few…

  • Here's a list of the World Cup teams Ranked in order of strength, according to our model:
  • flag Brazil (1)
  • flag Argentina (2)
  • flag Colombia (3)
  • flag Spain (4)
  • flag Germany (5)
  • flag Chile (6)
  • flag Uruguay (7)
  • flag France (8)
  • flag Netherlands (9)
  • flag Ecuador (10)
  • flag England (11)
  • flag Russia (12)
  • flag Portugal (13)
  • flag Belgium (14)
  • flag Bosnia-Herzegovina (15)
  • flag Switzerland (16)
  • flag Greece (17)
  • flag Nigeria (18)
  • flag Croatia (19)
  • flag Italy (20)
  • flag Mexico (21)
  • flag USA (22)
  • flag Japan (23)
  • flag Iran (24)
  • flag Ivory Coast (25)
  • flag Costa Rica (26)
  • flag Ghana (27)
  • flag Cameroon (28)
  • flagKorea Republic (29)
  • flag Algeria (30)
  • flag Australia (31)
  • flag Honduras (32)

The statistical model comes from 21st Club and uses historical results from all international games and applies a unique algorithm to benchmark the relative strength teams and subsequently provide a ranking. Different weightings are applied based on whether the game is a competitive or friendly match and all international teams are fitted at the same time to provide parameters for every team in the world. Historic games, whilst relevant, are discounted over time so that the most recent encounters are the most relevant.

There are five important conclusions:

1. Brazil are underrated

That may sound strange, but FIFA had Brazil ranked 11th. Our objective analysis shows that host nation Brazil is in fact the strongest team in the tournament. As hosts, of course, they'll routinely be placed in Group A and will be one of the favourites. Although we won't truly know if they have the best chance, until the groups are finalised and we've run our post-draw prediction model.

2. Latin American teams will dominate

Indeed it's a LatAm 1-2-3, with Argentina and Colombia the 2nd and 3rd strongest teams respectively, behind Brazil. Reigning World Cup champions Spain are 4th, with Europe's other leading contender, Germany, in 5th. So it seems that FIFA's ranking for Colombia (and subsequent seeding into Pot 1) was justified and fans of Pot 4 hopefuls England, Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and France should be careful who they wish for come December 6.

The strength of LatAm teams (Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador also appear in our Top 10) is further enhanced by the tournament location. With the risk of generalising, the LatAm teams and players will not only be accustomed to the climate, but also frequently doing battle in Brazil through international matches and in the Copa America. Competing nations from other continents should not underestimate the impact of home advantage – no European team has ever won a World Cup on South American soil. Indeed, of the six previous occasions the World Cup has been played in the continent, LatAm teams have won each time. Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 as the host nation and again the last time the competition was played in Brazil in 1950. Two of Brazil's five World Cup victories have come in South America - winning in 1962 (staged in Chile) and again in 1970 (in Mexico).

3. Belgium are overrated

Our model suggests that the FIFA seedings were right for six of the top eight teams in Pot 1, but shows that Belgium and Switzerland are overrated. Despite Belgium's superstar squad (Hazard, Kompany, Lukaku and co) and Switzerland's unbeaten qualifying campaign, our model ranks them 14th and 16th respectively from the 32 qualified teams – behind Netherlands, Russia, England and Portugal. So fans of teams in Pots 2, 3 and 4 should indeed hope to meet Switzerland, but should also not be afraid of playing Belgium.

4. We assume too much

Our model also suggests that teams should be slightly wearier of playing Mexico (ranked 21) than the USA (22) from Pot 3, and should also see Nigeria (18) as a much bigger threat than Ghana (27) from Pot 2 – despite recent news speculation that USA and Ghana would present the biggest "group of death" threats for England. We assume that Ghana are stronger, because four years ago in South Africa we saw them reach the quarter-finals.

5. Don't underestimate France!

According to our model, France (8th) are much stronger than FIFA's ranking (21st) would suggest. This may raise some eyebrows given Les Bleus's blues at the last World Cup, but a closer look will reveal a strong qualifying campaign where France went the distance with Spain and only finished three points behind them. Conversely, our model suggests that Italy are weaker (20th) than the FIFA rankings suggest (8th). Italy qualified with ease, but in a relatively weaker group. This, coupled with only two victories in the last eight games (they've recently drawn with Armenia, Denmark and Nigeria), explains their lowly position in our rankings.

So the real group of death for England – according to objective data, not perception – would be Brazil, Mexico and France (assuming France are the team who get moved from Pot 4 to Pot 2 in the pre-draw draw). The easiest route to the Round of 16 for England would undoubtedly be Switzerland, Honduras and Algeria.

Of course there is always a context to the data. For example, England may actually prefer to pull France rather than Nigeria from Pot 2, as they might prefer to be the underdog rather than the favourite. Similarly, despite Italy's lowly ranking in our model following recent poor performances, they have a history of rising to the big occasion. The truth is that "there is no such thing as an easy group"! Hence the allure of the World Cup and why is captures the imagination of football fans across the globe. But at least we know now for sure, what the real groups of death could look like come December 6.

Coming up:

We'll be running a LIVE PRE-DRAW SIMULATION on the eve of the real-draw itself! Tune in HERE at 16hr GMT on December 5th to watch the live simulation in action – and see how potentially the Groups will look!
Then after the draw on December 6th, we'll be using our powerful statistical modelling tools to predict the chances that each team has of getting past the group and ultimately lifting the trophy in Rio on July 13th! Check out our unique TOURNAMENT PREDICTION tool HERE!
simulation draw


prediction graph


prediction graph