Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The Draw: The other side

    As always, the final draw has created a mountain of comment and speculation.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, because the World Cup is on hold. The gap between the last qualifiers and the opening match of the finals is nearly seven months. It’s the longest gap in World Cup action since qualifiers began in September 2003.

    However, most of the focus seems to be on the groups (the whole groups and nothing but the groups). There is comparatively little comment about the way the draw applies to the knockout phase of the tournament. That’s surprising, because the matches in the knockout rounds decide who will reach the World Cup Final and, ultimately, win the competition. The tournament favourites rarely fail at the group stage.

    Even 2002, the World Cup of upsets, saw five of the seven favourites make it to the last 16 (Brazil, Germany, England, Spain and Italy) while only two, France and Argentina, crashed out early (and no, Portugal, you didn’t belong in that company).

    In 1998, Spain was the only big gun to fall at the first hurdle and before that you have to go back a long way. Admittedly the tournaments in 1986, ’90 and ’94 allowed 16 out of 24 teams into the knockout stage and some of the fancied teams scraped through to the second round after finishing third in their groups. But it’s impossible to say that results would have been the same in those groups if only two teams from each qualified for the tournament’s next phase.

    The groups could produce some high profile casualties this year but I wouldn’t bet on more than one or two. With the Dutch returning after their failure to qualify for 2002, we have eight heavyweights at Germany 06 and six are in different groups (Germany, England, Italy, Brazil, France and Spain). Argentina and Netherlands face the greatest early difficulties because they were drawn together. Add Côte d’Ivoire and Serbia & Montenegro and there’s nowhere to hide in Group C. The Italians also have a tough group.

    When we discuss the draw and, for example, use epithets like the Group of Death, we take form and reputation into account. Things might work out quite differently when the football is actually played.

    I understand that the term Group of Death was first used in 1986 by Omar Borras, Uruguay’s coach at that time (if you know of any earlier instances, send them in). Borras referred to Group E as el grupo de la muerte because it brought West Germany, Denmark, Scotland and Uruguay together. But it didn’t turn out to be a Group of Death. The format of the 1986 finals allowed Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay to reach the last 16 and only Scotland caught the first plane home. No surprise there, surely?

    Fast forward to 2002, and Group A – which also included Denmark and Uruguay – didn’t look like a Group of Death. But Denmark and Senegal qualified for the second round and sent France home.

    So, before I continue to look at the draw as it applies to the knockout phase, bear in mind that I’m not exactly making predictions, I’m just extending conventional wisdom (as Peter Goldstein aptly described it) past the group phase. More importantly, I might also provide a better understanding of the permutations in the knockout draw in case you haven’t thought that far ahead.

    Happily, the knockout draw has reverted to the format used in 1998. Long time readers of this website might remember a column I wrote over four years ago called The World Cup’s “Super Bowl” Final where I lamented that, for 2002, teams were effectively lumped into two different conferences. The consequence was that one team that reached the World Cup Final had to come from Group A, C, F or H and the other had to come from B, D, E or G. Until the Final, there was no crossover between A/C/F/H and B/D/E/G. Now, we’re back to an arrangement that allows a combination of any two teams to play off in the World Cup Final.

[Four years ago, Brazil and Turkey were drawn together in Group C and they met again in the semi finals. Normally the two teams that qualify from the same group go to opposite sides of the draw and can’t meet again unless both reach the Final (or 3rd Place Match). Thankfully, normality will be restored in Germany.]

    You might have seen FIFA’s Match Schedule telling you when matches are played in the knockout rounds. What follows is the knockout draw, shown in a way that makes it easier to chart teams’ paths through it:

Rounds of 16   Quarter Finals  Semi Finals     Final
49: A1 v B2             
                57: 49 v 50
50: C1 v D2
                               61: 57 v 58
53: E1 v F2
                58: 53 v 54
54: G1 v H2
                                            64: 61 v 62
51: B1 v A2
                59: 51 v 52
52: D1 v C2
                               62: 59 v 60
55: F1 v E2
                60: 55 v 56
56: H1 v G2

    To avoid confusion with FIFA’s official Match Schedule, I’ve used the same match numbers here. So 49: A1 v B2 means Match 49, winner of Group A versus second in Group B. Also 57: 49 v 50 means Match 57, winner of Match 49 versus winner of Match 50. The match for 3rd place (Match 63) is not shown but is played between the losers of Matches 61 and 62.

    In all draws of this type, the number of potential opponents for a team grows in each round. If you’re a German fan and you expect to win Group A, your team would be A1 in the draw and its first opponent is B2 (the runner-up in Group B). There can be only four different opponents for Germany in its first knockout match (a team from Group B).

    If the Germans progress to the quarter finals, they have eight possible opponents: a team from Group C or a team from Group D. We’re now looking at Match 57 where the winner of 49 plays the winner of 50.

    Moving on to the semi finals and there are now 16 possible opponents. Match 61 pits the winner of Match 57 (Germany in our example) against the winner of Match 58. The winner of Match 58 could be any team from Group E, F, G or H.

    If A1 reaches the Final, its opponent could be any other team at the World Cup finals because the bottom half of the draw (which begins with Matches 51, 52, 55 and 56) includes teams from every group.

    And what I just described, naturally, applies to everyone. If you’re a fan of Spain and expect your team to win the group, you start in Match 56 as H1.

    If you enter a competition where you predict quarter finalists, bear in mind that, in the rounds of 16, groups are twinned. For example, A1 plays B2, and B1 plays A2. The quarter finals must include two teams from Groups A and B, two from C/D, two from E/F and two from G/H. Of course, you can still get two teams from a single group in the quarter finals (for example, the two A/B teams could both come from Group A).

    When we get to the semi finals, we can see that each semi is A/B/C/D versus E/F/G/H. Before the semis, an A/B/C/D team can’t play an E/F/G/H team. It’s this arrangement that allows us to imagine/predict a World Cup Final between any two of the 32 teams. That wasn’t the case in Korea/Japan (certainly not once the final draw was made).

    Also, if it wasn’t already clear to you, A/B/C/D must produce two semi finalists and so must E/F/G/H. The four semi finalists cannot be Germany, England, Argentina and Netherlands because all four are in A/B/C/D. No more than two of those teams can reach the last four.

    That last point moves us nicely into further application of conventional wisdom to the knockout draw. What happens to the big eight after the group phase?

    There has been a lot of comment about how Germany got the luck of the draw and that its group is relatively easy (and that the draw always seems to be kind to host nations). But I contend that the Germans did not get that lucky in the draw. Why? Because they face a difficult run through the knockout rounds.

    If, as expected, Germany wins Group A, it then faces a likely meeting with the Swedes, maybe even England. Sweden is ultra-consistent in these tournaments and, outside the heavyweights, is there a more challenging opponent?

    If Germany reaches the quarters, the winner of Group C looms. Wow, what’s worse? Argentina or Netherlands? Probably the Dutch – they would certainly relish that match. The Germans were able to avoid other heavyweights in Korea/Japan until they played Brazil in the Final. It doesn’t look like 2006 will be as kind.

    Now let’s look at the Italians. They got a shocking draw, right? Maybe not. Group E may be Group of Death #2 but the knockout draw looks quite good for its winner.

    First up is a match against the runner-up in Group F. Brazil is favoured to win the group and if the Auriverde are safely avoided, it’s a meeting with Japan, Australia or Croatia. That won’t be easy – few matches in the knockout phase are – but the Italians would be firm favourites.

    Then France looks like the probable quarter final opponent. The French have been a little wobbly in recent years and could be the most beatable heavyweight in this year’s tournament.

    So if the Italians win their difficult group, they might find that their route to the last four opens up nicely.

    We’ve seen that Argentina and Netherlands are drawn together in Group C but you may have noticed that it’s still possible for all of the big eight to reach the quarter finals. This is because Group C is twinned with Group D in the second round and Group D is the only group without one of the tournament favourites. Mexico and Portugal are in Group D and although they’re certainly among the best of the rest, Argentina and Netherlands might extinguish Group D before the quarter finals.

    You might be thinking that the quarter finals are unlikely to feature all of the eight favourites and that there will surely be some upsets somewhere. I agree. But remember, we’re applying conventional wisdom here – at least until the favourites play each other. If you’d like to think that the tournament will be dominated by Africa/Asia/CONCACAF, that’s just fine. The principles of the knockout draw don’t discriminate.

    I’ve barely touched on who might play off in the semi finals. But you can do that. We’ll look at the knockout draw again and this time the big eight are shown in the rounds of 16 and the quarter finals. To produce the following results, all would be group winners and all would then win in the second round. In the case of Group C, we’ll start with Argentina as the group winner with Netherlands second.

Rounds of 16   Quarter Finals  Semi Finals     Final
49: GER v B2
                57: GER v ARG
50: ARG v D2
                               61: 57 v 58
53: ITA v F2
                58: ITA v FRA
54: FRA v H2
                                            64: 61 v 62
51: ENG v A2
                59: ENG v NED
52: D1 v NED
                               62: 59 v 60
55: BRA v E2
                60: BRA v SPA
56: SPA v G2

    If the Dutch win Group C and the Argentines finish second, the above draw would include two of the most mouth-watering quarter finals imaginable: Germany v Netherlands (in Match 57) and England v Argentina (Match 59).

    As well as giving you an idea about likely meetings in the knockout rounds, the draw also shows that some meetings are unlikely.

    Fortunately, reverting to the 1998 format means that there are less unlikely meetings than there would have been if the Korea/Japan format was still in place. But, as we’ve seen, if you’re hoping for any meeting between an A/B/C/D team and an E/F/G/H team, it can’t happen unless both teams reach the last four – and even then they could be in different semis.

    Also, look at the case of teams from groups that are twinned in the rounds of 16. We know that the titanic clash between Germany and England will occur in the second round if one of those teams wins its group and the other finishes second in its group. But if both Germany and England emerge as group winners (or both finish second in their groups) they go to opposite sides of the draw. The same applies to Italy (Group E) and Brazil (Group F).

    Before the final draw was made, Germany was placed in Group A and Brazil was placed in Group F. The reason given for Brazil’s placement in Group F was that, like Germany, it would be assured of playing its early matches in the larger stadiums (Berlin, Munich and Dortmund).

    There’s another reason – it keeps Germany and Brazil apart. They can’t meet before the semi finals and, if they both win their groups, they can’t meet before the Final (or 3rd Place Match).

    And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Germans are the hosts and they played Brazil in the Final four years ago.

    So there’s a look at the other side of the draw, the knockout rounds. Now that we’ve applied so much conventional wisdom to the exercise, Trinidad & Tobago and Saudi Arabia are bound to meet in the World Cup Final.



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