Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
Read earlier columns
The group stage - an analysis (1)
The modern World Cup structure was founded in 1958, in Sweden. There,
for the first time, 16 teams were divided into 4-team groups to play an
opening-stage full round robin. Over the years, almost everything about the
structure has changed at least once: the number of teams in the tournament,
the number of points for a win, the number of knockout rounds, the methods
to break ties, etc. But the group stage has remained constant: everyone
still goes first into 4-team groups, and the group teams still all play each
other. Along with the Final itself, it's the one sure thing, the backbone of
It's also a treasure trove of statistics. Since the system has been
the same for 11 World Cups now, we have lots and lots of data on the group
stage. The numbers are not only interesting in themselves; they also help us
understand tournaments past and give us a guide for tournaments future. How
often do group winners get to the Final? Are draws on the increase? What's
the record for most goals in a group? How many points does it take to
advance to the second round? In a two-column series, I'd like to analyze
some of the data for what it can tell us about the nuts and bolts of World
Cup competition. Confession: I'm a nerd, and stats fascinate me. If you're
not big on stats this analysis may be hard going at times, but I'll try to
make things as interesting as possible. As a reward for slogging your way
through Part One, you'll get some interesting trivia questions near the end.
And if you happen to be a fellow World Cup stat nerd, please let me know if
you've got any good numbers, or if you find a mistake in my analysis.
Three quick notes. 1) Unless otherwise explicitly mentioned, all
statistics in this article refer to the 11 World Cups from 1958 to 1998. 2)
I have counted Germany/West Germany and USSR/Russia as single teams, and for
convenience referred to them as Germany and Russia throughout. 3) From
1974-1982 there were group stages in the second round as well, but I haven't
included them in the stats. They were played at a different stage of the
tournament, with a different distribution of teams, and different things at
stake. So we'll stick with the first-round games.
Groups and Finalists
First let's ask: to what extent do the results of the group stage
predict the ultimate results of the tournament? You would think that teams
good enough to make the Final would most likely have won their groups. The
numbers back this up. In 4 of the 11 tournaments, both of the finalists were
group winners. In one tournament (1978, Argentina and Holland), neither
finalist won its group. In the other 6 tournaments, one of the two finalists
was a group winner and the other finished second, or in the case of
Argentina in 1990 and Italy in 1994 (by lots), third. Overall then, 63.6% of
finalists have won their group, indicating that group winners are almost
twice as likely to make it to the Final as non-winners.
But a closer look at the numbers shows an important shift in 1974.
From 1958 through 1970, 3 out of 4 Finals had two group winners, and a
whopping 85.7% of finalists won their group. But since 1974, only 1 of 7
Finals has had two group winners, and a mere 50% of finalists have won their
group. What happened in 1974? Answer: the tournament was lengthened. Before
1974, you needed to play 5 games to reach the Final; since 1974, you need 6.
With an extra game, it's more important to pace yourself, and teams that get
out of the gate quickly are less likely to go the distance.
This conclusion is reinforced by a striking statistic. Over the years,
14 teams have had the perfect start, winning all three of their group stage
games. But only 2 of these teams made the Final. They were Brazil 1970 and
France 1998; one was arguably the greatest team ever, and the other had an
easy group stage draw and was playing at home to boot. All the rest fell
short: 6 of the other 12 managed to reach the top four, but the other 6 went
home early. Germany understands: they've advanced from the group stage all
11 times, but won all three games only once (1970). Brazil tends to start
faster, winning all three group games 4 times. But, as noted, only one of
those 4 teams made the Final. The moral is clear: don't peak too soon.
And yet class still tells in the group stages. These days second-place
teams may make it to the Final as often as group winners -- but champions
win their groups. Fully 8 out of the 11 champions were group winners; the
only exceptions were Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978, and Italy in 1982.
It may not be a coincidence that those were the only 3 cups to follow the
initial group stage with a second group stage. In those tournaments, winning
your group didn't give you a good seed in a knockout round; teams thus had
less incentive to go for it early. Note also that two of those three teams
hosted the tournament, and thus had a special advantage. Put it like this:
since 1958, only once has a non-host managed to win the cup if they weren't
good enough to win their group stage first.
The history of the World Cup is the history of dominant teams. Only 7
different nations have won the cup, and 5 of 7 have won it more than once.
The two countries that have won only once, England and France, needed home
advantage to win, and it's noteworthy that the teams they had to beat,
Germany and Brazil, are themselves among the roll of champions.
So the question is: to what extent does this domination appear in the
group stage? Plenty. In fact, the group stages sometimes seem to be the
particular province of two great teams, Germany and Brazil. Both have won
their groups an amazing 8 times; together, that's a total of 16 out of 56
groups since 1958. That means that out of the 62 nations that have
participated in the World Cup since 1958, just two have won 28.6% of the
groups. That's incredible. The percentage is bound to drop now that there
are 8 groups per tournament, but it's a remarkable record.
There's a steep falloff after the big two. Two teams are tied for
third in group wins, with 4. One is Italy, as you might expect. But the
second, surprisingly, is Russia. The Russians have won their group 4 times,
including 3 in a row, 1962-66-70, the first two under the leadership of
celebrated keeper Lev Yashin. But they've never made the Final, and only
once the semifinal.
So where's Argentina, you ask? They're the opposite of the Russians.
Amazingly, Argentina has only won its group twice. In fact, they're the only
team to advance from the group stage in second place in three consecutive
tournaments (1974-78-82). Holland, Poland, and England, who together have
only one championship between them, have each won more groups than
Still, the groups, like the championship, are the province of a
relatively small number of teams. We know that 7 teams have won all the
championships; if you take the 7 most frequent group winners, you find
they've won an impressive 58.9% of the groups. Again, that percentage
figures to drop over the years -- but if Brazil, Germany, Italy, Russia, and
Poland win their groups at Korea/Japan, it'll actually increase. The elite
are still the elite.
At the other end of the scale, we have the minnows: teams that rarely
qualify, and find it difficult to compete at that level. There are 21 teams
that have appeared in only one group stage, and fully 14 of them finished in
last place. Although the gap between the best and the worst teams is
narrowing, every tournament since 1974, except 1978, is represented by at
least one of these teams. This year, the debutantes are Senegal, China,
Ecuador, and Slovenia. Expect at least one of these to finish last.
In the middle somewhere, we have the teams that regularly qualify for
the World Cup but can't seem to win the group stage. Bulgaria and Scotland
hold the record here, with 7 appearances and no group wins (at least
Bulgaria advanced a couple of times). Uruguay is next with 6 -- remember,
the Uruguayan glory years came before the standardized group stage. Next
come Chile and Czechoslovakia with 5.
Then we have those teams whose fortunes have fluctuated over the
years: sometimes they've been tournament powers, other times also-rans. No
less than 8 different teams have the distinction of having finished first,
second, third, and fourth at least once each. It's an intriguing list:
France, Sweden, Hungary, Mexico, Russia, Austria, Spain, and Argentina. The
Argentines are probably out of that class for good now, and Hungary and
Austria may have dropped out the other way, but more teams will join the
list as the years go on.
Last but not least, we have perfection: the two teams that have won
their groups every time they have participated. East Germany appeared in
1974, won their group, and then had the good sense to cease to exist. So
their record seems pretty safe. The other 100-percenter is Nigeria, who is 2
for 2, having won their group in both 1994 and 1998. They're in the ultimate
group of death this year, so they'll clearly have to stretch themselves to
keep the streak alive.
There are all sorts of interesting patterns in this set of data. So
you can explore them yourself, I've appended a table at the end of this
article. It lists all the teams that have participated in the World Cup
since 1958, with the number of times they've finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th
in the group stage. Enjoy, and let me know if you find anything particularly
striking. (Or if you find a mistake!)
2-1-0 vs. 3-1-0
In 1994, as part of its reaction to the dreadful Italia '90, FIFA
changed the group point system from 2-1-0 to 3-1-0. This was supposed to
encourage attacking play, since a win was now more valuable than before.
Perhaps it worked: significantly more goals were scored in 1994 and 1998
than in 1990, and the overall feel of play was more energetic. But whether
or not it had a practical psychological effect on the players, one thing is
clear: as far as group standings are concerned, the potential theoretical
effect is almost nil. If the players were playing harder to win, they were
doing so in pursuit of a phantom.
This is a remarkable fact, and needs a full examination. It takes a
while, and may get a bit technical at times, but hang on...
Over a long league season, the 3-1-0 can have a significant effect on
the standings. But in a 3-game group, its impact is severely limited. In
fact, there is only one scenario in which first and second places would be
reversed under the two systems. It looks like this:
Team A: WWL (6 or 4 points)
Team B: WDD (5 or 4 points)
Under the 3-1-0 system, team A gets 6 points and team B gets 5, so team A
always wins. But under the 2-1-0 system, both teams have 4 points, so team B
can win if it has an advantage in the tiebreakers. A close look at this
scenario reveals that team B's win must have been against team A: team A
doesn't have a draw, so team B's draws must have come against the other two
teams in the group. In other words, for this combination to turn up, team A
must have been good enough to beat the other two teams in the group, while
team B could only draw with them -- yet team B was good enough to beat team
Clearly, this doesn't figure to happen all that often. Since 1958, out
of a total of 56 groups, the combination has only turned up 4 times. The
first time, in 1958, France was team A and Yugoslavia was team B. Yugoslavia
defeated France 3:2 in the middle game for each team, but the French built
up such a big goal difference in their two wins that they won the group
comfortably. They would have won under 3-1-0 on points, but they won under
2-1-0 on goal difference anyway. In 1978, Austria was team A and Brazil was
team B. In the final round, Brazil beat Austria 1:0, and the teams wound up
tied on points and goal difference, but Austria had still scored more goals,
and finished first. Again, team A would have won under 3-1-0 on points, but
they won under 2-1-0 anyway.
So twice under this scenario, teams that actually won in the 2-1-0 era
would also have won under 3-1-0. The other two examples of this combination
occurred in the 3-1-0 era. In 1998, Brazil was team A and Norway team B, and
Norway beat Brazil 2:1 in the final round. Since the rule was now 3-1-0,
Brazil won automatically on points -- but here again they would have won
under 2-1-0 as well, because they had an advantage in goal difference.
Finally, also in 1998, Nigeria was team A and Paraguay team B, and here, at
last, we had a true reversal. Paraguay defeated Nigeria in the final round
by two goals, 3:1, and thus obtained the lead in goal difference. So
Paraguay would have won under the 2-1-0 system. But under 3-1-0, Nigeria won
the group on points automatically. The bottom line: out of 56 groups, only
once would the 3-1-0 system have made a difference between first and second
This result should come as no surprise. Looking even more closely at
the scenario, we can see that team A is going to have at least a +2 goal
difference from its 2 wins, vs. team B's zero goal difference from two
draws. Team A will win under 3-1-0 anyway; under 2-1-0, if team A wins
either of its games by more than 1 goal, team B will have to beat team A,
clearly a good team, by at least 2 goals (see the France/Yugoslavia and
Brazil/Norway examples). Moreover, even if team A has won its games by only
one goal, it's likely to have scored more goals in the wins than team B did
in the draws, since high-scoring draws are rare. So under 2-1-0, even if
team B manages to win by one goal and even out the goal difference, they're
likely to lose the goals scored tiebreaker -- so they'll still probably have
to win by more than 1 goal to win the group (see the Austria/Brazil
example). Add in the relative rarity of the WWL/WDD combination, and you'll
see why it's only happened once, and isn't likely to happen much in the
The evidence is even stronger when we come to decide second and third
places, and thus the crucial line between qualifiers and non-qualifiers. The
only scenario in which second and third places might be reversed looks like
Team A: WDL (4 or 3 points)
Team B: DDD (always 3 points)
Under the 3-1-0 system, team A gets 4 points and team B gets 3 points,
so team A always wins. But under the 2-1-0 system, both teams have 3 points,
so team B can win if it has an advantage in the tiebreakers. Note that in
order for this scenario to occur, one of the teams has to draw all 3 games,
which has happened only 8 times in tournament history. So the combination
figures to be relatively rare.
In fact, out of 56 groups, the WDL/DDD combination has turned up only
twice. Both times were in 1958, and the irony here is that 1958 was the only
cup in which there were no tiebreakers at all -- team A and team B had to
play off for the spot, so the 2-1-0 vs. 3-1-0 analysis is theoretical. But
let's look at the numbers as if tiebreakers had been in effect. In one
group, Hungary was team A and Wales was team B. Hungary would have qualified
on points under 3-1-0, and they had a big lead in goal difference, so they
would also have qualified under 2-1-0. In the other group, Russia was team A
and England was team B. Under 3-1-0, Russia would have qualified on points;
as it turned out, the two teams were dead even in goal difference and goals
scored. So under 2-1-0 it would have gone to lots, in which Russia would
have had a 50% chance. (For the record, Wales and Russia won the playoffs.)
The bottom line here: out of 56 groups, only once has there even been a
chance that second and third places could be reversed, and then only by the
luck of the draw.
Again, a closer look shows why the reversal is so unlikely. The team
with three draws will naturally have a zero goal difference, so the
standings under 2-1-0 will depend on the goal difference of team A. Team A
has a win and a loss, the win almost certainly coming against the bottom
team, and the loss coming against the top team. (There's a possibility it
could be the reverse, but it's extremely unlikely.) For the reversal to be
theoretically possible, team A has to lose to the top team by more goals
than they beat the bottom team. But groups are more likely to have a
particularly weak bottom team than a particularly dominant top team. For
example, there have been 14 teams that won all 3 group games, but 22 that
have lost all 3. Again, throw in the rarity of the WDL/DDD, and you'll see
why there's never been a clear-cut reversal and isn't likely to be one any
Add all this up, and you find that if the big change has worked, it's
worked largely by illusion. It's true that under 3-1-0, there's marginally
more incentive to win early just in case one of the reversal scenarios turns
up. In 1998, Brazil and Nigeria had clinched their groups after two games,
so the third game didn't matter. Under 2-1-0 they would have had to be
careful not to lose by 2 goals. But again, it wouldn't have mattered in
either case if the exact scenario hadn't turned up, and the reversal
scenarios just aren't going to happen very often. When all is said and done,
there's simply not much difference between 2-1-0 and 3-1-0.
In fact, 3-1-0 would only have a consistently significant impact under
the now-discarded system in which the four best third-place teams qualify
for the second round. In this system, in effect in 1986, 1990, and 1994,
third-place teams are measured not against teams in their own groups, but
against teams in other groups, so there are many more possible scenarios.
Had the 3-1-0 been in effect in 1986, for example, Hungary would have
advanced instead of Uruguay. But, as noted, the third-place qualification
system is gone, and, with a 32-team cup, undoubtedly gone for good. (And
good riddance.) So when some coach or player mentions that 3 points for a
win will make his team attack more, write him a letter to say he's wasting
his time. On second thought, don't. Attacking deluded footballers are better
than passive enlightened ones.
The 2-1-0 vs. 3-1-0 business leads naturally into the final topic for
today: draws. Group stage games are different from knockout games in many
ways, but most clearly because group stage games can end in a draw. Out of
336 group games, there have been 95 draws, which works out to 28.3%, not too
high or too low.
Do total goals affect draws? And if so, are high- or low-scoring cups
more likely to produce draws? Actually, there appears to be very little
correlation. From 1962 to 1970, the average group stage goals/game
fluctuated quite a bit, from 2.71 to 2.42 to 2.54, but the number of draws
stayed exactly the same each year. The 1994 and 1998 cups had almost the
same goals/game, 2.58 and 2.625, but the number of draws jumped from 22.2%
to 33.3%. In 1986 and 1990, goals/game were a close 2.33 and 2.28, but the
number of draws dropped from 30.6% to 22.2%. There may be a slight tendency
for high-scoring cups to produce more draws: three of the four
highest-scoring cups have a percentage well above the average. This makes
sense: if goals are more plentiful, teams may be less able to grab a lead
and hold it. On the other hand, high-scoring cups won't produce many
scoreless draws. On the whole, the effect, if any, is very small.
In addition, the recent change from 2-1-0 to 3-1-0, which would seem
to encourage decisive results, seems to have had no effect whatsoever. Teams
may be trying harder for wins, but they're not getting them. The system
changed between Italy 1990 and USA 1994, but the two tournaments had exactly
the same percentage of draws. And France 1998 was a big year for draws, at
33%. In fact, nothing really seems to affect the number of draws. Teams play
the game, and sometimes they draw. That's about it.
Sometimes they draw a lot, though. You get 3 group games, and, as
noted earlier, 8 different teams have drawn all 3. Interestingly, there were
2 in each of 4 World Cups: Wales and England in 1958, Italy and Cameroon in
1982, Ireland and Holland in 1990, Chile and Belgium in 1998. If you're
wondering how many of the 8 qualified for the second round, the answer is 5.
In 1982, Italy advanced on goals scored over Cameroon. In 1990, Ireland and
Holland were tied on all counts, but it didn't matter because both second
and third place teams could qualify that year. In 1998, Chile finished
straight second on points and qualified, but in a different group Belgium
finished straight third on points and didn't. We've covered the 1958 cases
earlier: Wales won their playoff and England lost theirs.
If you've read the last paragraph closely, you'll have noticed that
two of the four pairs of teams were actually in the same group: Italy and
Cameroon in 1982, and Ireland and Holland in 1990. These were the two
all-time champion draw groups: 5 out of 6 games were drawn. The result was
pretty dreadful. Take a look at the sequence of scores:
1982: 0-0, 0-0, 1-1, 0-0, 5-1 (Poland and Peru), 1-1
1990: 1-1, 1-1, 0-0, 0-0, 1-0 (England and Egypt), 1-1
The three scoreless draws in the 1982 group is a record. Note also that the
two wins came in final-round games (all 7 goals came in the second half,
too!), which proves that sometimes you only win when you're absolutely
forced to. Incidentally, Paul Marcuccitti has an excellent article about the
infamous 1990 group elsewhere on this site -- it's called "FIFA's Night of
More analysis coming up next column. If you've made it this far,
here's some trivia (answers next column), followed by the table of group
1) Name the only team to have failed to get a point in consecutive World Cup
appearances four years apart.
2) Name the only team to come from two goals down to win a group stage game.
3) Name the only European team to finish a group stage without scoring a
4) Name the only team to allow zero goals in the group stage and be
eliminated their next game.
5) A two-parter:
a) How many times has Brazil led the tournament in goals scored in the
b) How many times has Brazil led the tournament in fewest goals allowed
in the group stage?
6) Name the only team to have won their group with a negative goal
7) Name the only team to have finished a group stage with a win against the
first-place team and a loss against the last-place team.
8) Name the only two last-place teams to have defeated the first-place teams
in their group.
9) Name the only four last-place teams to have drawn with the first-place
teams in their group.
10) A two-parter, True or False:
a) No team has ever finished first in their group one year and last in
their group four years later.
b) No team has ever finished last in their group one year and first in
their group four years later.
This table lists all countries who have appeared in group stages since
1958, in order of total appearances. It also lists how many times each
country has advanced from the group stage, and how many times each country
has finished in each of the four group places.
P = Cups participated in since 1958
A = Times advanced from the group stage
1 = Times finished first
2 = Times finished second
3 = Times finished third (* for each time qualified as third place team)
4 = Times finished last
Note: these statistics reflect the tiebreakers current at the time, up to
and including the drawing of lots. Two examples: 1) Although Wales in 1958
would have finished third via goal difference under the current system, they
won the tiebreaking playoff under 1958 rules, and are listed as having
finished second. 2) Ireland and Italy were in a dead tie for second/third in 1994. Both
qualified, but since Ireland had defeated Italy in their group match, they
were placed second, and Italy third.
Team P A 1 2 3 4
Germany 11 11 8 3 - -
Brazil 11 10 8 2 1 -
Argentina 10 8 2 4 3** 1
Italy 10 7 4 2 4* -
England 8 7 3 4 1 -
Russia 8 6 4 2 1 1
Mexico 8 4 2 2 2 2
Spain 8 4 1 3 3 1
Bulgaria 7 2 - 1 3* 3
Scotland 7 - - - 4 3
Yugoslavia 6 5 2 3 1 -
France 6 4 2 2 1 1
Belgium 6 4 1 1 4** -
Uruguay 6 4 - 2 3** 1
Sweden 6 3 1 2 1 2
Hungary 6 2 1 1 3 1
Holland 5 5 3 1 1* -
Czechoslovakia 5 2 - 2 2 1
Austria 5 2 1 1 2 1
Chile 5 2 - 2 1 2
Poland 4 4 3 - 1* -
Romania 4 3 2 1 1 -
Cameroon 4 1 1 - 1 2
Morocco 4 1 1 - 1 2
Colombia 4 1 - - 2* 2
South Korea 4 - - - 1 3
Peru 3 2 1 1 - 1
Northern Ireland 3 2 1 1 1 -
Paraguay 3 2 - 2 1 -
Switzerland 3 1 - 1 - 2
USA 3 1 - - 1* 2
Nigeria 2 2 2 - - -
Denmark 2 2 1 1 - -
Ireland 2 2 - 2 - -
Portugal 2 1 1 - - 1
Norway 2 1 - 1 - 1
Saudi Arabia 2 1 - 1 - 1
Algeria 2 - - - 1 1
Iran 2 - - - 1 1
Tunisia 2 - - - 1 1
El Salvador 2 - - - - 2
East Germany 1 1 1 - - -
Costa Rica 1 1 - 1 - -
Croatia 1 1 - 1 - -
North Korea 1 1 - 1 - -
Wales 1 1 - 1 - -
Jamaica 1 - - - 1 -
South Africa 1 - - - 1 -
Australia 1 - - - - 1
Bolivia 1 - - - - 1
Canada 1 - - - - 1
Egypt 1 - - - - 1
Greece 1 - - - - 1
Haiti 1 - - - - 1
Honduras 1 - - - - 1
Iraq 1 - - - - 1
Israel 1 - - - - 1
Japan 1 - - - - 1
Kuwait 1 - - - - 1
New Zealand 1 - - - - 1
U.A.Emirates 1 - - - - 1
Zaire 1 - - - - 1
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