Peter Goldstein

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 this event.

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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 the competition.

    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.

Group Placings

    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 Argentina.

    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 A.

    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 place.

    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 future.

    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 this:

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 time soon.

    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 Agony".

Trivia Questions

    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 finishes.

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 goal.

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 group stage?
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 difference.

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.

The Table

    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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