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 (2)

    Last column we looked at a number of interesting statistics from the World Cup group stages since 1958. This week we'll continue the analysis, and at the end you'll find the answers to last week's trivia questions. Many thanks to those who wrote to share their numbers with me, and thanks to Paul Marcuccitti, who pointed out that in 1994, Ireland was placed ahead of Italy not by lots, but by match result.

    Note: at times in this column you may find a discrepancy in the second decimal place when you add or multiply the numbers. For example, I list goals per group stage game at 2.61 but total goals per group (= goals/game x 6), as 15.64, not 15.66. That's due to rounding, which is usually to the second decimal place.

How Many Points?

    For World Cup fans, the first and most important question about the group stage is: who's going to qualify for the second round? If you're a fan of a particular team, you start the tournament by figuring out what your team has to do to advance. If you're a fan of one of the traditional powers, you start by figuring out what your team needs to do to win the group. So we'll start here by looking at precisely what teams need to do to win, or to qualify from second place.

    A preliminary note. In the previous column, we saw that there's in fact very little difference between 2-1-0 and 3-1-0; in almost every case, a team that finished first or second under 2-1-0 would do the same under 3-1-0. For that reason, I have converted the 1994/1998 3-1-0 tables to 2-1-0, and for the most part included them in a single, unified analysis based on the 2-1-0 system. As it happens, though, in a few spots it's more useful to keep 3-1-0 and 2-1-0 separate. I'll try to keep things as clear as possible as we go on -- but unless otherwise stated, point totals are what they would be under the 2-1-0 system.

    Now to the numbers. Through 1990, under 2-1-0, the average points for a group stage winner was 5.02. If you add in the converted 3-1-0 tables, the average is 4.91, still very close to 5. In other words, two wins and a draw is the average score for a group winner. Three wins (6 points) obviously wins the group, and out of 56 groups, this has happened 14 times. But two wins and a draw will be enough to win most groups. If you get two wins and a draw, you only finish second if another team also gets two wins and a draw and beats you on goal difference. This has happened 4 times in history, most recently at France 1998, when Yugoslavia finished second to Germany.

    Not surprisingly, 5 points is the most frequent score for a group winner. Out of 56 groups, the winner has had 5 points 24 times, almost half. As noted, only 4 of those 24 times did the winner need goal difference; in the other 20, two wins and a draw was enough for first place outright.

    In 2-1-0 language, 6 points always wins; 5 points usually wins. However, there have been a number of instances in which only 4 points (two wins or one win and two draws) were enough to win. Including the recalculated tables, this has happened 17 times, more often than the 6-point winner but still noticeably less than the 5-point winner.

    Although 4 points can win, the odds aren't with you. As noted, teams with 5 points have won 20 out of 24 times, 83.3%. On the other hand, teams that got 4 points won 17 times, but failed to win 35 times. So 4 points gives you a 32.7% chance to win, about one in three.

    Now we get to a place where at times the 3-1-0 analysis is different. That's because under 2-1-0, two wins gets you 4 points, and so does a win and two draws. Under 3-1-0, however, two wins gets you 6, but a win and two draws gets you 5. This makes a difference when it comes to figuring out whether you'll need goal difference to win your group. For example, in 1998 Brazil (WWL) won their group over Norway (DDW) 6 points to 5. Under the old system, they would have needed goal difference, but under 3-1-0, they won outright.

    You'd expect a 4-point winner to need goal difference more often than a 5-point winner, and the figures bear this out. As noted, the 5-point winner needed goal difference only 4 out of 24 times, 16.7%. In the 2-1-0 era, the 4-point winner needed goal difference 4 of 11 times, 36.4%. In the brief 3-1-0 period, the 6-point winners have needed goal difference 2 of 5 times, 40%, and the only 5-point winner so far needed goal difference as well. So if you get two wins or one win and two draws, there's a good chance you'll need goal difference, even under the 3-1-0 system.

    One more interesting feature of the 4-point winners. As noted, you can get 4 points one of two ways: two wins (WWL), or one win and two draws (WDD). Which of these ways would you expect to need goal difference more often?

    My guess was that WDD would need goal difference more often than WWL. Certainly it seems like a less authoritative way to win. But it's the other way around. In the 2-1-0 era, WWL winners needed goal difference 3 out of 4 times, but WDD winners needed it only 1 out of 7. That's because WWL means that one other team in the group has a win, and as the other games play out, that team has a good chance to catch you on points. With the WDD, no one else has a win, and so the other games are less likely to produce someone who will equal your total.

    In the 3-1-0 era, however, WWL has the advantage over WDD, because it gives you 6 points instead of 5. In the two cups under 3-1-0, only 2 of the 5 WWL winners needed goal difference, and the one WDD winner needed it. It's a small sample, but expect this trend to continue.

    Now we're back to the unified 2-1-0/3-1-0 analysis. To recap: there have been 14 winners with 6 points, 24 winners with 5 points, and 17 winners with 4 points. That makes 55. But the total number of groups is 56 -- what happened to the other group? Well, that was the infamous Group E at USA 1994, comprised of Mexico, Ireland, Italy, and Norway. For the only time in history, all four teams wound up with the same number of points. Each finished with a win, a draw, and a loss, which means the winner, amazingly, had only 3 points. To top it off, all four teams had the same zero goal difference! One would like to report that this closest of groups was one of the most thrilling in history; in fact, it was one of the dullest. Only 8 goals were scored in the 6 games, and the 4-way tie was a fitting emblem of the overall futility. For the record, Mexico won the group with 3 goals, Ireland and Italy both advanced with 2 goals (third place teams could qualify then, remember), and Norway went home with only 1 goal. Yecch.

    One more point: that notorious group was actually won with 4 points, since the system had changed to 3-1-0 by then. But even under 3-1-0, it's theoretically possible for a team to win with only 3 points. If all the games are drawn, everyone has 3 points and a zero goal difference. So whoever manages to score the most goals tops the group. (With any luck, we won't see it in our lifetime.)

    Not everyone advances by winning their group, though. Second place teams also advance, and, from 1986-1994, third place teams were eligible as well. Point analysis for the third place teams is pretty iffy, since they were only eligible for 3 cups, and hopefully will never be so again. So let's leave that out and concentrate on second place teams. Through 1990, second-placers managed an average of 3.67 points; if you include the recalculated tables, it's 3.70, pretty much the same. So if you want to advance, it's basically a choice between 3 and 4 points, and 3 points were enough to make it 22 out of 49 times, 44.7%.

    If you get 4 points, you're almost a sure bet to qualify -- almost. Twice in history even 4 points weren't enough. These were groups where the top three teams took turns beating and/or drawing with each other, and all three beat the bottom team. So the point standings were 4-4-4-0, and the third place teams lost out on tiebreakers. The first of these was (who else?) Scotland in 1974, beaten on goal difference by Yugoslavia and Brazil. The second was Algeria in 1982, victim of the most notorious fix in World Cup history. Algeria had already finished its schedule, so going into the final group game, it was known that if West Germany beat Austria by fewer than 3 goals, both would qualify. West Germany scored in the 10th minute, and the two teams simply shut up shop. Despite world outrage, the Algerian protests were denied. FIFA then changed the system so that last-round group games would start at the same time (a little too late for Algeria, of course).

    One last note on 4-4-4-0 groups: in the 3-1-0 era we've had the equivalent 6-6-6-0 groups twice, but both came in 1994, where the third place teams could qualify and did. Since third-placers will never qualify again, let's lump these 6-6-6-0 groups with the 4-4-4-0 groups to answer our final question. Using 2-1-0 numbers, how often will 4 points be enough to finish first or second? Answer: so far, 48 out of 52 times, or 92.3%. So if your team can get two wins or one win and two draws, you're almost certainly in.


    Goals are the lifeblood of the game, and of course the group stage is no exception. There's an immense amount of data here, with all sorts of fascinating patterns. Some of the results are predictable, but many others are unexpected. I know I was more often surprised by the data here than anywhere else in the analysis.

    To start: would you guess that group-stage games are lower- or higher-scoring than knockout games? Well, knockout games can go to OT, a big advantage there; teams often play conservatively in the group stage, too, and maybe less so in knockout games; on the other hand, teams in knockout games are relatively evenly matched, and routs seem less likely. On balance, you'd probably guess that group-stage games are lower-scoring.

    And you'd be right. But you might be surprised how much lower scoring they are. Since 1958, group stage games have produced an average of 2.61 goals; for knockout games (including the third-place game), the average is 3.10. Those are rounded figures, so the difference is .49, but the unrounded total is actually closer to .50. That's half a goal, a gigantic margin. And the difference has been clear right from the beginning: in 9 of 11 cups, knockout games have averaged more goals than group stage games. One of the exceptions was 1974, which doesn't really count, since there were only two knockout games in that tournament (the Final and third-place game), and the sample is too small to be representative. The only genuine exception was 1990, in which group stage games averaged 2.28 and knockout games 2.06. It's probably the low scores in the knockout games that gave Italia 1990 its reputation as the dreariest ever. In 1986, generally regarded as one of the better tournaments, the group stage averaged 2.33 goals, barely more than 1990. But the knockout games averaged a reasonable 3.00.

    The bad news is that while group stage goals have made a recovery lately, knockout goals are still clearly on the decline. Here's the table:

# number of group games/number of knockout games
G goals per game in group stage games
K goals per game in knockout games

Note: In 1958, teams tied for second on points had to play off to see who would advance; these have been counted as knockout games.
             #          G           K   
1958       24/11       3.5         3.82 
1962       24/8        2.71        3.0  
1966       24/8        2.42        3.875
1970       24/8        2.54        4.25 
1974       24/2        2.625       2.0  
1978       24/2        2.5         3.5  
1982       36/4        2.78        4.25 
1986       36/16       2.33        3.0  
1990       36/16       2.28        2.06 
1994       36/16       2.58        3.0  
1998       48/16       2.625       2.75 
          Average      2.61        3.10 
    You'll see that group stage goals in the last two tournaments are back up to the level of the 60s and 70s, and in fact are right around the overall average of 2.61 goals per game. But knockout goals have stayed well down: the last four cups have been below average. And if you leave out the aberrant 1974 statistics, France 1998 was second only to Italia 1990. Not a good sign -- but all the more reason to enjoy the group stage in the future.

    From goals overall we move to goals in groups. There are 6 games per group, and the average number of goals per group is 15.64. A solid 58.9% of groups score between 12 and 18 goals, meaning between 2 and 3 a game. But there are extreme cases. The all-time record for goals in a group is an amazing 31, more than 5 a game, achieved by France, Yugoslavia, Paraguay, and Scotland back in 1958. The scores of the games: 1-1, 7-3, 3-2, 3-2, 2-1, 3-3. True, scoring was higher in those days, but this group is fully 5 goals ahead of the pack. It's also the only group ever in which both teams scored in every game.

    What makes this group even more impressive is that the two groups tied for second (26 goals) each had a genuine minnow, always a potential source of high scores. The first was Poland, Argentina, Italy, and Haiti in 1974, with scores of 3-1, 3-2, 1-1, 7-0, 4-1, 2-1. The second was Brazil, Russia, Scotland, and New Zealand in 1982, with scores of 2-1, 5-2, 4-1, 3-0, 2-2, 4-0. But this last group has a distinction too: it's the only time all 6 games produced at least 3 goals.

    Of course, there's another end to the spectrum. The all-time low-scoring group occurred in 1970, with Italy, Uruguay, Sweden, and Israel. The scores: 2-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-1, 1-0, 0-0. That's a massive 6 goals in 6 games. In second place is the famous drawing group of 1990 (see "Draws" in the previous column), with England, Ireland, Holland, and Egypt. The scores were 1-1, 1-1, 0-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, for a total of 7.

    One more low-scoring group is worth mentioning here, for a couple of famous goals that weren't. That's the Austria-Brazil-Spain-Sweden group of 1978, tied for third lowest with 8 goals. In their first-round game, Brazil and Sweden were 1-1 with only seconds to go, and the Brazilians setting up for a corner kick. The kick was taken, and Zico came out of the pack to head home the winning goal -- but the referee had actually blown for full time while the corner kick was in the air. For the record, he was Clive Thomas of Wales, a name still worth a few choice words in São Paulo. In Brazil's next game, a Spanish cross found Brazilian keeper Emerson Leão completely out of position, and Julio Cardeñosa had the ball on his foot with hours of time and a completely open net. For some reason he hesitated. Then he hesitated some more. Finally he shot low, soft -- and into the feet of Amaral, who had managed to get back on the line. The game ended 0-0, and for Spain the miss made the difference between qualifying and going home. By the way, some sources list his name as Cardenosa, without the tilde. Either way, don't say it out loud in Spain. They remember too.

    Now let's look at team goals. How many goals does it take to win a group? The average number of goals by a group winner is 5.91, just under 2 a game. To finish second, and thereby qualify, it's a lot lower: only 4.48, right about 1.5 a game. How good a defense do you need? Group winners have allowed only 1.96 goals per group, less than 2 goals in 3 games. Second-place finishers have allowed an average of 2.73, so you can allow almost a goal a game and still manage to qualify.

    Note that the gap between first and second place is almost twice as large in goals scored than in goals allowed, 1.43 to .77. That's because there's no upper limit to the number of goals you can score. You can exceed the average by as many as you can get in the net. But soccer is a low scoring game, and you can't do better than zero goals allowed. No matter how much better the defense of the first-place team is, second-place teams are still going to get their fair share of shutouts.

    This leads us to the question: is offense or defense more important in the group stage? At first glance the stats seem to be relatively even. The team that has scored the most goals, or tied for the most, has finished first in the group 41 of 56 times, 73.2%. The team that has allowed the fewest goals, or tied for the fewest, has finished first in the group 40 of 56 times, 71.4%. Apparently not much to choose there. But the trend seems definitely to favor the defenses. In the first 6 cups, the highest-scoring teams won 79.2% of the time, but in the last 5, only 68.75%. Conversely, in the first 6 cups, the stingiest teams won 62.5% of the time, but in the last 5, 78.1%. This seems to confirm what we know already: in the modern game, solid defensive teams tend to succeed more than showy attackers. Incidentally, Czechoslovakia 1958 and West Germany 1982 managed the remarkable feat of leading their groups in both goals scored and fewest goals allowed, and still not finishing first.

    There are some other oddball results buried in this data. Three times the team that scored the most goals in the group outright didn't even qualify. In 1982, Hungary started out with the all-time World Cup rout, 10:1 over El Salvador, but lost 1:4 to Argentina and drew 1:1 with Belgium, and finished out of the money. In 1994, Russia, to all intents and purposes eliminated before the final game, ran up a 6:1 score on Cameroon, with Oleg Salenko scoring a record 5, but all it got them was third place. Then in 1998 Spain pulled the same final-round 6:1 on Bulgaria, and wound up in the same third place. (By the way, in 1986, Belgium scored the most goals in their group and finished third behind Mexico and Paraguay, but that was one of the years when third place teams could qualify. Also, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1958 scored the most goals in their groups, and would have finished second under current rules, but had to go to playoffs, and both lost.)

    So, you ask, has a team allowed the fewest goals in their group outright and failed to qualify? Yes indeed, and for that we go back to the Group of Futility in 1994 (see above). In that 4-way tie between Mexico, Ireland, Italy, and Norway, the Scandinavians finished dead last despite allowing only 1 goal, fewest in the group. (Again, Czechoslovakia 1958 only went out because of the playoff rule.) Cameroon 1982 gets a special mention here: they allowed only 1 goal, tied for lowest not only in their group but in the entire tournament. But they scored only 1 as well, and finished third behind Italy on goals scored.

    Let's go now to some outstanding individual team performances. The record for goals scored in the group stage is 12, held jointly by the luckless Hungarians of 1982 and Poland 1974. We've covered the Poland group briefly already, as it was one of the all-time high-scoring groups, with 26 goals overall. Poland ran up 7 against a very weak opponent (Haiti), but their other rivals were no slouch at all: Argentina and Italy. To show you how hard it is to score 12 goals in a group, only one other team has even scored 11, and that was France back in the high-scoring days of 1958 and Just Fontaine. Yugoslavia got 9 in one game once (vs. Zaire, 1974) and still wound up with only 10.

    So to the other extreme: what's the fewest goals ever scored by a group winner? Well, you really don't want to know. No, I'm serious; it's too ugly for words...Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? OK, you asked for it. The fewest goals scored by a group winner is 1. Just 1. One. How is this possible? Well, if you get a 1-0 win and two 0-0 draws, you have 4 points, and if the other teams take turns beating or tying each other, 4 points can be enough to win your group. World Cup fans know that only one team is capable of perpetrating this sort of outrage -- that's right, Italy. It happened in the all-time low-scoring group of 1970 (see above), with Uruguay, Sweden, and Israel. The scores and final standings:

Uruguay 2, Israel  0
Italy   1, Sweden  0
Italy   0, Uruguay 0
Sweden  1, Israel  1
Sweden  1, Uruguay 0
Italy   0, Israel  0

         W   D   L   GF - GA  Pts
Italy    1   2   0    1 - 0     4
Uruguay  1   1   1    2 - 1     3
Sweden   1   1   1    2 - 2     3
Israel   0   2   1    1 - 3     2
    You wouldn't have believed it was possible. How remarkable is Italy's feat? Well, no other team has ever qualified for the second round with only 1 goal, not in second place, not even in third.

    But let's cut the Italians some slack. At France 1998 they scored 7 group stage goals, their all-time high. (Thank you, Christian Vieri.) Of course, it would be uncharitable to point out that 13 different nations have scored more than 7 goals in a group stage. And even more uncharitable to list them: Poland, Hungary, France, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Germany, Denmark, Russia, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and the ultimate humiliation, Scotland. In addition, Peru, Holland, Argentina, and Mexico have also scored 7.

    But if you look closely at those names, you'll find one very signal omission. It's England. What's the reputation of England at the World Cup? Underachievers, mostly. They always come in with high hopes and usually exit earlier than they expect. But a look at the stats shows you the reputation they really deserve -- Italy's. In 24 group stage games, England has scored only 30 goals, a pathetic 1.25 per game. That's a very tiny bit more than Italy, who has 37 goals in 30 games, an average of 1.23. But on defense England makes Italy look like Brazil. In 24 games, they've allowed only 13 goals, an average of 0.54. The Italians have let in 21 in 30, for 0.70 per game. Add it all up and you find that Italy's group games have featured 1.93 goals per game, but England's only 1.79. Yet Italy has the bad rap, and England doesn't. Of course, Italy does it deliberately, whereas England...

    At the other end of the scale, we find Brazil, the team that scores a lot and gives up a lot. Except they don't. In 33 group games, they've scored 57 goals, an average of 1.73 a game. That's OK, but Germany puts them to shame, averaging 2.06 per game, about a third of a goal more. That means Germany outscores Brazil in the group stages by about a goal per tournament. Well, what about Brazil's notoriously bad defense? Check the numbers: in 33 group games, they've given up only 18 goals, for a fantastic 0.55 per game. That's clearly better than Italy, and only a fraction behind England. Brazil's group games have averaged 2.27 goals, well under the 2.61 average, and light years behind Germany's 2.88, and even Argentina's 2.70. So what gives? Is the glorious attacking Brazil just a myth?

    No - they just don't show up until the knockout games. In 22 knockout games, Brazil has scored 52 goals, for an excellent 2.36 average; that's actually more goals than both they AND their opponents average in group stage games. They've also given up 25 goals, a hefty 1.14/game, more than twice as many as in the group stage. Total goals in their knockout games thus average 3.50, as compared to 2.27 in group games. That's an increase of 1.23 goals, well more than twice the average increase of .50. (Compare Germany, whose knockout games average 3.32 and group games average 2.88.) The conclusion is clear: Brazil plays it close to the vest in the group stage, only letting out the stops in the knockouts. In fact -- and to me this is the most surprising stat of all -- Brazil has never led the tournament in group stage goals, not once, while they've led or tied in fewest goals allowed no less than 5 times. That's a shocker. (It's also the answer to one of the trivia questions from last week.)

    There is a Brazil of the group stages, but it's not Brazil, it's Hungary. In 6 group stages, the Hungarians have scored 2.11 goals/game and allowed 1.83 goals/game, for a whopping total of 3.94, almost 4 goals per game. Among teams that have played in at least 5 group stages, the 2.11 scored per game is tied for first with France, and the 1.83 allowed per game is second only to Bulgaria. The total of 3.94 is the highest by fully half a goal per game. Just call them the Magnanimous Magyars.

    We'll close with one slightly amazing stat. We just noted that France is tied with Hungary for most goals scored per group game. Through 1982, they were neck-and-neck with the Hungarians in goals allowed as well. So what's the stat? Well, here are the scores of France's first 12 group stage games, with France's goals first: 7-3, 2-3, 2-1, 1-1, 1-2, 0-2, 1-2, 1-2, 3-1, 1-3, 4-1, 1-1. Incredibly, only once was either team held scoreless. And somehow France didn't manage to shut out an opponent until their 13th group stage game. So who was unlucky 13? Canada. There's a good joke somewhere there; I'll leave it to you.

Trivia Answers (questions from last week's column)

1) Name the only team to have failed to get a point in consecutive World Cup appearances four years apart.

Answer: Switzerland 1962-66. Both El Salvador and the USA have come up empty twice as well, but not in back-to-back cups.

2) Name the only team to come from two goals down to win a group stage game.

Answer: Peru 1970. They trailed Bulgaria 0:2 in the second half, but reeled off three straight goals to win.

3) Name the only European team to finish a group stage without scoring a goal.

Answer: Greece 1994. The other teams that have gone goalless are El Salvador 1970, Australia 1974, Zaire 1974, and Canada 1986.

4) Name the only team to allow zero goals in the group stage and be eliminated their next game.

Answer: Mexico 1970. Playing at home, they drew 0:0 with Russia, then beat El Salvador 4:0 and Belgium 1:0. But they were squashed by Italy 1:4 in the quarterfinals.

5) A two-parter: a) How many times has Brazil led the tournament in goals scored in the group stage?

Answer: Zero.

b) How many times has Brazil led the tournament in fewest goals allowed in the group stage?

Answer: Five. (See above for a full treatment of Brazil and group stage goals.)

6) Name the only team to have won their group with a negative goal difference.

Answer: Cameroon 1990. The Indomitable Lions defeated Argentina 1:0 and Romania 2:1, thus clinching a spot in the next round. So they laid down 0:4 against Russia in the final game.

7) Name the only team to have finished their group stage with a win against the first-place team and a loss against the last-place team.

Answer: Switzerland 1994. After a 1:1 draw with the USA, they beat Romania 4:1, which in effect clinched a spot in the second round. They then lost 0:2 to Colombia, who had lost their first two games, and Romania snatched the group with a win over the USA.

8) Name the only two last-place teams to have defeated the first-place teams in their group.

Answer: Russia 1990 and Norway 1994. Russia lost their first two games, then beat Cameroon, who had clinched the group already (see question 6). Norway was part of the famous 4-way-tie Group of Futility, discussed earlier in this column; they beat Mexico in their opener 1:0, but still finished last.

9) Name the only four last-place teams to have drawn with the first-place teams in their group.

Answer: Colombia 1962 with Russia, Israel 1970 with Italy, Honduras 1982 with Northern Ireland, and Tunisia 1998 with Romania. The Colombia game deserves special mention. They were the biggest outsiders in the tournament, but in one of the most famous comebacks in World Cup history, they came from 3 goals down in the second half to gain a 4:4 draw with the Russians. It was their only point of the tournament. [By the way, if you thought this question said only two teams had done it, you're not hallucinating -- I caught the mistake a day after it first appeared.]

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.

Answer: False. Peru (1978-82), Russia (1986-90), and Cameroon (1990-94) have all done it.

b) No team has ever finished last in their group one year and first in their group four years later.

Answer: True. Sweden (1990-94) and Norway (1994-98) have come the closest, finishing last, then second. Thanks to Patricio Sabido, who wrote to point out the remarkable fact that none of the four group winners in 1974 (East Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Holland) had even qualified for the finals four years previously.



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