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 Draw: Back to School



    Back in college I was a math major for exactly one day. I didnít really know what I wanted to study, but math had always been a favorite subject, so when I applied, I listed math as my probable major. My first day at college, I met with my appointed advisor, one of the math professors. While we were talking, the light suddenly went on: ďAre you crazy? What the heck were you thinking? Math is really hard!Ē Eventually I found my way to English, which was hard too, but in a different way, and it worked out pretty well.

    But on Friday evening, for the first time in 30 years, I wish Iíd been a math major. Because if I had, Iíd know to the fifth digit exactly what the odds were on such a horrible, nightmarish World Cup draw turning up, a draw so warped that it actually puts a dent in the integrity of the competition. And maybe Iíd feel better about it--although I suspect not much.

    Think Iím exaggerating? OK, letís take a look. In most World Cups thereís the Group of Death, a group which eliminates a couple of good teams early, while other, weaker teams who have easier draws move on. In 2002, as we all remember, the Group of Death was Group F, with Argentina, England, Sweden, and Nigeria. In 1998, it was Group D, Spain, Paraguay, Bulgaria, and Nigeria. And when thereís a group of death, thereís often the corresponding Group of Weakness (or, if you prefer, Group of Life). In 2002, it was the infamous Group H, with Japan, Tunisia, Russia, and Belgium. In 1998, there was no group of weakness, but there were a couple of what we might call Walkover Groups: Group H, where Argentina and Croatia got a free pass over Jamaica and Japan, and Group F, with Germany and Yugoslavia over USA and Iran.

    But a group of death, with its attendant weakness and/or walkover groups, is not inevitable. In 1990, for example, there was no group of death. Nor was there in 1994. Itís true that Group D in 1994 was pretty much a walkover group, with Germany, Spain, South Korea, and Bolivia. But a walkover group (and for that matter a group of death) wasnít so much a problem in those days, because four third-place teams could qualify for the second round. On the whole, 1990 and 1994 were relatively balanced draws, which produced no major injustice.

    With luck, weíd have that kind of draw all the time. But we accept a group of death when it happens, because we know the numbers just turn out that way sometimes. A group of death comes about when all of the teams in the group are among the strongest teams in the various draw pots. A group of weakness comes about when all of the teams are among the weakest teams in the pots. Walkover groups can arise from several scenarios, but, like the others, rely on certain teams being among either the strongest or weakest in each pot.

    By the nature of the competition, the odds of such groups are different each year. They depend on the relative quality of teams in each pot. Some years there may be little difference between the top or bottom teams and the rest of the pot; some years quite a bit. The number of teams in a pot also comes into play, because the larger the number of teams, the more likely a wide disparity between the stronger and weaker. If youíre a math major, youíll have the numbers at your fingertips. But even an English major can see when somethingís out of whack. And itís as plain as the nose on Luis Figoís face, or the bulge at Sepp Blatterís waistline: this yearís draw has produced an unprecedented two groups of death, Group C and Group E.

    How did this happen? Here are the two groups, organized by draw pots (although Serbia & Montenegro had its own pot, it was in effect a member of Pot 4, and is so listed):

           GROUP C           GROUP E 
Seeded     Argentina         Italy
Pot 2      CŰte DíIvoire     Ghana
Pot 3      Netherlands       Czech Republic
Pot 4      Serb. & Mont.     USA

    At the top of the groups, Argentina and Italy are among the stronger seeded teams. If Brazil slips, both are possible tournament winners, certainly stronger than Germany, France, Spain, and Mexico. But the real imbalance comes from the other pots. Pot 2 had the African teams, the two non-seeded South American teams, and Australia. The great danger teams there were CŰte DíIvoire and Ghana (although Paraguay is tough too), and as we can see, both turned up in our groups. In Pot 3, the non-seeded Euro teams, the consensus top teams were the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, and they too both turned up. And now to Pot 4, with CONCACAF, Asia, and Serbia and Montenegro, where very clearly the two strongest teams were the USA and S&M, and--well, see for yourself.

    In other words, what may very well have been the two strongest teams in each of the bottom three pots all turned up in only two groups. Itís crazy. Add potential tournament winners in Argentina and Italy, and you have not one, but two groups of death. But it doesnít stop there. If we have two groups of death, we can very well expect to have groups of weakness and/or walkover groups. And weíve got plenty.

    First, Group G, which is a definite group of weakness. It has France, probably the weakest of the top seeds. It has Togo, one of the weakest from Pot 2. It has Switzerland, one of the weakest in the Euro pot. And it has South Korea, who still havenít won a World Cup game away from home, and who finished behind Saudi Arabia in the qualifiers. Compare Group C and Group E, where from each pot you have teams substantially stronger.

    Now to the potential walkover groups. In Group D we have Mexico and Portugal ahead of Angola and Iran. In Group H we have Spain and Ukraine over Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Neither Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, nor Iran has seriously contended for a second-round berth in many a year, and Angola looks like the weakest of the African contingent. If these teams play to their usual level, walkovers are likely.

    Note also that the weakness group (G) and one of the walkover groups (H) are connected in the bracket. In the Round of 16, the qualifying teams from these groups will play each other. That exacerbates the problem--we could easily see a team in the quarterfinals substantially weaker than several going home after the group stage.

    To make the point again: this draw is unprecedented. Two groups of death, plus a group of weakness and two possible walkover groups. Itís as unbalanced a draw as the World Cup has ever produced. It means a significant number of good teams may go home when lesser teams remain in the competition. Itís a disaster. Iíll be wearing la camisa negra for a while.

    Now you may think Iím overreacting because my team, the USA, wound up in one of the groups of death. Not so. Sure, Iíd have preferred an easier group, but to be honest Iím not expecting much from the lads this year. They overachieved in 2002, so theyíre due to underachieve this time. Iíd rather have them go down fighting against good teams than flop against mediocre ones. Plus, the USA is a team with ambition, and might as well measure itself against tough opposition. So I donít mind--although forgive me if I wish Brazil werenít waiting in the Round of 16 if somehow we get there.

    I admit, though, Iím upset because of what happened to Africa, a region I follow closely and have come to love. They got the worst possible draw: their two potentially strongest representatives, Ghana and CŰte DíIvoire, in the groups of death. The weaker teams, Togo, Angola, and Tunisia, are in easier groups, but since theyíre the weaker teams, they still might not be strong enough to qualify. Switch Ghana and CŰte DíIvoire with Tunisia and Togo, and youíll see what I mean. No confederation has ever been disadvantaged like this before.

    Some will say all this is a fuss over nothing, or almost nothing. We never know how good the teams are until they play, and there are always surprises. Look at France and Senegal. Look at the USA and Portugal. I concede the point--but only slightly.

    First of all, the France-Senegal business was unique in World Cup history. In an average-strength group, the clear favorite bombed out, and the clear minnow went through. You wonít find another instance, search how you try, and I wouldnít expect it to happen again soon. The USA-Portugal thing is a better example, although that group was skewed by the presence of a home team. Yes, upsets do occur. But favorites are favorites for a reason, and although the gap between the top teams and the lower-tier teams has closed, weíre still many years away from a level field.

    More importantly, draws like this one make it impossible to gauge the actual strengths of the teams involved. Four years ago, Nigeria and Argentina went out, Japan and Belgium stayed in. Yes, Argentina disappointed, but had they played in Group H, would a similar performance have meant failure? More likely they would have muddled through and qualified--and maybe gone on to win the tournament. We all know that performance in the knockouts often bears small relation to performance in the group stage. As for Nigeria, they lost their first two games, but can you say for sure they were worse than Japan or Belgium? On the flip side, think about Croatia in 1998--they got all the way to the semifinals, but who knows what would have happened if they hadnít drawn a walkover group? The unequal draw forestalls all arguments.

    Once more: two groups of death, a group of weakness, and two possible walkover groups. Nothing like it ever before. Of course itís a fluke, a worst-case scenario, the sort of thing that might turn up once or twice a century. But the root of the problem is the seeding system. When FIFA switched from a strength-based system to a geographical system, unbalanced draws became inevitable. The math majors can tell you the details. It wonít always be this bad, but a 2002-style group of death is a real possibility every time out. It may be time to go back to the old strength-based system, with adjustments for geographical diversity.

    This presents other problems, of course, and maybe in a later column Iíll try to work them out. But we need to get down to business. This is the World Cup, after all, and we owe it to ourselves to get it right. Weíre stuck with the 2006 draw, but letís all think really hard about 2010. Thereís plenty of time to consider the possibilities. Get the math majors, the English majors, the sociology majors, the whole darn university involved, and send Sepp and friends back to school. Itís never too late to get an education.



 

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