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
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The Draw: Unconventional Wisdom
The World Cup draw has been in the books for about two weeks now, which means
approximately eighteen billion words have been written about it. It also means
that enough time has passed in order for that most indispensable set of ideas to
have appeared: Conventional Wisdom.
We all know what Conventional Wisdom is--it's what most of us decide is true,
either because it has the ring of common sense, or because everyone else seems
to think so and we don't want them to think we're idiots, or because it's the
safe play. Conventional Wisdom sometimes even turns out to be right.
But other times it doesn't. Just look at the results from Korea/Japan 2002. Just
ask Nigeria this year. Sometimes things happen which only a few people expect,
sometimes things happen which no one expects, and sometimes things happen which
a few people claim they expected but they're liars. Nevertheless, there's a
range of possible results that go beyond Conventional Wisdom but are still sort
of logical, at least in retrospect. So here's a kind of primer on what might
happen in the group stage if the Conventional Wisdom fails. No
predictions--that's a mug's game--only a set of facts and possibilities from a
different perspective. In other words, just another safe play.
Before going group by group, let's look at an overall piece of conventional
European teams will do well in 2006 because the tournament is in Europe.
The stats back up the Conventional Wisdom. If we look at Europe's record in the
group stage of the last nine tournaments, we get the following:
Year Site Record
1970 Mexico 0
1974 West Germany +10
1978 Argentina +1
1982 Spain +8
1986 Mexico +2
1990 Italy +5
1994 USA +4
1998 France +10
2002 Korea/Japan +2
The four best European performances all took place in Europe: West Germany 1974,
France 1998, Spain 1982, Italy 1990. The five worst European performances all
took place outside Europe: USA 1994, Mexico 1986, Korea/Japan 2002, Argentina
1978, Mexico 1970. Best of all, that +10 in 1974 was in Germany. Case closed.
But to some degree the statistics are deceptive. Along with 1974, the two best
scores are from 1982 and 1998--and those are precisely the years in which the
tournament expanded, from 16 to 24 and 24 to 32 teams respectively. Europe had a
natural advantage in expansion years, because all the confederations had their
allotments increased, and Europe, by far the deepest confederation, was going up
against teams that just weren't good enough yet. (See this article for a more
in-depth treatment.) Note that from 1986 through 1994, Europe's total never came
close to matching 1982, because the lesser confederations caught up somewhat.
The same figures to be true of post-1998 tournaments. Although Europe will
likely do better than the +2 of 2002, the odds are they won't do as well as the
+10 of 1998. So yes, the Euro teams should be favored, but not dramatically.
Now to the groups.
Germany in a stroll, Poland second.
It's hard to pick against Germany here. For what seems like the umpteenth time,
the host team got a relatively easy group (wonder why that happens so often?).
Jürgen Klinsmann could stay in California sipping an iced tea while lying naked
on a beach towel, coaching the team via e-mail, and they'd still finish first.
But Poland is hardly a shoo-in for second. In 2002 they won their qualifying
group--in fact, they were the first European team to qualify--and got nowhere.
This time they qualified automatically as one of the best second-place teams,
but from one of the easiest groups. There's no indication they're any better
The Costa Rica of four years ago would probably have beaten Poland. This year
they're not as strong. Nevertheless, Costa Rica has a remarkable group stage
record at the World Cup: the only team they've lost to is Brazil. In 1990, with
the tournament in Europe, they defeated two European teams, Sweden and Scotland.
They also get Germany in the tournament opener, traditionally a tight game. If
they snatch a point, they'll have plenty of momentum.
Ecuador is no pushover either. Four years ago, in their debut, they improved
with each game, and beat Croatia when the Croatians still had all to play for.
The team had little difficulty qualifying this time, and now has more
experience. As with Costa Rica, although in reverse, the schedule could work to
Ecuador's advantage: should Germany start hot and clinch the second round early,
Ecuador might get to meet the scrubs in the finale.
England and Sweden 1-2 or 2-1.
You guys forgetting Paraguay? They may not be the most skilled team in the
tournament, but they're some of the toughest dudes around. Remember 1986, when
they came from behind to draw with hosts Mexico, and came from behind twice to
draw with Belgium? Remember 1998, when, playing in Europe, they beat out Spain
and nearly took France to penalty kicks? Remember 2002, when, down to ten men,
they reeled off three late goals against Slovenia to put them in the second
round? Roque Santa Cruz might not make the tournament, but you bet against these
guys at your peril.
Besides, England have already decided they're going to win the World Cup, and
you know what that means. Sven-Göran Eriksson is not the world's most
inspirational coach, and if it comes down to a pressure third game against
Sweden the team might freeze.
As for Sweden, they did much better than expected last time, so they're due for
a bit of a shock. Their opening opponent, Trinidad & Tobago, are a longshot for
the second round, but have a smart coach in Leo Beenhakker. Plus, T&T's big
central defense can match up well against the Swedish strikers, who are skilful
but not particularly fast. If Sweden isn't sharp, they could easily drop points
in the opener, and slide from there. And if T&T gets out of the blocks quickly,
Ulp! Argentina and the Netherlands, I guess.
This group is remarkably similar to the famous Group F of 2002. You've got
Argentina, plus a top European team (England, Netherlands), a dangerous European
team (Sweden, Serbia and Montenegro), and a top African team (Nigeria, Côte
D'Ivoire). An industrial-strength Group of Death. And despite the major
surprises of 2002--Sweden topping the group, Argentina missing out--people are
coming right back to the obvious favorites, Argentina and the Netherlands,
albeit with a swallow and a "What else can I do?"
Reasonable enough. But consider some group stage history. Who's the most
notorious slow starter in the tournament? Italy. They've played in 11
tournaments since the modern group stage began in 1958, have advanced 8 times,
but finished first only 4. But now consider Argentina. They've participated in
11 group stages as well, and also advanced 8 times. But they've finished first
only twice. That's right, only twice, 1986 and 1998. Of the major powers,
Argentina is in fact the slowest starter. In 2002 they started no slower than
usual, but in an ultra-tough group, they got punished. Who's to say it won't
As for the Netherlands, no problem: they're among the fastest starters at the
World Cup. They've been to 5 group stages, advanced all 5 times, finished first
3 times. But they've never faced a group like this, and the team is on the young
Serbia & Montengro has a good chance, if only because of their outstanding
defense. In recent years the trend in the group stage has favored defensive
teams. From 1958 to 1978, the highest-scoring teams in their groups finished
first 79.2% of the time, but from 1982 to 2002, only 70%. Conversely, from 1958
to 1978, the stingiest teams finished first only 62.5% of the time, but from
1982 to 2002, fully 80%. So any team that can keep the score down has a fair
shot. That the first tie-breaker is now match result instead of goal difference
helps a bit too.
With Côte D'Ivoire, let's try a little reverse uncoventionality. The
Conventional Wisdom says that this group is too tough for them, but the
Conventional Wisdom also says they're the strongest team in Africa. Which adds
up to a good performance that falls just short. But although they may be as
strong as any team in Africa, they have some serious question marks. Their
goalkeeping is suspect, and their midfield, although talented, has yet to cohere
(compare Ghana). Plus, Henri Michel is a man under fire. In fact, after the
qualifiers the federation took it upon themselves to appoint an assistant for
him. The last time that happened, back in Tunisia in spring of 2002, Michel
quit. He's not likely to do it again, but there's something unstable at the core
of the squad. Despite their talent, they could flame out, like Nigeria did in
Group F back in 2002.
Mexico and Portugal with ease.
We all know how brittle Portugal is. Angola in the opener is just about the
worst possible draw for them: a team they know they should beat, but a team with
special motivation for the game. Remember, too, that Portugal lost the opener in
their two most recent big tournaments, the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 European
Championship. In the latter they rallied to make the Final, but they were at
home. A loss to Angola and they'd be in big trouble.
Mexico has been a remarkably steady World Cup performer in recent years, so they
don't have Portugal's problem. But this is a team, and a head coach, under
ferocious pressure. After three straight losses in the round of 16, the home
fans will settle for nothing less than the quarterfinals. And Ricardo LaVolpe
might be the most hated head coach in the tournament, by both the press and the
fans. The group may look easy, but one false move and the team could crack. If
they need a result in the final match against Portugal, they might easily go
Which allows our uncoventional wisdom to make use of a piece of Conventional
Wisdom: this could be Iran's strongest team ever. If this is Iran circa 1998,
they won't be good enough. But if it really is their best, there's no reason
they won't be ready if Portugal or Mexico falter. As for Angola, like Trinidad &
Tobago, they're a natural longshot. But like T&T, they've got a good matchup in
the opener, and might build from there.
Italy and Czech Republic, although Ghana will put up a fight. The USA is
overrated and will go down.
Italy always seems to muddle through. Despite their slow-starting ways, they've
advanced from the group stage the last seven times. But, as with Argentina,
they've drawn a very tough group. Also, the last time they failed, it was 1974,
when the tournament was in Germany. Remember too that they failed to make it out
of the group stage at Euro 2004. (Don't ask them about Sweden-Denmark.)
The Czechs are even more vulnerable. They have a fine team, but it's an old
team, with a number of stars past their prime. Euro 2004, where they were the
best all-around side, was their great chance at a major title. Now it's two
years too late. In a medium-strength group, they'd have enough to advance. In a
Group of Death like this one, they could easily fall short.
I don't have much to offer about Ghana. The Conventional Wisdom looks exactly
right: a strong team with a shot in a tough group. With a secure coach and a
golden midfield, they seem more stable than Côte D'Ivoire, and should make a run
at the second round.
The Conventional Wisdom about the USA is in one sense right: they're not as good
as their FIFA ranking. Also, having gone farther than expected last time,
they're due for a whipping. But the USA love to play as underdogs, and with
everyone counting them out, will feel they have something to prove. Italy and
Czech Republic are vulnerable, and Ghana, although a good team, is unproven at
this level. If the USA are in form, and get the breaks, there's no reason they
can't finish in the top half here.
But let's go the other way, shall we? and introduce this year's official
Conspiracy Theory®. Italy, bless their ever-suspicious little hearts, have
already shown the way, claiming that Lothar Matthäus deliberately changed his
draw, and so put the USA in Italy's group. The charge got a good laugh all
around. The Conspiracy Against A Team is as a rule pretty far-fetched. Why
should any one team be so intolerable to the powers that be? (The Conspiracy For
A Team, on the other hand, is obviously designed to help the home side.) But if
ever there were a time for a conspiracy against a particular team, it's 2006.
And although in Milan they might be surprised to hear it, that team isn't
Italy--it's the USA. To be blunt, the United States of America is by a million
miles the most hated nation in the world. And they're by a trillion miles the
nation whose presence is most likely to provoke a terrorist attack. You can be
sure FIFA would like nothing better than to get the USA out of the tournament as
fast as possible, and why not? I haven't a clue whether Matthäus did anything
underhanded, but if he did, the USA was the target, not Italy. Let's watch the
refereeing closely and see if there's anything to it.
Brazil, of course, but then things split. A lot of people say Croatia an easy
second, a lot say Australia/Croatia an even bet. Few rate Japan.
The split here depends on what you think of Australia. Some think they're just
not in Croatia's class; some look at the Australian players in Europe, Guus
Hiddink, and the Croatia-Australia rivalry (players on both teams could have
chosen to play for the other), and see a toss-up.
From this you'd gather that Australia is something of a mystery team. In a way
they are, since they haven't played in the World Cup in 32 years. But in a way
they're no mystery at all: 1) their starting lineup is relatively stable; 2)
they played Uruguay dead even over 210 minutes. So by all indications, Australia
is about as good as the fifth-place team from South America. Right now there's
nothing to suggest otherwise.
So here's the question: is Croatia clearly stronger than the fifth-place team
from South America? Let's answer with some unconventional wisdom. Croatia's
reputation rests largely on their third-place finish in 1998. But Croatia 1998
was one of those good luck stories, where an above-average team goes much
farther than their merits. They drew the easiest of groups, needing only to
outdistance Jamaica and Japan to make the second round. They then beat Romania
in the most sterile game of the tournament, the only goal coming on a doubtful
penalty kick. In the quarterfinals they beat Germany after an equally doubtful
call left the opposition with ten men. In the semifinals against France they
played their best game of the tournament--but that's a classic pattern. Think of
Cameroon 1990, who got by on luck and opposition weakness, and then nearly
overwhelmed England. Think of USA 2002, who were fortunate to be in the
quarterfinals but almost ran Germany out of the stadium. These teams show little
but advance far, then go down fighting and seem better than they really are.
Not surprisingly, Croatia has done little since. They failed to qualify for Euro
2000; at Korea/Japan 2002 they had a memorable comeback against Italy, but were
outplayed by Mexico and Ecuador and went out; at Euro 2004 they were a distant
third to France and England in their group, one point ahead of Switzerland.
Is there any indication they're stronger now? They topped their qualifying group
without losing a game--but they did that in 2002 as well. Maybe this is
Croatia's year, as a new generation of players matures, but if you look at their
recent record, they still have a lot to prove. They might be somewhat better
than Australia, but the case is hardly clear.
But if that's so, why shouldn't Japan be a threat as well? Evidence is scarce,
because Australia and Japan haven't played each other in several years, but
aside from Guus Hiddink (which is a lot, admittedly), there's nothing to suggest
Australia is notably better, or even better at all, than Japan. At the 2005
Confederations Cup, Japan picked up a win against Greece and a draw against
Brazil; Australia got skunked. Why are people picking Australia and not Japan?
Maybe's it's because Australia really is a mystery team. After all, Japan is
part of Asia, and we know more or less how good Asian teams are. Australia will
be in Asia soon, but until now they've been out there by themselves. So we
project on them pretty much what we want to see. I'd love for Australia to
succeed, but to be honest, I have no idea how good they are--unless, of course,
they're exactly as good as the fifth-best team from South America.
France probably, but after that, who knows?
This is the hardest of the groups to figure, because it's so weak. France's time
has come and gone, and the rest of the group hardly inspires terror. The events
of 2002 only make things more uncertain. South Korea can't possibly be that good
again, but are they better now than they used to be? If Senegal shocked
everyone, why can't Togo? We know France has fallen, but exactly how far? Only
Switzerland seems reliable: a mid-strength European team, no more and no less.
Since just about anything is possible, no unconventional wisdom here--well,
maybe one bit. France have this fascinating pattern of producing great teams,
then disappearing for a while. In 1958 they finished third, scoring a zillion
goals, then qualified for only one of the next four tournaments, finishing dead
last in their group in 1966. They then produced a magnificent side, World Cup
semifinalists in 1982 and 1986, not to mention Euro champions in 1984, and
promptly dropped out of sight again, failing to qualify for 1990 and 1994. Then
the third generation: World Cup winners in 1998, Euro champions in 2000, but a
flop in 2002. Following the pattern, they shouldn't have qualified at all this
year; maybe they'd have missed out if we weren't up to 32 teams.
Does this mean anything? It seems to suggest France will bomb again. But the
group looks so easy, it's hard to imagine their missing out entirely. Let's say
it points to no better than second place--and gives plenty of hope to
Switzerland, South Korea, and Togo.
Spain and Ukraine, which rhymes very nicely.
You can't get much more conventional than this. Two European teams against an
African and an Asian team that have both flopped repeatedly. How to turn this
Well, we know Spain sometimes underachieves, and since they almost made the
semifinals last time, maybe they'll struggle a bit. As for Ukraine, they've got
only one true star player, and they're debutantes, so they might not be
Tunisia, on the other hand, could be set for a breakthrough. They won their
first Nations Cup in 2004 (albeit at home), and performed creditably at the
Confederations Cup the next year. Roger Lemerre may have been the wrong man for
France in 2002, but he's done just about everything right with the Carthage
Eagles. In 1998 and 2002 Tunisia seemed to lack confidence; now they have a
record of success to bolster them. Plus, they get the easiest game first, and a
win over Saudi Arabia could set them loose.
Up until about three days ago, Saudi Arabia looked like a possibility as well.
They had a superb qualifying season, topping their final group with ease ahead
of South Korea. The consensus, as with Iran, was that they might have their best
team ever. But then, in a typical piece of Saudi silliness, they sacked their
coach. (Don't ask why; it's a waste of time with these guys.) So not even the
most unconventional of wisdoms can help out here.
But let's try one last stat. You'll notice that the teams favored to advance
from this group meet each other in the first round. The probability of teams who
meet in the first round going on to finish 1-2 is, naturally, 33%. It's the same
odds for those who meet in the second round, and those who meet in the third
round. If we look at the modern group stage tournaments (excluding 1958, in
which second-place ties were broken by playoffs, and 1986-1990-1994, in which
third-place teams also advanced), we find that from the 42 groups in question,
the teams who advanced divide as follows:
Teams who met in the first round: 17
Teams who met in the second round: 12
Teams who met in the third round: 13
So the numbers tell us that first-round opponents have advanced more than their
share so far. Ergo, they'll be less likely to advance this year. So much for
Spain and Ukraine. Unconventional, no?
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