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: 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 wisdom.

Conventional Wisdom:

    European teams will do well in 2006 because the tournament is in Europe.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

Germany in a stroll, Poland second.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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 this time.

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

England and Sweden 1-2 or 2-1.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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, who knows?


Conventional Wisdom:

Ulp! Argentina and the Netherlands, I guess.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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 happen again?

    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 side.

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

Mexico and Portugal with ease.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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 down.

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

    Italy and Czech Republic, although Ghana will put up a fight. The USA is overrated and will go down.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

    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.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

France probably, but after that, who knows?

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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.


Conventional Wisdom:

Spain and Ukraine, which rhymes very nicely.

Unconventional Wisdom:

    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 one around?

    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 psychologically ready.

    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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