Well, the biggest sporting event in the world is finally here after a long, four year wait. In my opinion, the World Cup is much like the Olympics, with the four year cycle, way too expensive stadiums, and worldwide attention, except that people actually want to watch the World Cup. I thought I’d write a short (warning: it’s really, really, really long) preview of the Cup, starting off with talking about the pool I started and created for the group stages of the tournament before getting to my picks for the aforementioned pool (you can post your picks in the comment section too!). Then we’ll talk about my picks for part of the knockout rounds and a few other things as well. Sound good? I can only assume you’re saying yes, as you’re reading this article and I can’t hear you through your computer screen, no matter how loudly you scream.
So here’s how the pool works. It’s quite simple:
For the group stages: Pick the order of the teams’ finish. For example in Group G, you might choose
For each pick exactly right, three points are earned, and for each pick that’s missed by one point, one point is earned. Outside of that, no points can be earned.
So that’s the pool. My picks later on in the article reflect the parameters put in place.
Now, when I make picks for a pool, I’m serious about doing so. I research, I use online tools, and I watch games. For the picks below, the ones I’m using for my pool, you’ll find my an explanation combining both my reasoning and a very useful online tool from FiveThirtyEight.
For March Madness, FiveThirtyEight made an online, interactive bracket using data and fancy stats, to create winning probabilities for every team in every game.
They used the same principles for the World Cup. Here’s the link to their interactive forecasting model: http://fivethirtyeight.com/interactives/world-cup/. For most teams, I agreed with their assessments. For teams that I didn’t know so much about, I followed their opinion. In a couple of rare cases, I went with my gut, against their predictions, including once that was caused by patriotism. ‘Murica!
Brazil is going to advance with ease. They’re at home and lucked into one of the easiest groups. They’re from South America, (which is important to me, as we’ll get to later) home field advantage matters a lot in the World Cup, and they have a very good team. In fact they’re good enough to be in the Elite Four (you’ll see that mentioned a few times throughout the article and I’ll explain later on, closer to the end of it). I suspect that the pressure of a riotous, soccer-crazed nation will get to them, but with this creampuff of a group, I doubt it will affect them in the group stage.
Mexico and Croatia are essentially a tossup for the second spot according to FiveThirtyEight. I picked Mexico as, outside of the recent stretch in which they were so bad that they barely made it into the World Cup, have been very good for years. Also, I suppose, if Mexico advances, then Americans can say “Well, we beat Mexico, so if we weren’t in the Group of Death, (which they really aren’t, as we’ll get to later) then we would have advanced too!” What can I say? I’m just a patriotic American.
Cameroon is clearly a cut below the rest of the group, although, as the gap between them and the Croatia-Mexico level isn’t a chasm, so if a couple of goals and 50-50 calls go their way, they can certainly advance as well.
And yes, I am aware that the Croatia and Brazil have played (Brazil beat Croatia 3-1) but I wrote this long before the game started, so my predictions are untainted by any future knowledge.
This is the real Group of Death. Spain is the defending World Cup champions from when they won in 2010. That win is sandwiched between two victories in. the Euro Cup in 2008 and 2012. While their core is getting older, they still have enough left in the tank to remain in the Elite Four and to take this group with relative ease.
Chile is a very good team. In 2010, they were in Spain’s group and advanced to the quarterfinals where they were summarily dismissed by Brazil, 3-0. I’ve always been rather bullish on South American teams, AND in this World Cup, they’re playing close to home, giving them an advantage (although I’m not sure how big that advantage is). FiveThirtyEight’s model also sees them as a lot better than the Netherlands, and even gives them a decent shot to upset Spain to win the group.
The Netherlands were the runner-up in the 2010 World Cup, losing to Spain, 1-0. They’re also getting old, but they haven’t handled it quite as well as Spain has. Robin van Persie is still a beast, although he’s been hindered by injuries as this past year as he scored just twelve goals in 21 games, playing for Manchester United in the Premier League. Between van Persie’s injuries, the growing age of the team, and the tough group, it’s hard to believe in the Netherlands. Of the top three teams in this group, one has to be the odd one out, and I’m betting that it’s going to be the Netherlands.
Australia. Poor Australia. Not a very good team to begin with, they get stuck with three other title contenders? Kinda sucks for them. I’d wouldn’t be surprised if they failed to notch any goals, let alone any points. Well, the consolation for Australia is that at least they’re there at the World Cup. For them, it’s triumph just to have made it. Anything else they accomplish is just gravy.
- Ivory Coast
This group one of the most balanced groups, although Colombia is clearly the class of it. It would be a major upset if they failed to make it out of the group stage.
The intrigue comes with the next three teams, the Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan. The Ivory Coast has historically disappointed in big tournaments, but I think that this year is going to be the year they finally advance, due mostly to their relatively easy draw.
Speaking of draws, it’s impossible to overstate the foolishness of FIFA in continuing with their antiquated method of determining groups. Their methods may seem fine on the surface, but what method would have such disparities between groups as the one between Group A and Group B? Let’s say that Brazil and Spain are equal (which they are normally, although since the World Cup is in Brazil, Brazil has a big home field advantage). Which one is more likely to make it to the knockout rounds: the team with two okay teams and a bad team (all relative to teams in the World Cup) or the team with one very good team, one good team, and one bad team? It’s no contest. It penalizes teams for nothing other than dumb luck! How is that in the spirit of competitive balance and exciting games?
On the flip side, you have the Ivory Coast, which is likely to advance out of the group stage merely because of the group it was handed by FIFA. Then, when they advance, we get to watch them get blown out of the water by the first place team of Group D (which is close to a tossup). Not exactly an exciting game. For the good, of all, FIFA should finally get rid of its’ useless method for determining groups.
A good article that really hashes this out and explains it in detail, along with offering solutions is at http://grantland.com/the-triangle/group-of-fairness-how-the-world-cup-would-look-with-straight-seeding/. Grantland overall is great—I really enjoy it—and it might be worth checking out.
Wow, that was a long tangent. Getting back to business, I don’t know much about Greece or Japan, but the projection model favors Greece by a decent sized margin so I’m going to roll with it.
Oh, and another tangent, this time about the roll part of the sentence: I was once playing pickup basketball with some friends and I set a pick. The other guy says “Sushi, roll!” leading to us having to pause the game so we could all laugh for a bit. It’s great having an awesome name like Sushi.
Anyways, I seem to be always going off topic in my old age, so before I can run off on another tangent, on to Group D!
- Costa Rica
This is also clearly a Group of Death. You’ve got Uruguay, a team that I’m very bullish on, England, a team that’s rebuilding but still has very good players, Italy, a team who is also pretty good, and Costa Rica, a team that hasn’t been too bad and which solidly beat America, 3-1, only a few months ago.
I picked Uruguay to win the group because, as you know, I like the South American teams. In addition, they’re playing close to home, and they have Luis Suarez. For those of you who don’t pay attention to the Premier League, Suarez scored 31 goals for Liverpool this season, a staggering amount. That’s more than enough for me to take Uruguay.
I have England and Italy in the same tier for this group, the fighting-for-second-place tier, and was leaning towards Italy (because, after all, England is rebuilding) but FiveThirtyEight’s model thought England was almost as good as Uruguay in terms of likelihood to advance and to win the group, so I chose England to advance alongside Uruguay.
Costa Rica, in my opinion, not a bad team in and of itself, got screwed over by the selection process, and, while they may have even advanced in an easier group, will likely find themselves in last place due to the luck of the draw.
While France’s individual players are very good, their results have been highly inconsistent on the national team level. In a weak group, I’m hoping that their talent outweighs their history and that they place first in their group and advance to the knockout rounds. The projection system agrees with me, pegging France’s odds of advancing at just over 80% and their odds of capturing the top spot at nearly 54%.
I chose Ecuador for four reasons: one, the model believes them to be better than Switzerland, two, they’re South American, three, they’re playing close to home, and finally four, because of their easy draw. That’s enough for me.
Switzerland is third. I don’t exactly have a reasoned opinion about it, I just don’t like their chances. I like their chocolate, I like their cheese, I just don’t like their soccer team. So sue me.
Honduras comes in last place. While I’ve already outlined why I chose Ecuador and France to advance, I figured that there was probably a reason that FIFA put Switzerland in the top eight of the world (other than FIFA being based in Switzerland, bribes, or that FIFA isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. That pun was unintentional, I didn’t mean to call attention to the fact that they’re bad at the World Cup drawing. Oh wait I just did! Wow, I’m really on a bad crappy joke run, I’d better stop now) so I ended up choosing them over Honduras.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
I picked Argentina to take the group for a bunch of reasons. I won’t rehash all of the reasons related to Argentina being located in South America, as you’ve probably memorized it by now and I’d bet that you’re a little sick of it. In addition to those aforementioned reasons, Argentina is in the Elite Four and they have Lionel Messi. I like Messi because he’s a beast, has beautiful passes, (while also scoring plenty of goals) and because, as he’s only 5’’4, he brings hope to smallish people like me.
Departing from the usual order of teams, I’ll talk about the second-place pick last. Why? I’m simply a daredevil, living life on the wild side.
Iran is a tough team to predict. They haven’t played much against international competition so it’s challenging to determine exactly how good they are. Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Iran isn’t a good team, and place them firmly in last place.
Nigeria also isn’t a great team. I’m bearish on African teams, partly because they’ve historically not done well in the World Cup, partly because of their lack of competition against elite teams. However, when in doubt, as always, let’s go check out the projection system. The model gives them a 68% chance of failing to advance and sees them to be worse than Bosnia and Herzegovina, so I’m going to trust the math and put Nigeria third.
Finally, we’ve got Bosnia and Herzegovina. They’re a solid team, by all accounts, and as there are two teams clearly a cut below them, they fall into the second spot, almost by default.
Germany, the last member of the Elite Four, (yes, we’ll get to what that is soon) and is a very, very good team. It has exceptional players such as Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, and Phillip Lahm, their captain. There’s no South American team to upset them. They’re clearly a cut above the rest of they’re group and it’d be extremely surprising if someone other than them took first place in the group.
“Why in the world would you pick America?” you might ask. My answer might be that I’m a red blooded American, who likes guns, gets fat, and expects the government to pay for my problems. Whenever my Yanks take part in a competition, my patriotic pride swells up, and I have to believe in them.
Well, to be honest, none of that is actually true. The real reason why I’m picking America is because of their schedule. America plays Ghana first, and is likely to beat them according to FiveThirtyEight. If they can tie or beat Portugal in their second game, something the projection system gives a 58% chance of happening, then they’ll be in good shape heading into their third match, with Germany.
See, America can’t play with Germany—they’ll just be overwhelmed. America’s only chance is to hope that Germany beats Ghana and Portugal and rests most of their starters and plays its second team instead. If that happens, America would have a decent shot at winning or tying (although, even against Germany’s second team, there’s still a decent chance they might lose), which would push them ahead of Portugal and into the second spot. Of course, this might not play out the way I hope it will, but at the very least I can dream a little, for at least a few days.
Portugal is next. They’re a good team, but a more accurate team name might be “Cristiano Ronaldo and ten other guys”. Ronaldo is an amazing player so I couldn’t put his team any lower than third in this group, but if an opposing team can shut Ronaldo down, Portugal will be in deep trouble.
Ghana, as we all know, has eliminated America in the last two World Cups. Still, I think this’ll be the year that we finally get rid of Ghana for a couple of reasons: one, America has gotten better over the past four years while Ghana has stagnated, and two, Ghana’s in Africa which, as we talked about earlier in the Nigeria section, is generally a no-go for me. In a group with three superior teams, Ghana seems destined to finish last.
- South Korea
Belgium has a few good players, including Thibaut Cortois, the keeper who led Atletico Madrid to a second place finish in the Champions League, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku. In a weak group, their good players should push them to a first place finish in their group.
The projection model sees Russia as the likely second place finisher, although they have a decent shot to vault past Belgium and into firs placet.
Of the two other teams, South Korea and Algeria, South Korea has about a 40% chance of pulling an upset and advancing to the knockout rounds, while Algeria has about a 20% chance of doing so, deciding the last two spots in this group.
Wow, that was certainly a long-winded explanation and analysis. Now, we’ll move onto a couple of storylines to watch throughout the World Cup.
The Top Heavy Tournament:
Throughout the article, you may have noticed that I’ve referred a few times to the “Elite Four”. You may have wondered what that referred to. Well, now, you’re about to find out! *cue game show music and people happily screaming* When deciding on predictions for tournaments, drafts, and everything else, it’s useful to separate teams and players into different tiers to make it easier to choose between them. In this World Cup, the highest tier consists of Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Argentina. The next tier is just Uruguay, and there are a number of teams in the third tier. Still, as you can see, this years’ tournament is very top heavy. There’s a chasm between the Elite Four and the third tier. Because there’s very little parity, this tournament will not be conducive to Cinderella runs by any third or fourth tier teams. It’s too bad for fans of specific teams, but it’s incredible for fans of soccer. Why? The Elite Four are very likely to meet in the semifinals, meaning that those matches should be competitive and the best soccer in the world. It should be great.
The Many Groups of Death:
It’s annoying how often the term “Group of Death” is used, but even worse are the confusing qualifications to be one. Can there be multiple Groups of Death? Is it just the hardest group? The best team in the group or the teams in the group’s average level? There are so many befuddling and vague requirements to be a Group of Death to make sense of. If you think you have an answer to any of the questions, let us all know in the comments section.
America and Saving Face in the Group of Death:
Speaking of Groups of Death, Group G has been hyped up by the American media to be considered one of said Groups of Death. The question, of course, is why. While America seems to have a harder group than most, it certainly isn’t as hard as Group B (which is why we need clear rules for being a Group of Death like I outlined in the last paragraph). I think that the reason why the American media has decided that America is in the Group of Death is to lower expectations for the team.
To explain, here’s an example of that in every day life. Sometimes, a job of mine at home is to unload the dishwasher. Let’s say I dutifully unload the dishwasher every time that it needs to be done for a month. If I continued doing it, no one would notice it or thank me for it because it’s become expected of me.
Now let’s say that I rarely unloaded the dishwasher. If I unload the dishwasher, since the expectations for me were so low, I’d be praised and what I had done would be appreciated more.
Now apply that to what the media has been doing. They’re setting America up so that if they fail, it’s okay because it’s because they were stuck with in a Group of Death, and if they advance, they’ve exceeded expectations and are worthy of much praise. That’s a lot better than the situation that Brazil has been stuck with.
Pressure on Brazil:
Speaking of Brazil, they have a couple of inherent advantages in this World Cup, outside of the variables that are able to control. One, they have an easy group, as we discussed a while ago. Two, they’re playing at home, which has historically been a boon for whoever gets to host the tournament. Still, I suspect that home field advantage might prove to be a curse in this year’s World Cup.
Think of the political situation in Brazil: people are rioting in the streets, upset that their government is spending money on a tournament when that money could be used to help get better schools, better housing, and more food. Think of the social situation in Brazil: a soccer-crazed nation is hosting the World Cup and which has a team that’s considered the favorite to win. That’s a lot of pressure on a team. The pressure won’t matter in Group A when they’re playing against inferior competition. The pressure will grow steadily until they finally face a team their equal. If they fall behind against a team as good as them, I suspect that the pressure will get to them and they will lose. That’s why I don’t have them winning the World Cup, although we’ll get to that in greater detail once we reach the knockout rounds.
I’m saving my picks for the knockout rounds until we actually know who’s participating, although I’ll be sure to let you know my picks once the bracket is locked. Right now, my final four teams are Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay (upsetting Spain in the quarterfinals) with the pressure finally getting to Brazil in the semifinals and Uruguay pulling of another big upset of an Elite Four team, this time Argentina, resulting in a Germany-Uruguay Finals, which I pick Germany to win.
I’m looking to possibly do a pool for the knockout rounds, so if you’re interested, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or just post in the comments section. If enough people answer, we can have a SushiOnSports pool, which I’ll be sure to write about.
Quick alert about the NBA Finals: the Spurs’ offense has been incredible, and after blowing out Miami last night, 107-86, they look like a lock to win the championship. I’m saving my extended thoughts for another time, probably in a new article after the series is over.
Anyways, enjoy the World Cup action! It should be great!