On December 6, in Salvador, Brazil, FIFA will stage the massive dog and pony show known as the World Cup draw, setting the field for next summer’s tournament. The laughably tacky theatrics that normally surround this event hopefully won’t interfere with what is shaping up to be the most interesting draw in recent memory. The global parity that FIFA has long sought is certainly on display and the nuances of the draw system look likely to produce some of the toughest groups in the history of the World Cup. So much is at stake, particularly for the national teams that can legitimately challenge for the Cup, that it should be an awesome nail-biter of a draw.
Why is this draw different? Primarily for two reasons. First, a lot of good teams made it to Brazil ’14, and there is a lot of World Cup pedigree even among the unseeded teams. Second, and more importantly, some quirks in the FIFA ranking system, and the fact that FIFA prioritizes region over pure seeding in creating groups, lines up the possibility of multiple “Groups of Death.”
FIFA reserves the right to play around with the draw format until December 3, 2013, so most of this is speculation based on historical precedent. FIFA has always tried to create regional diversity in composing World Cup groups, to prevent, say, four European teams from being drawn into the same group. To do so, they have created a system of “pots” based on regions and seedings, and construct the tournament by drawing eight groups of four from four separate pots of eight teams each.
Pot #1 is always comprised of the eight seeded teams – supposedly the seven best teams in the tournament along with the hosts (in this case Brazil, who are actually one of the best teams in the world, anyway). But oddly, because of the way FIFA picks the seeds from FIFA’s own flawed ranking system, this is not necessarily true in 2014. Some of the unseeded teams, like Chile, France or Holland, are arguably better than seeded teams like Switzerland.
Pot #2 will probably hold the Asian and North American qualifiers. These are usually considered the easy wins for the stronger teams in the tournament; but this time the presence of Japan, Korea, Iran, USA, Mexico and Costa Rica means really dangerous teams, teams that the favorites will have to take seriously, will be drawn out of this pot. Sadly, this works to the great disadvantage of the US men’s national team, the highest-ranked team (13th in FIFA rankings; 15th in ESPN SPI) in the pot. With the exception of a couple of the African teams, like Algeria, Pot #2 will have most of the lower-ranked teams in the tournament, and that means that the USA’s draw is just mathematically more difficult. As we’ll see later, there are some really horrible draws possible for the USA.
Pot #3 is likely made up of the African teams, the unseeded South American teams, and France, the “lowest ranked UEFA team.” The presence of France (8th ranked in FIFA; 7th in SPI) and Chile (12th ranked in FIFA; 5th in SPI) in this pot means that at least two groups will have Pot #3 teams ranked higher than Pot #1 seeds.
Pot #4 is where it could really get interesting. Because European teams like Switzerland and Belgium were seeded (along with Germany and Spain), that meant that four traditional European powers were relegated to Pot #4 – England, Italy, Portugal and Holland. There they join some weaker but definitely decent teams from Russia, Greece, Bosnia and Croatia. Again, through the luck of the draw, we could see Holland, France and Brazil in the same group. With USA or Mexico. Yikes.
I’ve been playing with this fantastic draw simulator to look at some random scenarios. It’s a fun tool. Play around with it for a little while and it will make your hair stand on end if you are a USA supporter, and fill you with joy and anticipation if you are a neutral. You can easily see scenarios where almost every group stage match would be do-or-die. It is hard to run a single instance of the simulation that doesn’t produce an absolutely insane group – a group of teams that would be unsurprising quarter-finalists.
Probably the dream draw for USA, at least according to SPI rankings, would be Switzerland, Algeria, and Bosnia or Croatia or Greece. Probably the worst case would be the Brazil, France, Holland group. But there are many daunting possibilities in between. Would we really be happy to draw Belgium, Ghana, and Italy, for example? And yet, that would be a relatively benign draw given the possibilities.
As dire as the USA’s possibilities might be, the situation for the tournament favorites like Spain, Brazil, Germany and Argentina is also full of peril. None of them want to see teams like France, USA, Mexico, Chile, Holland, or Italy in their group. And there is a 25% chance for each of Pots #2–4 that they get one of those teams from each pot. You can bet that there will be representatives from the football associations of at least a dozen countries holding their heads in disbelief when the dust settles and the names are all drawn December 6th. Should be fun to watch.