Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup Group of Death talk

So I’ve been reading a bit about the teams and groups involved in this years World Cup, and it’s been interesting reading how they got there and what the various pundits think about who is going to do well and who isn’t.

But there’s only one thing rankling my so far in all the articles I’ve read.  In a couple of particular cases, writers have declared that poor Argentina has been thrust in yet another “Group of Death” from which they are going to have to fight their way out of.

So I’m thinking to myself, this really doesn’t sound right.  Argentina is paired with the Dutch, that’s for sure.  However the other countries are Serbia and the Ivory Coast.  Not exactly regular contenders.

I can’t find the sad sap ESPN article at the moment, but here’s a blurb from Fox Sports regarding the Ivory Coast’s chances: “That said, this is the "group of death," and any of these teams is capable of making it through to the second round. If one were to bet, I'd be tempted to pick CIV over Holland and Serbia/Montenegro.”

Seriously?  You’d pick the Ivory coast over the 3rd ranked team in the world?  What are you smoking?  Are you a sucker for the underdog normally?

Last time around Argentina was grouped with England, Sweden and Nigeria.  Now THAT’S a group of Death, with a capital D.  Argentina was picked to win the tournament in 2002, and England and Sweden made it out.  Nigeria’s no slouch, and it’s a terrible disappointment that they didn’t qualify this year.

I’ve been saying all along that the U.S. got caught in the group of death this year.  But just to show that my bias for my own country doesn’t have everything to do with that, check out the FIFA world rankings of all national teams.

Here are the groups this year.
Here are the rankings of all the teams as taken from FIFA website:

Group           Rankings        Average StDev
A               19,26,29,39     28.25           7.2
B               10,16,33,47     26.5            14.53
C               3,9,32,44       22              16.7
D               4,7,23,57       22.75           21

E               2,5,13,48       17              18.34
F               1,18,23,42      21              14.6
G               8,29,35,61      33.25           18.9
H               5,21,34,45      26.25           14.9

Note first of all that the USA’s group has the lowest average, indicating the most concentrated high ranked teams.  The standard deviation isn’t saying much, except that Germany’s group A is pretty close ranking-wise.  That’s an aberration because they have been performing poorly lately and are ranked lower than I have ever seen them at 19.  It’s also skewing group E, the USA’s group, because there is one team there, Ghana, with a terrible ranking. 

Note the other aspect of this list.  The top two teams come out of each group, so if we look at things as they are on paper, how close are the top two ranked teams vs. the bottom two teams in each group?

Group A is going to be exciting, but only because after Germany walks away with the top spot the other three are going to be fighting for the other spot in the round of 16.

Group B has a pretty significant gap, with England and Sweden taking it away on paper.
Group D is a little tighter.  However, the third ranked team there is Iran, who has only won a single game in the few times they have appeared in this tournament.  It was the USA in 1998.  I don’t think Mexico and Portugal are going to let this group get away from them.

Group F is like group A.  There is a significant gap in talent between Brazil and the other teams, but the battle for 2nd place is going to be lots of fun.  This is kind of a mini group of death, in that after Brazil, any one of those teams could make it.

Group G was some sort of heavenly gift to France.  Like groups A and F, they have a chance to really outclass their opposition.  However, in 2002 they got a similar pushover group and blew it big time, so this could be tighter than it looks on paper.  Switzerland is playing well above their ranking right now, so the two Euro teams should walk away with this group.

Group H is an anomaly.  The Ukraine is ranked below Tunisia at the FIFA site, but I can’t see them falling to the Saudis or Tunisia. 

Group C, if you’ll notice, looks a lot like groups B and D on paper.  Basically, instead of saying that anyone could come out of this group, which is basically true of any grouping, why don’t you say that, based on expectations, if Argentina and the Dutch don’t come out of this group there are going to be some very angry fans back home.  Argentina failing to come out of a group like this, after the last World Cup, will register a new record on the scale of shame in sporting history.  Calling this a group of death is a tool to give the White and Sky Blue an excuse to fail.  How pathetic.

The real group of death is a group that has more than 2 power teams in it.  This year that’s Group E  Up until the last 4 years, the United States has not been considered a power team, which is probably why they are where they are.  However they are one of the better teams in the world right now, and have the ability to play with just about anyone.  That Mexico, who they beat soundly in the qualifiers and finished ahead of, got to have a seeding and ended up in a group they should have no trouble getting out of is proof that there will probably always be a bit of bias in favor of tradition, history and culture over actual performance.

The USA has to deal with the Czechs, ranked 2nd, and the Italians, currently ranked 13th, but Italy has the players and will pick it up for the tournament.  Ghana is this years Nigeria. 


KB said...

Group E is not a group of death. I see only 2 top teams the Czechs and the Italians. USA is not better then Serbia or the Ivory Coast.. And not Ghana is the new Nigeria but the Ivory Coast, this is a great team and a lot better then the USA. So if there is a group of death then it is the group with Holland, Argentina, Serbia and the Ivory Coast. Wake up ... the USA is not a Topteam...

Simon said...

I think those rankings are a little unreliable, to say the least.

It's so hard to tell who will do well, mind you. The last two big competitions saw the supposed big teams underperforming.

USA may just surprise some people.

Richard said...

OK, I totally agree with Simon above. The rankings I used do tend to be unreliable. If I was going to rank the teams I would probably switch Italy and the U.S. at the 5th and 13th spots. They're certainly that good.

To KB above: sounds like someone is being just as biased about the USA as I'm being accused of being. I realize that the FIFA rankings are not all that reliable, but you don't get ranked in the top 10 consistantly for the last couple of years because you are worse than Serbia and the Ivory Coast. The USA outplays many teams that routinely beat them in years past, including Mexico, which for some obviously biased reason got the seed over the USA, even though they finished behind the USA in the qualifiers. Even though the US beat them soundly in the last world cup. Even though the US nearly beat Germany (and certainly outplayed them for much of the game) in the 2002 quarterfinals. This is no third world soccer country any more.
Besides, considering the storied soccer histories of Holland and Argentina, I reiterate that if they don't get out of the group they would be far more shamed than the Czechs or Americans.