I feel that this is an opportune moment to review the World Cup: the past (games so far), present (today’s games), and future (the rounds to come, and some recommendations for future tournaments). My policy for the blog requires also that I review the (generally sad) state of my forecasts, as well. At this moment, 44 of the 63 competitive games have been played; 13 teams have qualified for the Round of 16; 11 teams are eliminated, while the eight teams playing today (Thursday) will decide the remaining three spots (Belgium is guaranteed a spot, but whether it finishes first or second is yet to be determined).
State of Play: I have to say that that the competitive level and entertainment value of the tournament so far has been a rousing success. Without researching the statistics on this, I would guess that the number of goals is up from 2010 by 20-30%, but even more importantly, there have been very few games where teams just showed up, gave a halfhearted effort and settled for a result—even the 0-0 games have had their moments (such as Brazil-Mexico).
Another factor making this year’s version a success is the evident parity, and resulting in increased possibility of surprising outcomes. Only two teams will exit without gaining at least a standings point from a win or draw (Australia and Honduras), and only three teams have won all three of their games (Colombia, Netherlands and Argentina, with Belgium’s third game today). It seems that all the teams are good enough to have had at least one competitive game, and all the strong teams have enough weaknesses to have had at least one game in which they were not dominant (definitely true for Argentina, vs. Iran; Colombia and Netherlands had to come from behind to win in one of their games.
Then there have been the group-level-result surprises. Costa Rica’s winning its group was a complete surprise—most would have predicted the Ticos for fourth place, behind three past winners (Italy, England, and Uruguay). Spain’s unexpected collapse, of course, has to be mentioned. Algeria and Iran showed more than expected. After barely making it out of qualifying, Mexico’s strong first-round performance counts as a surprise. Despite having finished as runner-up in 2010, few saw Netherlands’ superior performance coming—or France’s, after their disastrous 2010. Only a few spotted Belgium’s potential to emerge so strongly (I, in a contrarian failure, saw it, and decided it was overstated).
Finally, we need to acknowledge the strong performance of the Americas in the tournament so far. In the six groups that have concluded play, 7 of 9 teams from the Western Hemisphere have gone forward (only Honduras and Ecuador, both from Group F, did not do so), while 10 of 15 teams from the other continents did not qualify for the next round. There is only one team—the United States—from the Americas among the eight teams playing today, but I give thenorteamericanos a better-than-even chance of advancing (see below). Geography may have contributed—there is the well-known fact that a team from the Americas has won every time the event has been conducted there—but the rigorous battle to qualify in South America has produced nothing but quality, while the North/Central America (plus Caribbean) region, called CONCACAF, has earned new respect as well.
My performance in the prediction bracket competition (mine on ESPN) has not been so scintillating; the errors above were among the many. I generally did OK in picking group winners (with the exception of Costa Rica and Holland) but quite badly in picking the second-place teams. So, my mediocre ranking may rise a bit if things return more to form later (see below). With regard to the other contest ESPN has, in which you pick every game (in the first round, you either pick the favorite to win or the underdog to win or draw; I like the format) I am doing much better, in the high-90's percentile (and at the top of the two groups I joined, "Fans of San Marino" and "Fans of Taiwan")*. I went a bit more outside the normal bounds of expected results and was rewarded, though I am still not anywhere near the prize-winning levels.
Two groups play their final first-round games, and all eight teams have, at least nominally, something to play for. In each group there is one game of primary importance and one more secondary.
In Group H, with the late games, the key one is the game which is basically for second place, between Algeria and Russia. The significance of the other game, Belgium-South Korea, depends almost entirely on the outcome of Algeria-Russia: if Algeria doesn’t win, and win big (by at least two goals), Belgium has nothing to worry about to claim first place in the group. If Algeria does win, South Korea can do nothing. If Russia can win or get a draw, though, then the other game comes into play more: If Russia draws with Algeria, it is out, but South Korea can get second with a big win over Belgium (which will have no stake in its game); if Russia wins, South Korea could edge it out with a sufficiently large win. The most probable outcome is that the Algeria-Russia winner (or Algeria, in the case of a draw) will get second and Belgium gets first.
In Group G, the so-called “Group of Death”, the most salient question (with all due respect to the others’ fates) is what will happen to the United States, and that depends mostly (but not entirely) on the game of Germany vs. the USMNT (the awkward official initialization—US Men’s National Team—which the press has adopted given the proliferation of other “American” teams). The other game, Ghana-Portugal, is of secondary importance: Ghana has a chance depending on certain US-Germany outcomes, while Portugal needs both to win big and get lucky with the other game to have a chance.
The range of outcomes, and my estimate of their likelihood, is as follows:
- US defeats Germany (any score): US gets first and Germany gets second, unless the Germans get beaten by a lot of goals (US first – 10%, Germany not second – 0.1%)
- US and Germany draw: Germany gets first on goal difference, US gets second (25%)
- US loses, Ghana wins, and the sum of US margin of defeat and Ghana margin of victory >2: Germany gets first, Ghana second (15%)
- US loses, Ghana wins, and the sum of US margin of defeat and Ghana margin of victory =2: Depends on the number of goals scored by US and Ghana in today’s games. The US has four goals in two games, Ghana has three, so if Ghana scores two more than the US, it gets second. (5%)
- If (US loses, Ghana wins, each by one goal, and…) Ghana scores one more goal than the US, the US advances based on its head-to-head record (a win) vs. Ghana; (9%)
- If (given US loss, Ghana win, each by one goal) Ghana scores the same number of goals as the US, or less, the US advances—same standings points, same goal difference, but a higher number of goals scored. (10%)
- US loses, but Ghana doesn’t win—Germany gets first, US gets second, unless the sum of the US margin of defeat and Ghana’s margin of defeat> 4. (24%)
- If that sum>5, Portugal goes through as second (1%)
- If it’s 5, then goals scored (US has 4, Portugal 2, so far) would be next, head-to-head wouldn’t help, and it could actually come down to a random drawing of lots. (1% for all those possible outcomes)
This adds up to the following: First place: Germany - 90%, US - 10%; Second place: Germany 9.9%; US – 68% (plus a little); Ghana 20% (plus a little); Portugal 1% (plus a very little), those three little bits adding up to 1.1%. I will check later (and put in comment) what Nate Silver’s estimates are on Fivethirtyeight.com.
This (78%+ chance of advancing) is a pretty decent situation for the US, and they earned it. The win against Ghana was an extremely tough test of their will which they passed with flying colors. The draw against Portugal was disappointing in the end, due to the magnificent, Beckham-esque crossing pass made in the fifth and final minute of second-half stoppage time by Cristiano Ronaldo (who had an otherwise bad game: he seems to have trouble, whether a knee problem or a brain one, getting his shots off), but I thought the US strategy was excellent (midfield press, coordinated forward movement, long Klinsmann-esque passes down the flanks), and they dominated all but the first ten minutes and the last half-minute. But sometimes that gap is enough to lose the game, so the US shouldn’t feel cheated.
The problem for the US, which I hope emerges clearly from the analysis above, is that a defeat vs. Germany is quite probable, while Portugal has little hope to gain anything from its game with Ghana. (If you follow through with all the numbers above, I’ve got Ghana winning 60% of the time within the 65% of the probability in which its outcome matters.) We US backers (I avoid the term “USA” at all costs) must hope for Portugal to play well out of pride and that we avoid disaster vs. Germany. This suggests the US may be cautious, but that would be a mistake: goals scored could be a decisive factor. The best strategy is to come out aggressively, contest the Germans, then, if things start to go bad, don’t overcompensate, hunker down, take a one-goal defeat, and hope Ghana doesn’t win big.
Looking Ahead—Remainder of the 2014 Tourney
If we look at the Round of 16, it is set up so that a group winner faces a runner-up in each match. Picking the favorites in those (and assuming Groups G and H play out as they currently stand), we would get the following matchups in the quarterfinals: Brazil-Colombia, France-Germany, Holland-Costa Rica, and Argentina-Belgium. That would, in my view, lead to expected semifinals of Brazil-Germany and Holland-Argentina, and to the Brazil-Argentina final I have always expected. (The big change is the disappearance of Spain, with Holland the mostly likely winner from that quarter of the bracket.) Based on experience to date, I would expect about 25% of those individual game predictions to be wrong, from the Round of 16 to the Semifinals.
So, where are the upsets most likely? In the “top left” quarter we have four South American teams—Brazil-Chile and Colombia-Uruguay in the Round of 16. These teams are all familiar with each other; established history of the various matchups might give a clue, but I would say that Colombia-Brazil in the quarterfinals could be the place for one of the most consequential upsets in the whole tourney, one that upsets all the conventional thinking (the equivalent of Holland over Spain in the first round). Holland-Mexico appears to be a very interesting Round of 16 matchup, but I maintain my skepticism with regard to Costa Rica in that quarter. Obviously, if Germany does not finish first in its group it will have a great effect, as they would (probably) then play Belgium and likely face Argentina in the quarterfinal. Finally, either France or Belgium has shown the potential to go far in the tournament, though they would probably have to go through Germany or Argentina, respectively; though, inversely, I think the US would present a serious threat to Belgium in the Round of 16 if it ends up second in its group (and Belgium first in its one).
Longer Range Thinking
The international soccer sponsoring body, FIFA, may feel reduced pressure because the tournament has satisfied, but I think they should not be let off the hook. In particular, their approach to selection of locale and follow-through on the host's execution was deficient in the case of Brazil and, so far, looks even worse for the next two places they have selected (Russia/Poland in 2018, and Qatar! In 2022). Unfortunately, in these matters they seem to answer to no one.
In terms of lessons from this tournament, it is obvious that the referees need the help which is available through instant replay for critical decisions. I would propose something like the challenge system which exists now in tennis, American football, and baseball, which allows for a severely limited ability to challenge coming from the team which feels it has been hurt by a referee or line judge’s ruling. The challenge must come “immediately” (say, within 10 seconds). These would be mostly for decisions that were called, or that should have been called, for: offsides, fouls resulting in a penalty kick or a red card. (Replay is already used to determine whether the ball crosses the goal line in the case of a possible goal.) One challenge per team, per half, maximum, with a two-minute break for the referees to have one of their own consult the video replays and make a decision, overturning the originaldecision only when there is definitive evidence.
Finally, the Third Place Game has always been a bugaboo for me—it violates the general spirit of professional soccer and is basically a glorified exhibition game. With these highly paid athletes, the risk of injury is too high to waste on a meaningless game. They should cancel this one, but I would take it further and suggest consideration of cancellation of any game which cannot have an effect on the group-level qualifications: due to the parity I discussed before, there has only been one this year which, in advance, was known not to have any possible effect—Spain vs. England (several others ended up having no effect, but they might have had some conditional on differing outcomes in the other game held simultaneously). In those cases of useless games, they should give all the ticket-holders a voucher for the value of the ticket and let them spend them in the country. The tourism industry will benefit, and no one will be hurt.
*Don't ask why; basically they were chosen as small groups where I could find easily where I stand.
*Don't ask why; basically they were chosen as small groups where I could find easily where I stand.