Nightmare World Cup Draws for the Qualified Nations
In most cases, the fortunes of a football team are decided within 90 minutes. Perhaps the most important 90 minutes for the 32 qualified 2014 World Cup teams will happen next Friday, when each competing nation will learn the identity of the three opponents sharing their group in the draw.
The eight groups are selected from four pots of eight teams, the first of which is seeded. The top seven nations according to FIFA rankings and the hosts, therefore, will be spread evenly among the groups, but the other pots are divided by confederation. This gives the potential for "easy" passages to the knockout rounds and the strong potential for at least one "group of death."
Here follows nightmare situations for the qualified teams, arranged by their qualifying pot.* Since they will not meet anyone else in their own pot, their nightmare situations will be broadly similar.
(*Thus far, only Pot 1 has been officially ratified by FIFA, so the others have been put together using the same logic as the 2010 draw. Football's governing body are not averse to last-minute changes, but this should be a true reflection of the draw setup.)
Pot One Teams
Pot One teams are the lucky ones, as they have a strong chance of being the biggest shark in their respective tank. However, there are plenty of other finned creatures with sharp teeth lurking in the other pots.
Seeded and host teams do not always manage to live up to their billing either: In 2010, two of the eight failed to progress (hosts South Africa and Italy), with the same number failing in 2002 (Argentina and France).
As an example of the strength of the competition in the other three pots, here is a general worst case scenario for a Pot 1 team:
Pot One team
In this instance, the seeds would be facing the strongest side from Pot Two by ranking (USA), Pot Three's toughest customers Chile (they escaped a tough group in 2010 and will be buoyed by a tournament held on their home continent) and the Netherlands, who would have been among the seeds if Uruguay had failed to win their playoff match.
Here's a general best case scenario for the seeds:
Pot One Team
Here, the Pot One side would get to cruise past the two lowest teams by rank in the tournament (Cameroon and Australia) and face Russia, the lowest-ranked UEFA team not named France.
Of course, the nightmarish nature of the group will depend on the individual team they face. Brazil will probably not want to draw France from Pot Three, the team whom they haven't beaten competitively since 1958 and who denied them the trophy at the 1998 final. (Ronaldo recently joked that France were Brazil's "bogey team.")
Germany, meanwhile, will surely be keen to avoid their fabled rivals Holland from Pot Four. The outcome of their often-volatile encounters on the big stage is usually unpredictable, and they would not want to be tripped up by the Dutch and an African or South American side from Pot Three.
On the following slide is an example draw from an online simulator that shows the kind of hands that Pot One teams could be dealt...
Pot One Mock Example
In this simulation, one might say that Spain has drawn a hazardous group. They would face the USA (the most dangerous team from a comparatively weak Pot Two, who beat them 2-0 in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal), the Ivory Coast (Africa's highest-ranked team) and England, whom they have not beaten competitively since 1950.
Switzerland, on the other hand, have a relatively comfortable group. The lowest seed finds itself paired with its lowly counterpart in Pot Two (the fairly troubled Australia), Ecuador (whom they have never met) and Croatia (who haven't beaten them since 1940).
Pot Two Teams
Pot Two, made up of AFC & CONCACAF members, is in for a rough ride at the group stage. Each team is guaranteed to face a seed from Pot 1, a UEFA team from Pot 4 and either another UEFA side, a potential African powerhouse or a south American side from Pot 3.
According to ESPN's SPI rankings, five of the seven worst teams at the tournament are found in Pot Two, while five of the worst six sides according to the FIFA rankings are found here (the USA is the only member to break the top 20).
Here is an example of a general worst case scenario for any Pot Two team:
Pot Two team
In this instance, the unlucky Pot Two team would face the hosts Brazil, who are currently favourites to win and virtually guaranteed safe passage to the Round of 16. They would also face the Ivory Coast, who are the highest ranked African team (17th). Rounding out the group are the Netherlands, the 2010 finalists who narrowly missed out on a seed slot in Pot 1 and who were undefeated in qualifying.
By contrast, here is a general best case scenario for a Pot Two team:
Pot Two team
It this scenario, Pot Two team would face the weakest seed (Switzerland), the lowest ranked team at the entire tournament (Cameroon) and debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Clearly the difference between the two pots is startling. Taking the example of the USA—who had a comparatively easy ride in 2010 sharing a group with England, Slovenia and Algeria. ESPN's SPI rankings give them a 73.1 percent chance of progressing in the best case scenario. In the worst, it drops to just 19.2 percent.
From this pot, Japan appear to have the shortest odds of progressing: They have only a 43 percent chance of moving on from the group stage in the best case and only 4.8 percent in the worst. Yikes.
On the following slide I have simulated a draw to show the potentially nightmarish combinations that could occur...
Pot Two Mock Example
Here, Honduras appear to have an unfortunate draw, with hosts Brazil, Ghana (who made the knockout rounds in the past two tournaments) and the Netherlands.
The USA also have a difficult group, drawing sure-to-progress Argentina in addition to two UEFA teams: France and England. They have never beaten the former and not overcome the latter since 1993.
Mexico also face a nightmarish matchup, facing dark horse Belgium from the seeds and Italy, whom they have only ever beaten once.
This mock draw gives a glimmer of hope to the Socceroos though, who only have a 26.1 percent chance of qualifying in the best case scenario according to ESPN's SPI rankings. Here, they would get a chance to battle for second place with Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Pot Three Teams
Pot Three, which might be considered the second-weakest pot, hosts the CAF nations, the non-seeded CONMEBOL teams and the lowest-ranked UEFA side.
In the past three tournaments, only three of these teams have made it out of the group stage (Ghana made the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010; Ecuador reached the quarters in 2006; France made the final in 2006).
The World Cup winner is unlikely to be found in this pot, but a few teams may make it out. Here's an example of a general worst case scenario for any given Pot Three team:
Pot Three team
If this group is drawn next week, the Pot Three team would be all-but guaranteed a three-game tournament. Both Germany and the high-flying Dutchmen were undefeated in qualifying, while the former is second favourite to win according to the bookmakers (via oddschecker.com) and have cleared the first stage of every World Cup they have entered since 1938. The latter is also heavily favoured and will be looking to reach the final for the second successive tournament.
Here is an example of a general best case scenario for Pot Three teams:
Pot Three team
In this example, the Pot Three team would be facing the lowest ranked side from each of the other pots, giving them their best possible chance of reaching the Round of 16.
Read on for a simulation to show the possibilities for a Pot Three team...
Pot Three Mock Example
Chile, the highest ranked team in Pot Three, would be expected to prosper at a South American tournament. However, in this scenario, they would face the triple threat of Belgium, USA and Portugal.
La Roja have not beaten any of these sides in the past 60 years (they beat the USA at the 1950 World Cup and have never overcome Belgium or Portugal) and the two UEFA sides would be heavily favoured to emerge from this group.
France would also face an uphill task in this scenario. They have lost all of their four meetings with Argentina, have only beaten England once in a competitive tie since 1963 and have never played Honduras. Plus, based on the past few tournaments, France have to contend with the fact that they are their own biggest nightmare.
Pot Four Teams
UEFA is generally considered the strongest federation, and these eight sides have the potential to provide plenty of nightmares for their respective groups. However, it is important to remember that this is a South American tournament, and a European team has never won a World Cup in the Americas.
Furthermore, UEFA teams tend to struggle to graduate from the group stage in non-European tournaments. Just six of the 13 UEFA teams in South Africa in 2010 made it out, and nine of the 15 in Japan and South Korea in 2002. By contrast, 10 of 14 made the knockout rounds when the World Cup was hosted by Germany in 2006.
Here is a general worst case scenario group for a Pot Four side:
Pot Four team
Based on their current form and home advantage, absolutely no team would wish to be placed in Group A with Brazil (the hosts automatically enter Group A so they play in the opening match).
Japan were the first team to qualify for the tournament and with known quantities like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda in their ranks, they are a feared entity in Europe. They have also made the knockout stage in two of their last three attempts. And even with their current undulations in form and widespread apathy among supporters, most UEFA sides would probably rather avoid France from Pot Three.
Here is a best case scenario for the UEFA pot:
Pot Four team
By now, you are probably seeing a pattern emerge with these forecasts—these are simply the lowest ranked teams in each of the other pots.
The next page shows a simulation of where the Pot Four teams could end up...
Pot Four Mock Example
From this example, England would face one of their toughest groups possible. Fabled enemy Germany would probably be the Three Lions' least favourite choice for a seed, while Chile and the USA are both the highest ranked teams in their pots.
And of course, England suffered unconvincing defeats to the Germans and Chileans in their two most recent friendlies and failed to overcome the USA in the group stage of the last World Cup. Based on their current form, Roy Hodgson's men might be lucky to win a corner, let alone a game, in this group.
There's also a potentially tricky matchup for the Netherlands. Hosts Brazil are likely to offer the Dutch stiffer opposition than they did in the 2010 quarterfinals, while the Ivory Coast remain one of Africa's biggest hopes. They have never met Honduras, who tend to play a very physical game.
Russia, meanwhile, are Pot Four's lowest ranked side but they have a fairly favourable group in this simulation. Switzerland have not beaten the side currently coached by Fabio Capello in five attempts, and they have never played either Ecuador or Costa Rica, but are ranked higher than both.