2014 World Cup: How Important Are Friendlies for the 32 Nations?

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2014 World Cup: How Important Are Friendlies for the 32 Nations?
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

As the World Cup is right around the corner, millions of fans around the world have been tuning in to see their favorite national teams take part in friendlies over the past week.

These matches serve as tune-ups for the 32 nations heading to Brazil, slightly more meaningful than exhibitions.

With very few teams sporting sides that have players that play together on club sides, these friendlies do well to bring teams together, allowing them to reacclimate themselves with the style of the coach and the strengths of their teammates.

However, the benefit of such matches has come into question with the USA Today's report that as many as five friendlies may have been targets for match-fixers back in 2010.

What's more, potential injuries pose a serious drawback to these matches.

To see this, one need look no further than Saturday's match between Ecuador and Mexico in Texas, where one challenge saw both Mexico's Luis Montes and Ecuador's Segundo Castillo have their dreams of representing their countries destroyed just under two weeks before they were about to achieve them.

The obvious question that arises from these horrific moments is whether these matches are indeed worth playing at all or if the risks outweigh the rewards.

Looking at the past two World Cups, there is virtually no correlation between how many pre-tournament friendlies a team played and how they performed in the tournament. Those that made it through their groups played 84 matches while those that went out in the group stage played 83, while similar results hold for each stage of the tournament.

What is noteworthy, though, is the predictive quality of the friendlies. Teams that went out in the group stage won just 33.7 percent and lost 37.3 percent of their friendlies while those that went through the group won 64.3 percent and lost just 17.8 percent of the same results.

These numbers become even more drastic when looking at the Round of 16, as those that went out at that stage won 51 percent and lost 27.7 percent of their friendlies while teams that won through to the quarterfinals won 81.1 percent and lost just 5.4 percent.

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In fact, every team that went through the group stage won at least one friendly match before the tournament, while only the Czech Republic in 2006 won every pre-tournament friendly (with a minimum of two) and failed to get through their group.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 with these results, so it is not surprising to see the teams that performed well right before the tournament went on to do better in the tournament than those that did not.

However, what these numbers exemplify is the role pre-tournament friendlies can play for the nations bound for Brazil: To build confidence within a side heading into what they hope is a long and rigorous campaign.

Now, is that a big enough pro to outweigh the con of potential injuries?

The answer to that will become clear come Brazil.

 

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