Want to win the World Cup? Better win your group.


‘All we need to do is get out of the Group of Death and we are good, right Mikey?’ ‘Not quiiitee Ale’

So much emphasis at the World Cup is put on getting out of the group. If you get out of the group, anything can happen! Technically this is true, but when zero of the teams that finished second in their respective groups at the 2014 World Cup won a game in the round of 16, it made me wonder if this was an anomaly or if  it was relatively standard. Here’s what teams that finished second in their group have done in the round of 16 since 1998:

Only 9 teams at the past 5 World Cups have won a round of 16 match when they advanced as the second place team out of their group. 1998 was when the World Cup shifted to 32 teams, so previous World Cups aren’t relevant as third place teams advanced from the group stage too. The teams that did win a round of 16 game after finishing second were Croatia and Denmark in France ’98, England, Senegal, Turkey, and the United States in Korea/Japan ’02, France and Ukraine in Germany ’06, and Ghana in South Africa ’10.

handball of doom

Here, let me give you a hand.

The quarterfinals is where the tournament ended for most of these teams. In 1998, Denmark crashed out against Brazil. In 2002, the United States lost ever so painfully against Germany when Torsten Frings got away with a handball that Thierry Henry would have been proud of, England couldn’t beat eventual champions Brazil, and Senegal was beaten in extra time by fellow second place in the group finishers Turkey. In 2006 Ukraine was defeated by eventual champions Brazil and in 2010 Ghana went out in a riveting match against Uruguay where Luis Suarez’s handball kept Uruguay alive and allowed the match to go to penalties instead of Ghana winning in extra time after Ghana missed the ensuing penalty. Two-thirds of the teams that finished second place in their group that won a round of 16 game could not get past the quarterfinals.


Three teams however did go deeper into the tournament, with one making the final. Croatia advanced to the third place game in ’98, losing to eventual champions France in the semifinals after defeating both Romania and Germany to get there. Croatia then went on to defeat The Netherlands in the third place match. Turkey also finished third in ’02 after advancing as the second place team in their group, knocking off Japan and Senegal to set up a meeting with Brazil in the semifinal. Brazil won, sending Turkey to the third place game, where they defeated co-hosts South Korea. France advanced the furthest of any team who finished second in their group, as they lost in the World Cup Final in 2006 on penalties. They escaped their group with two draws and a win, with the win coming on the final group stage match day, and then defeated Spain, Brazil, and Portugal en route to the final. You might remember how that all went down.


What does all this mean? If you finish second in your group, it’s unlikely that you will win your round of 16 match. From the past 5 World Cups, less than 25% of second place finishers win their next match. Of those who do, 66% go out in the quarterfinals. Only one team that finished second in their group has gone on to play in the World Cup final. Most importantly, there has been no team that finished second in their group that went on to win the World Cup. Winning your group is a big advantage because it gives you an “easier” match up in the round of 16. In a tournament where you have to win 4 games in a row to win it all, an easier route certainly has a lot of upside. Easier might not be the best word though, as in 2014 5 of the 8 round of 16 games went to extra time, two of which ended in penalties. Having to likely beat three teams who won their group instead of four certainly increases your odds of winning it all, and in a tournament where teams often live and die by extremely thin margins, any way you can make your route to the final easier is one you should capitalize on.

The paradigm shift here is that as the US gets better, their team World Cup goals must change. Getting out of the group should no longer be the target, but winning the group. Winning your group sets you up for a better chance to make a deep run into the World Cup. Certainly this isn’t plausible with every group (say one with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana perhaps?) but it is worth knowing that your odds of making a deep run increase dramatically if you win your group, and perhaps gambling a bit more in the group stage when provided with a chance to win it has more upside than previously thought. Would this knowledge have shifted the tactics that the USMNT used against Germany in their final group stage game? Unlikely, but certainly something to think about going forward.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Anatoly_M on 2014/07/15 at 4:48 AM

    IF we didn’t let Cristiano Ronaldo to make that perfect cross, we’d defeat, deservedly, Portugal and then with 6 points and nothing to lose could’ve “shifted the tactics that the USMNT used against Germany in their final group stage game”. I still think that Germany would’ve won in that situation anyway, for a simple reason of having more talented players that do play well together. USA had some moments of brilliance though, so who knows how they’d play in a relaxed mode.

    As so many noted about this cup: results turned in a matter of seconds. It feels that there were more could’ve, would’ve IFs than ever before. Loved it!


  2. Posted by LC on 2014/07/15 at 6:44 AM

    Eh, you’re not wrong, exactly, but I think you’re confusing cause and effect. It’s not finishing in 2nd that causes teams to lose in the round of 16, it’s that, on average, 2nd place teams just aren’t as good. if the US had managed to win their group this year, they still would’ve been the same mediocre team. The goal shouldn’t be winning the group but fielding a team that’s decidedly good enough to win their group. Then the US will be in good shape in the KO rounds, regardless of whether they finish 1st or 2nd in their group.


    • Posted by biggysf on 2014/07/15 at 8:29 AM

      They might still be ‘the same mediocre team’ but instead of Belgium, they play Algeria. Makes a pretty big difference.


      • Posted by Mingjai on 2014/07/15 at 12:45 PM

        Agreed with LC on the difference between correlation and causation. You could just as easily argue that to win the World Cup, it’s important that your team is seeded going into the tournament since 80% of the past 5 World Cup champions have been seeded teams (exception being host-team France in ’98). But winning the group and being seeded are positively correlated with having a World Cup champion-quality team.

        Looking at knock-out stages opponents, the difference between winning the group and finishing second is a round of 16 match versus a #2 team. After that, the remaining opponents are likely to be another group winner. While winning your group gives one likely easier match compared to finishing second, in the end, you likely still have to beat at least 3 group winners to win it all.


      • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2014/07/16 at 8:54 PM


        Germany needed extra time to knock off Algeria 2-1. Not my idea of an easy team to beat.

        If Wondo does not freeze up the US beats Belgium in stoppage time.

        Belgium were beatable. Who knows about Algeria?.


  3. Posted by James H on 2014/07/15 at 6:53 AM

    Not to dismiss the article, but it always been fairly obvious that winning your group gives you a nice advantage for the Round of 16. The next logical question that begs answering however, is how does the US progress to that level – consistently? How did Germany do it? France? Belgium? Argentina? Are there similarities in planning, development and implementation that the US can learn from and install themselves? The one that comes to mind for me is our reliance on “pay to play”, which favors the segment of the population that has the ability and desire to pay for their children to play, but dismisses the potential of entire populations in the youth age groups. Another one is the reliance on tournament play and result-driven programs, which do little to develop and nurture youth talent. These are major failings in the ‘US’ system which will continue to drag on our national potential as long as they are in place… sadly.


  4. Posted by KickinNames... on 2014/07/15 at 11:26 AM

    Please lets all take a deeeeep breath for a moment on our USMNT self improvement tour to realize that Germany won it first WC since 1990 and Argentina since 1986. That’s 24 and 28 years respectively since what are considered to be soccer powers have had ultimate program success.
    We have gotten out of our group 3 of the last 4 tournaments and could have legimately gone to semis in 02 but for that little Frings-cident.
    I think the biggest issue that affected this squad was the overreliance on the same 8-9 players for the all 4 games which had to deeply affect their fitness and endurance in the Belgium game. Bradley, Jones, Besler and Demps were all completely gassed in the 2nd half . With 3-4 other squad players that could be counted on in the midfield and a backup forward/holder that game could have been different.

    BTW on rewatch a week later, that Belgium game was not nearly as one sided as Ian Darke seemed bent on conveying in the broadcast. At 70 mins possession was 51/49% to Belgium and many of the “chances” and shots on goal were from out wide or outside the 18 and saved fairly easily.


    • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2014/07/16 at 8:38 PM

      “I think the biggest issue that affected this squad was the overreliance on the same 8-9 players for the all 4 games which had to deeply affect their fitness and endurance in the Belgium game. Bradley, Jones, Besler and Demps were all completely gassed in the 2nd half .”

      Yet it was Jones , Dempsey and Bradley among others, who were vital in the US’ late game and extra time revival that nearly stole the game for the US.

      In the World Cup, everyone gets tired. Knowing how to win when tired separates the boys from the men.

      Most of the teams that advanced out of the group stages were in the same boat.
      Germany relied on about the same number of field players as the US.
      Howedes, Hummels, Boateng, Lahm, Ozil, Mueller, Kroos, Mertesacker,Schurrle , Klose played the bulk of the games.

      And I bet most would say Germany has far better depth than the US.

      When you can bring guys like Schweinsteiger, Khedira, who were never completely healthy and Schurrle, Goetze, and Draxler on as subs and barely play a Podolski that’s depth.

      The same could be said for Argentina and other top teams in the tournament.


      • I think the manner in which you go through the group is more key than which place you finish. Biggy, I’m curious what the stats show for teams that qualified for round of 16 after 2 games. 6 points in two games (wouldn’t that have been amazing) lets you rest compensate for lack of depth and injury. Speaking of, I’d also be curious about injuries vs depth of cup run.


  5. Posted by Spiritof76 on 2014/07/18 at 9:17 PM

    The one caveat about this statistic is that all the round of 16 games were INCREDIBLY good, competitive games.

    6 of the 8 round of 16 games were *tied* at 90 minutes.
    6 of the 8 round of 16 games were decided by +-1 goal.
    Only Nigeria (horrible) v France, lost 2-0 on goals in the 78th and 92nd minute, while Uruguay (post-Suarez debacle) v Columbia, lost 2-0 on an outrageous goal by James Rodriguez.

    Both deserved to lose, sure. But my point is that in a different tournament, 2, 3, or 6 second seeded teams might have gone through. Cheers for the good read!


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