Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup: “group of death”?

The draw of the groups for the Final phase of the football World cup to take place in Brazil from June 2014 has taken place today. As it always does, it drew much attention and right afterwards lots of speculation, especially to identify which one will be the so-called “group of death”.

I read in the Spanish sports press that Group B, where Spain is placed, is called as “lethal”. I thought to myself: “playing the victims before the competition”. Then I read in the FIFA website:

Spain, the Netherlands, Chile and Australia will make up the proverbial ‘group of death’ at the 20th FIFA World Cup™, while Uruguay, Italy, England and Costa Rica will comprise another intriguing pool.

Well, no.

Take a look at the groups in the picture. What would be your guess as to the most difficult or the easiest group?

Brazil 2014 groups

Brazil 2014 World Cup groups.

FIFA ranking end Nov 2013

FIFA ranking end Nov 2013

I then decided to take a quantitative approach using precisely FIFA world rankings, a classification made up with the points each country is getting for their results every month.

FIFA uses a formula to compute those points:

M x I x T x C = P

M: winning, drawing or losing a match

I: importance of the match

T: strength of opposing team

C: confederation strength weights

P: points for a game

Take a look in the picture in the right, to see the FIFA rankings at the end of November, just before the draw has taken place. You will see Spain in the top spot with 1,507 points, well ahead of Germany, Argentina, etc. Most of the countries in the top 23 that you can see in the picture are represented in the World Cup with the exception of Ukraine. See the whole ranking here.

With this information I built the following table, attaching to each country in the different groups the current ranking and points. Then, I calculated the average ranking of each group and the total amount of points. I then, also summed up the amount of points per group excluding the favourite in each group, showing in that way which has been the most difficult or the easiest group for the favourite countries (those placed in the pot 1 of the draw). Finally, I coloured results in a heat map: more red, more difficult. Which is then the “group of death”?

FIFA 2014 groups heat map.

FIFA 2014 groups heat map.

As you can see the most difficult groups in terms of total points are:

  1. G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA) with 4,358.
  2. B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia) with 4,191.
  3. D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy) with 4,031.

Looking at the average ranking, the most difficult groups are:

  1. G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA) with 11,25.
  2. D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy) with 14,25.
  3. C (Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan) with 20,25.

And excluding the points of the favorite team (pot 1) in each group, which is the favorite facing the toughest group?

  1. Germany in group G, facing 3,040.
  2. Uruguay in group D, facing 2,899.
  3. Spain in group B, facing 2,684.

Then, combining the 3 approaches, to me it becomes clear that the toughest group is G, with Germany, Portugal, Ghana and USA, by the total amount of points, ranking of the teams and in relation to what Germany will face.

Then, I would say that the second most difficult group is D, both looking at ranking and from the point of view of Uruguay. The third being group B (though between D and B, depends on the approach).

On the other hand, for the Netherlands, Chile and Australia (the worst team of the competition) it is clear that group B is the most difficult, as from their point of view their group has the most points excluding themselves (mainly thanks to the 1,507 of Spain).

Finally, after having done the analysis and seeing the heading of conversations on groups’ difficulty are taking I realize how few people have read about “Soccernomics” or “Moneyball“… just like with stock markets, at least this is just football.


Filed under Sports

7 responses to “Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup: “group of death”?

  1. Jesús Rodríguez Martínez

    A Freaknomics article… 😉

    Looking at the formula, now I understand Argentina’s and Colombia’s position (South American classification is really long).

  2. Huge flaw… using FIFA rankings that anyone that knows about football will completely disregard. ESPN Rankings are way more accurate in terms of what is seen in the field. Switzerland top 10? you gotta be joking. Portugal barely made it in and other than Cristiano, they have been playing only OK football. Just to remind you Spain and Holland played the past final and they have kept their teams in top positions. Chile classified 3rd in the toughest qualifiers arguably playing the best football down there. Just a suggestion, It’s time to start watching football before putting maths in there. Playing in Southamerica will change everything for Europeans, they’ll have their toughest World Cup yet…

    • Thanks for your comment, Alejandro.
      I used FIFA rankings to compute the comparison as I found the comment of group B being the “the group of death” in FIFA website. This struck me, as why does FIFA collect the ranking at all if they are not measuring groups’ difficulty by their own ranking but by gut feeling?

      You believe that using FIFA ranking is a huge flaw, I don’t. I took a look at ESPN SPI’s index and found the same kind of “intuitive” wrongs as you mentioned:
      – you cited “Portugal barely made it in …”, the same applies to France and is placed in ESPN SPI as 7th.
      – you cited “Switzerland top 10? you gotta be joking”, I am no fan of Switzerland but they finished first of its group E World Cup qualifying group, winning 7 matches and losing none. Also in South Africa 2010 World Cup they were the only team to beat Spain.
      – you cited “Chile classified 3rd in the toughest qualifiers arguably playing the best football down there”, according to ESPN SPI calculation (, in fact the South American World Cup Qualifying is rated in competitiveness as 0.68 versus the 0.82 of Europe Qualifying.

      I have no preference between FIFA or ESPN rankings. In fact, you hinted me the idea for a following post, repeating the previous but based on ESPN. I guess that you prefer ESPN one as places Chile above in the ranking. That’s indifferent to me. Both FIFA and ESPN are based in hard data, they only differ in how they compute them and both rankings miss only 7 or 6 of their top 32 ranked teams in the 32 qualified for the World Cup finals.


  3. Pingback: Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup: “group of death”? (using ESPN ranking) | The Blog by Javier

  4. Jesús Rodríguez Martínez

    About the FIFA ranking, I liked this podcast ( from “More or less” (by the way, a good podcast about numbers).

    It talks I how is made and some interesting facts, like than Netherlands and Italy were out of the 8 first places because both played a silly friend match against a low level selection (Indonesia and San Marino).

  5. Pingback: Forecasting 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil | The Blog by Javier

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