World Cup Group of Death Possibilities Under New Draw Format

FIFA added a new layer of intrigue to preparations for the 2018 World Cup by announcing recently that the four pots that comprise the draw will be seeded based on FIFA World Rankings, instead of by confederation as was customary in previous editions.

In past draws, the first pot contained the host nation and the seven highest-ranked countries that qualified, with the stipulation that no continent (besides Europe) could face another country from the same federation during the Group Stage. This revamped procedure still ensures that countries (except Europe, again) won’t face their continental rivals in the Group Stage, but the added wrinkle means we might see a few industrious countries scrap to ascend the rankings just to avoid a possible “Group of Death” scenario.

Let’s look at the original pots from the 2014 World Cup Draw to get some perspective:

With Pots 2–4 being fixed by geography, you couldn’t help but imagine that the 2013 version of the United States national team were a bit unlucky to be placed in arguably the weakest pot based on rankings, and that they would have preferred the seeded system that FIFA rolled out a few days ago.

Now, let’s fast-forward to present day and imagine what the draw might look like in a few months. I cheated and opted to fill in the pots based on the teams I expect to qualify based on a combination of form and the difficulty of their remaining qualifying schedule, but all of the rankings are as of September 15, 2017.

This is a very fluid situation since many of these teams might not even qualify, but it’s nevertheless fun to play Carnac and see how the confederation limit might lead to interesting groups in draw simulations.

Simulating the Draw

I created a Python script to simulate the draw 208 times. I then went through and selected the Group(s) of Death from each draw based on completely subjective and qualitative criteria:

  1. If the Group has at least two previous World Cup winners, chances are good that it’s a Group of Death. The main exception are teams that have underperformed on the international stage recently (notably Uruguay and England).
  2. The Group is comprised entirely of teams that, if drawn in any other group, would like their chances of advancing from that group.
Two draws from the 208

That’s not to say that there won’t be several tough groups outside of the Group of Death. A group of Portugal, Chile, Costa Rica, and Australia would be a huge dogfight, but to my sensibilities it doesn’t seem correct to peg that as a Group of Death when a much more lethal group in the form of Brazil, Spain, Croatia, and Saudi Arabia are matched up in the same draw.

(Side note: if you’re interested in learning more about the method and the groups chosen, please check out the script and the draw results with Groups of Death denoted by “x”.)


Figure 1

Counting the number of times each nation ending up in one of the Groups of Death for each of the 208 draws, it seems apparent that the presence of one of the traditional powerhouses (Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Italy especially) would most likely “make” a Group of Death. At the tail end, I didn’t rate any of the groups that Poland, Russia, and Switzerland were in to be Groups of Death.

A different look at each nation’s chances of ending up in a Group of Death

With these percentages in mind, it seems clear that countries like Poland, Switzerland, France, Spain, Uruguay, and Italy would do well to win out before the November World Rankings are released to either ensure their position in an optimal Pot or move up to one that ensures they might have a less threatening group. Since I have the pipeline in place to re-simulate this based on the input of the configuration of each Pot, I will certainly revisit these draws and make an updated batch when the November rankings are finalized and we know for certain who will be heading to Russia.

Just for fun, let’s see who the most likely opponents are for the USA (if they end up qualifying):

Looks like we could be facing the Welsh Xavi himself, Joe Allen

Looking Forward

I’m really excited to see how the remaining World Cup Qualifiers turn out. I’ll certainly be taking another look at the results of the draw simulation when the final competitors for next summer are locked in. In the mean time, are there any other things you’d like to explore with this data? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll check it out! Thank you for reading!

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