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Comment - Ranking the Groups 20




Ranking the Groups - Why the Final Draw Was Unfair

Peter Young
3 December 2001

The 32 teams that qualify for the World Cup final tournament are not the best 32 teams in the world.  Some confederations are much stronger than others, and yet all confederations except Oceania are guaranteed places in the final tournament.  That is as it should be, for it is a World Cup tournament.

Because teams of widely varying strength qualify for the final tournament and because the tournament begins with group play, it has long been accepted that fairness requires seeding of the teams on the basis of their quality to ensure that the final draw produces an equitable distribution of strong and weak teams among the groups.  Other factors, including geographical balance, have been allowed some play, but final draws generally have been conducted with an eye to ensuring that the groups are reasonably equivalent in overall strength.

It is now plain, however, that FIFA no longer considers the final draw to be a means of ensuring the final tournament groups are of fairly equal strength.  In fact, it is fair to say FIFA no longer considers balance in group strength as a goal at all.

FIFA's World Cup 2002 Organising Committee might have achieved its stated goals of ensuring that teams representing the different confederations were evenly spread among the groups and between the two host nations, but it did so at the expense of fairness.  Gaping disparities in the strength of the groups are apparent even to casual observers of the game. 

The Organising Committee took considerable efforts to develop a ranking reflecting the relative strength of the teams.  Regrettably, it did not use the ranking to seed all 32 teams.  Had it done so--had it placed the first eight in the ranking atop the eight groups, put each succeeding tier of eight teams in a separate pot and then assigned by draw one team from each pot to each group--it would have produced much more evenly balanced first stage groups.  

Instead, the Committee used its ranking to place only five of the 32 teams in the competition, the five seeded teams that joined reigning champion France and host nations South Korea and Japan atop the eight first round groups.  

While France, placed 5th in the Committee ranking, deserved top seed status, according the same status to the two host nations, which occupied 25th and 26th places in the ranking, displayed profound disregard, if not contempt, for balance in group strength.  Treating South Korea and Japan as if they were the equivalent of France, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Germany and Spain was by itself bound to produce gross imbalances and inequities.  But FIFA were determined to manipulate and skew the groups to bolster the host nations' chances of reaching the second round.  The financial success of the tournament is assured, but even greater profits were deemed more important than fairness in the competition.

Worse was to come.  After the eight seeded teams had been selected, the Committee simply abandoned the ranking and assigned the other 24 teams to the pots used in the draw on the basis of their confederation affiliation.  Moreover, confederation affiliation also governed which groups the teams were placed into after they were drawn.  The group placement of nearly all the teams in the tournament was determined by confederation affiliation rather than relative strength or weakness.

A comparison of the groups in light of the Organising Committee's ranking of the teams shatters any claim that FIFA's draw produced anything approaching an equitable distribution of teams.  The Committee ranking may be open to criticism, but at least it represents a serious effort to rank the teams on their merit,  and making it the basis for the entire draw would have been immeasurably better than the draw procedures the Committee ended up using.

First we measure the relative strength of the groups by the Organising Committee's team ranking (as adjusted to correct a few minor errors in the table FIFA published):

Groups by Strength as Measured by
FIFA World Cup 2002 Organising Committee's Final Draw Team Ranking
No. Group Rank Pos Tot Rank Pos Avg Rank Pts Tot Rank Pts Avg


F (Arg, Nga, Eng, Swe) 41 10.25 151 37.75
2 G (Ita, Ecu, Cro, Mex) 49 12.25 140 35.00
3 E (Ger, Ksa, Irl, Cam) 61 15.25 118 29.50
4 B (Esp, Svn, Par, Rsa) 64 16.00 109 27.25
5 A (Fra, Sen, Uru, Den) 71 17.75 97 24.25
6 H (Jpn, Bel, Rus, Tun) 78 19.50 84 21.00
7 D (Kor, Pol, Usa, Por) 80 20.00 82 20.50
8 C (Bra, Tur, Chn, Crc) 84 21.00 87 21.75

Group F, with Argentina, Nigeria, England and Sweden, is by far the strongest whether measured by the average position of its four teams in the Organising Committee ranking or by the average points its four teams earned in that ranking.  And Group G, with Italy, Ecuador, Croatia and Mexico, is also considerably stronger than the other groups by both measures.  Both these groups contained two teams from the top tier of the Committee's ranking.  The weakest team in Group F, Nigeria, occupies the third tier of the Committee ranking while the weakest in Group G, Ecuador, lies in the fourth tier.

Group C, with Brazil, Turkey, China and Costa Rica, is the eighth and weakest group as measured by the average position of its four teams, although it is 6th in average points of its teams, mostly because of the large number of points Brazil gained as the No. 1 team in the Committee's ranking.  It contained no teams from the second tier of the Commitee ranking, only one team from the third tier and two teams from the fourth tier.  

Groups D and H, headed by host nations South Korea and Japan, respectively, are, predictably, the next weakest groups.  Neither contained a single team from the top tier of the Committee ranking.  The highest ranked team in Group D is the U.S.A., 12th, and the highest in Group H is Belgium, 14th.  Group D had two teams from the second tier of the Committee ranking, none from the third and two from the fourth.  Group H had one from the second tier, two from the third and one from the fourth.

Next, we look at the groups by the number of teams they have from each of the four tiers of the Committee ranking:

Groups by Strength as Measured by Number of Teams from Each Tier of the
FIFA World Cup 2002 Organising Committee's Final Draw Team Ranking
No. Group 1st Tier Teams 2nd Tier Teams 3rd Tier Teams 4th Tier Teams


F (Arg, Nga, Eng, Swe) 2 1 1 0
2 G (Ita, Ecu, Cro, Mex) 2 1 0 1
3 E (Ger, Ksa, Irl, Cam) 1 1 2 0
4 B (Esp, Svn, Par, Rsa) 1 1 1 1
5 A (Fra, Sen, Uru, Den) 1 1 1 1
6 C (Bra, Tur, Chn, Crc) 1 0 1 2
7 D (Kor, Pol, Usa, Por) 0 2 0 2
8 H (Jpn, Bel, Rus, Tun) 0 1 2 1

Once again, Groups F and G are the strongest, and Groups C, D and H are the weakest, although their order has changed.

Finally, we look at the strength of the opposition each of the 32 teams faces within its group as measured by the Organisation Committee's team ranking (again, as adjusted to correct minor errors in FIFA's published table):

Teams by Strength of Opposition Faced as Measured by
FIFA World Cup 2002 Organising Committee's Final Draw Team Ranking
No. Team Group Opps Opps Pos Tot Opps Pos Avg Opps Pts Tot Opps Pts Avg
1 Ecuador G Ita, Cro, Mex 19 06.33 135 45.00
2 Nigeria F Arg, Eng, Swe 23 07.67 128 42.67
3 Sweden F Arg, Nga, Eng 28 09.33 120 40.00
4 England F Arg, Nga, Swe 33 11.00 110 36.67
5 Slovenia B Esp, Par, Rsa 37 12.33 98 32.67
6 Cameroon E Ger, Ksa, Irl 39 13.00 101 33.67
7 Senegal A Fra, Uru, Den 39 13.00 96 32.00
8 Argentina F Nga, Eng, Swe 39 13.00 95 31.67
9 Croatia G Ita, Ecu, Mex 40 13.33 103 34.33
10 Mexico G Ita, Ecu, Cro 42 14.00 98 32.67
11 Saudi Arabia E Ger, Irl, Cam 42 14.00 96 32.00
12 South Africa B Esp, Svn, Par 44 14.67 89 29.67
13 Rep. of Ireland E Ger, Ksa, Cam 45 15.00 93 31.00
14 Italy G Ecu, Cro, Mex 46 15.33 84 28.00
15 Uruguay A Fra, Sen, Den 47 15.67 82 27.33
16 Japan H Bel, Rus, Tun 52 17.33 72 24.00
17 Poland D Kor, Usa, Por 52 17.33 72 24.00
18 China C Bra, Tur, Crc 53 17.67 85 28.33
19 Paraguay B Esp, Svn, Rsa 53 17.67 76 25.33
20 Costa Rica C Bra, Tur, Chn 55 18.33 78 26.00
21 Korea Rep. D Pol, Usa, Por 55 18.33 68 22.67
22 Tunisia H Jpn, Bel, Rus 57 19.00 66 22.00
23 Germany E Ksa, Irl, Cam 57 19.00 64 21.33
24 Spain B Svn, Par, Rsa 58 19.33 64 21.33
25 Turkey C Bra, Chn, Crc 61 20.33 72 24.00
26 Denmark A Fra, Sen, Uru 61 20.33 63 21.00
27 Russia H Jpn, Bel, Tun 61 20.33 61 20.33
28 Belgium H Jpn, Rus, Tun 64 21.33 53 17.67
29 Portugal D Kor, Pol, Usa 65 21.67 56 18.67


France A Sen, Uru, Den 66 22.00 50 16.67
31 U.S.A. D Kor, Pol, Por 68 22.67 50 16.67
32 Brazil C Tur, Chn, Crc 83 27.75 26 08.67

Ecuador, in Group G with Italy, Croatia and Mexico, faces the most daunting collective opposition at the group stage.  Predictably, they are immediately followed by three Group F teams, Nigeria, Sweden and England.  The seeded team in Group F, Argentina, has the eighth most difficult path to the next round.

Brazil, in Group C with Turkey, China and Costa Rica, has the weakest collective opposition.  The U.S.A., in Group D with South Korea, Poland and Portugal, has the second easiest road to the next round.