Yesterday, Iceland gained a point against Argentina by putting up an icy wall in front of their goal. Nothing adds more spice to a football game than an underdog holding out against a football superpower. Sometimes details are responsible for second tier teams to win their group phase and for superpowers to be satisfied with the runner-up position. Think Switzerland and France in 2006, Sweden and England or Mexico and Italy in 2002. In this blog post I evaluate the chances of survival for teams that either win or are runner-up in the group phase.
Logic tells us that the best teams have the best odds of winning their group phase. Because these teams face the runner-up from another group, they also face the best odds of beating the round of 16. But how much exactly do the chances of survival differ for group winners and runner-ups? To answer that question I have analyzed data since the World Cup of 1998 in France. It was the first time that the World Cup was played with 32 teams, and the format hasn’t changed since.
In this first plot I describe how many matches teams play in the knockout stage of the tournament, depending on their position in the group phase. The ‘small final’ for position 3 and 4 is not accounted for. Consequently: teams stranding in the round of 16 play 1 match, teams stranding in the quarter finals play 2 matches, teams stranding in the semi-finals play 3 matches and teams playing the final play 4 matches. There are 15 matches in the knockout phase (small final excluded) and 16 teams that start. So on average (all matches have 2 teams), all teams in the knockout phase play 1.875 matches. The closer this number for group winners is to 1.875, the lower the impact of the group phase final position.
However, the result is pretty striking. Teams that win the group phase on average make it to the quarter finals, and halfway to the semi finals (2.42 matches). While the runner-ups on average make it into the round of 16 and not even halfway into the quarter finals (1.32 matches). That’s a huge difference of more than 1 match.
For group winners, the chance of wrapping up the world cup in the round of 16 is only 22.5% while for runner-ups, that percentage is a remarkable 77.5%. In other words, less than a quarter of runner-ups makes it into the quarter finals. As a consequence, all the other finals are completely dominated by group winners. Only once did a runner up reach the finals since 1998; France lost its group to Switzerland in 2006 but played against (and lost, with a headbutt by Zidane) Italy in the finals.
And runner-ups appear to be losing ground. In the World Cup of 2002 in South Korea and Japan, a record half of runner-ups made it past the round of 16. While in the World Cup of 2014 in Brazil, not one runner-up made it past the round of 16. Teams like Algeria, Nigeria, Switzerland and the USA faced heavy odds against Germany, France, Argentina and Belgium.
Over time, the role of the runner-up in the later parts of the tournament has been decreasing. In 2014 we reached a bottom low: the average matches played in the knockout phase by runner-up teams decreased to 1.Let’s hope Russia 2018 produces a more surprising roster in the knockout phase, without drastically reducing the quality of the football. Go Iceland, go Costa Rica!