SÃO PAULO — The draw for World Cup 2014 takes place this Friday, and for 90 minutes more than a billion eyes on Planet Fútbol will be focused on the Costa do Sauipé resort on Brazil’s Bahia coast. (FIFA, bless its heart, knows how to do boondoggles, choosing the Brazilian beach for this one and Mauritius for its congress earlier this year.)
For Americans, the best comparison for the World Cup draw is Selection Sunday of the NCAA basketball tournament, the moment when everyone gets to see the tournament bracket for the first time. But Fútbol Friday has some significant differences from Selection Sunday:
1) The delay before the payoff is a lot longer. Imagine having to sit through 40 minutes of EuroPop before seeing the NCAA tournament brackets. That’s the World Cup draw for you, with the exception that this year the music should be Brazilian, i.e., a lot cooler (we hope). Whether FIFA boss Sepp Blatter will do his King Leer impression again with an onstage supermodel, as he did with Charlize Theron four years ago in South Africa, remains to be seen.
2) The variability of the outcomes at the World Cup draw is far greater than it is on Selection Sunday, which isn’t exactly fair but ratchets up the drama to a fever pitch. FIFA only seeds the top eight of the 32 teams for the World Cup draw, a huge difference from the NCAA hoops tournament, in which all 68 teams are seeded. For 24 of the 32 World Cup teams, the rest of the draw is based on geography (the only continent allowed to have two teams in the same group is Europe) and dumb luck.
Some groups will appear easy. Some will seem excruciatingly hard. Because the U.S. is the highest-ranked team in the worst draw pot (see below), there’s a greater chance than ever that the U.S. will end up in one of the hardest groups.
The easiest potential U.S. World Cup group: Switzerland, Greece, Algeria, USA.
The hardest potential World Cup group: Brazil, Netherlands, Ghana, USA. (Some would say France would be tougher than Ghana, but the Black Stars have eliminated the U.S. in the last two World Cups and are the last team the Americans want to see again.)
3) Ping-pong balls are involved. There is no real equivalent to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in the World Cup draw. Instead, the eight World Cup opening-round groups (with four teams each) will come from four draw pots, each filled with eight ping-pong balls.
One pot has the eight seeded teams: the host (Brazil) plus the top seven other World Cup teams from the October FIFA rankings. A second pot is expected to have the unseeded European teams, except for one (likely to be France, the lowest-ranked European team). A third pot is expected to have the five African teams, the two unseeded South American teams and the European straggler. And the fourth pot is expected to have to have the four teams from CONCACAF (including the U.S.) and the four teams from Asia.
The pots should look something like this:
Draw Pot 1 (seeds): Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland.
*Quick take: The unfortunate quirks of the FIFA rankings allowed Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia into the seeded pot even though those teams having had little to no World Cup success in the past two decades. Long story short, everyone will want to draw into Switzerland’s group.*
Draw Pot 2 (unseeded Europe): Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia.
*Quick take: The Netherlands, England and Italy all have good arguments for seeds ahead of the three who got in above, but there’s no arguing it at this point. Clearly, nobody will want to draw the Dutch (who made the 2010 World Cup final) or the Italians (who won the ’06 World Cup).*
Draw Pot 3 (Africa, unseeded South America, Euro straggler): Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Algeria, Ecuador, Chile, France.
*Quick take: Ghana is the only African team to advance to the knockout rounds in 2006 and ’10. France has the most talent here but often struggles with chemistry.*
Draw Pot 4 (CONCACAF, Asia): USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Australia.
*Quick take: The U.S. and Japan will be the teams that no one wants to draw from this pot. It’s unfortunate that the U.S. never gets to play any of the Asian teams in the group stage (except when an Asian team hosts the tournament) due to the configuration of the draw.*
Of course, there would be a way to produce more evenly balanced World Cup groups and still fit FIFA’s geographic constrictions. And as much fun as it is to come down to Brazil this week, that way would involve not having a draw at all.
What if you determined the World Cup groups much like the NCAA basketball tournament bracket, using a reputable seeding system for all the teams and a simple S-curve, making slight adjustments as necessary to preserve the geographic rules? Well, that’s what I did using the most recent Elo ratings, which have fewer quirks than the FIFA rankings. (They’re not foolproof, though: Belgium and Ghana seem ranked too low.)
Here are the groups this system gives us:
Group A: Brazil, Russia, Greece, Algeria
Group B: Spain, Ecuador, Belgium, Cameroon
Group C: Germany, Switzerland, Ivory Coast, Honduras
Group D: Argentina, USA, Croatia, South Korea
Group E: Netherlands, France, Mexico, Ghana
Group F: Colombia, Italy, Bosnia, Australia
Group G: England, Chile, Japan, Costa Rica
Group H: Portugal, Uruguay, Iran, Nigeria
Only two slight line adjustments are required (switching Russia with Ecuador and Croatia with Mexico). No group is absurdly easy or exceptionally hard. Everything more or less makes sense. And it’ll never happen this way — which is why the anticipation for Fútbol Friday will be so high around the world.