Thursday, 26 June 2014

World Cup super groups

In case you hadn't noticed, we're coming to the end of that beautiful bubble known as 'the First Round of the World Cup'. It's beautiful because the 32 greatest footballing nations in the world are thrown together into eight groups of four in a curious, sometimes bizarre mix of geography, playing ability and experience.

It all starts with the draw, usually made six months or more before the tournament begins. Upon completion, it's as much as we can do to ponder on the deliciously random permutations that have been set before us. Will 'Team A' beat 'Team B'? Will 'Team C' top the group? Will 'Team D' cause an upset or two?

Before a ball has been kicked, we take it upon ourselves to figure out whether any given group is a good one, a great one, or even a 'Group of Death.' It is a time when we can dream about the things we will see and the battles that will ensue - and all, initially at least, within the confines of each of those fabulous First Round groups.

So what is it that gives a group so much potential for excitement? Regardless of how it might eventually pan out, what makes a First Round group look good on paper? Having given the matter some thought, I arrived at the three main criteria that would lead me to the greatest groups in World Cup history - in principle, at least.

Continental variety

There's no getting away from it: if a group contains four teams and they each represent a different continent, you're in for a feast of contrasting playing styles that will sustain you no matter who's playing who.

The trouble is, you can't always guarantee that four different continents will be represented. Granted it's more likely to happen these days than it used to, but up until 1994 you were still very likely to see three European teams and one other bunched together in the same group.

Go back further still, and you start running into groups of three - even a group of two in the form of the Uruguay-Bolivia pairing of 1950. Not much continental variety in that one, it's fair to say.

Minnow shock potential

It's only natural to consider the smallest team in any group for they often dictate the fate of the others. A minor footballing nation can either shock one of the big teams or be thrashed to such a disturbingly bad extent that they affect the balance of goal difference.

Fortunately it's the shock potential that everyone wants to see realised, so it's essential that if a group's going to have a minnow, it needs to be a good one. That said, there have been one or two groups down the years that have not really had a minnow at all - just a couple of average teams that should be doing better. For the purpose of this exercise, teams of that nature only serve to lessen the quality of a group.

Overall team quality

It goes without saying, of course, that a group of four stunningly great countries will always be somewhere near the top of a 'best groups' list. Unfortunately it's highly improbable to realise such a thing, especially with the current seeding system.

Still, if you've got the best teams in each seeding group, you should have plenty of fun on your hands when the action gets underway, so the better the talent, the better the group... hopefully.

The super groups

Using the three criteria shown above, I've judged each of the First Round groups from World Cup history and awarded a score between 0 and 10 for each category. Using that as my flawed, unscientific system for assessment, I have arrived at what I think are the three groups that are best overall - at least before a ball was kicked...

World Cup 2006: Group F
Brazil - Australia - Croatia - Japan

Four different continents represented? Tick. Presence of reigning world champions and Asian champions? Tick. So far, so good. Lowering the 'overall team quality' score, however, were Croatia who had reached the group stage of Euro 2004 but were found wanting at the time, and Australia, ranked 42nd in the world going into the tournament and playing in their first World Cup for 32 years.

For that very reason, however, Australia could be classed as minnows of sorts, and may conceivably have possessed the sort of plucky spirit needed to upset the Japans or Croatias of this world. As it turned out, that's exactly what they did have, beating the former 3-1 and earning a respectable 2-2 draw with the latter.

Unfortunately, this group could only throw up 2.6 goals per game, and nearly half of those were scored by Brazil. If Croatia had shown some improvement on Euro 2004 or Japan lived up to their FIFA ranking, who knows - maybe this could have been one of the all time classic groups.

Continental variety: 10  Minnow shock potential: 5.5  Overall team quality: 6  TOTAL: 21.5

World Cup 2014: Group A
Brazil - Mexico - Croatia - Cameroon

Yes, a First Round group from the current tournament, and ironically one that again features Brazil and Croatia. It also has four continents represented and two countries in Mexico and Cameroon that bring plenty of potential for colourful football.

All that put to one side, this group didn't really have a minnow to speak of. Granted, Cameroon were ranked 56th by FIFA going into this World Cup, but the Indomitable Lions have been in seven of the last nine tournaments. Hardly a North Korea or a Haiti and more than capable of tripping up any of the other three teams.

As for overall quality of the competing nations, this group contains four that have been well short of their best in recent contests. There's Brazil, ranked third best by FIFA, a team that could only reach the quarter finals of the 2011 Copa America, while Mexico lost all three of their First Round games in the same tournament. Then there's Croatia, who failed to qualify for the Euro 2012 finals, and Cameroon, who did likewise for the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Hardly the sort of form to set the tournament alight.

For all that, however, they have given us three goals per game over the last fortnight, and, in the shape of Brazil and Mexico, two teams that may very well make it to the last eight of the competition. In general, a good variation of styles, experience and skill.

Continental variety: 10  Minnow shock potential: 5.5  Overall team quality: 6  TOTAL: 21.5

World Cup 2014: Group C
Colombia - Ivory Coast - Japan - Greece

I know what you're thinking. Hardly a classic in the end, what with Japan and Ivory Coast lacking the quality they once had and Greece going through with a -2 goal difference, but on paper we had four different continents represented, plus Colombia (ranked 8th in the world by FIFA before the tournament started) and Greece (ranked 12th). Ivory Coast were rated as the second best African side and Japan are no pushovers either.

What went slightly against this group, as with the last one, was the lack of a genuine minnow. If you consider Japan to be the rank outsiders in this selection (a team appearing in its fifth consecutive World Cup and reigning Asian champions), it's not easy to consider their beating any of the other three as much of a shock. The fact that they didn't beat anyone only makes it all the more sad, actually.

That aside, however, the overall quality of all four teams was good, so all in all, this was a decent group - if not a classic in reality. A decent South American side playing close to home, an African side that peaked a little too early and a Greek side that only just remembered how to regain their form of Euro 2004. Oh, and Japan - admittedly disappointing.

Continental variety: 10  Minnow shock potential: 5.5  Overall team quality: 6.5  TOTAL: 22

So there you have it - a thorough, if inconclusive look at the best First Round groups based on their potential to excite and entertain before they began. You wouldn't really call any of them 'memorable', but then our memory of classic opening groups of the past perhaps never really existed. Either they were too imbalanced by a glut of European teams or the minnows were too weak, or maybe the teams in general just weren't up to the required standard. Maybe the next World Cup will give us the First Round Super Group we'd all be dreaming of...

Do you remember any World Cup First Round groups that could potentially outshine the three shown above? If so, tell us all about them. Leave us a comment below and share your memories with us!


  1. Chris can I nominate 2? Group H from 1998 Argentina, Japan,Croatia & Jamaica and Grroup C from 2002 Brazil, Turkey, Costa Rica & China.

    I'll let you score them.

    We have 4 continents represented both times. Minnows, a minnow winning (Jamaica, on my 24th birthday!) 98 has the top scorer in Davor Suker (and Battigol who was 2nd)
    2002 see Costa Rica go out with 4pts, Turkey and Brazil made it all the way to the semis & final respectively.

    Andy Rockall - Statto_74

    1. Two good shouts there, Andy!

      Group H 1998 scored 19.5 on my scale, let down a little by Jamaica, I felt. Although they got their win, I didn't feel they were likely to cause much of an upset beforehand as it was their first World Cup, so sadly I marked them down a little for that.

      Group C 2002 scored higher - 20. This time it was China letting the side down for the same reasons, but they were both certainly great groups for the reasons you mentioned!