World Cup Draw (Part I)

2006 World Cup Bracket  photo by Phu Son

2006 World Cup Bracket photo by Phu Son

Since the U.S. men’s national team is not yet officially in the World Cup, it’s understandable that most American soccer fans are focusing on the U.S. team’s two remaining qualifying games. But as important as those games are—failure to qualify, however remote the possibility, would be a disaster—other matches in Europe and South America will have significant bearing on the American’s chances of advancing deep into the tournament. We can’t know how the U.S. is going to play in nine months in South Africa, but in the next few weeks we can learn more about who they are going to play.

Getting drawn in the right group can be the key to success as the U.S. could wind up in a group with Brazil, the Netherlands, and Paraguay, or, hopefully, South Africa, Slovakia, and North Korea. It’s not just how the balls come out of the pots at the draw, but which pot you’re in and who’s in there with you. It’s a lot more open to chance than the NCAA selection process, but it’s still not random.

In a series of posts during the run-up to the last round of qualifying games, we’ll look at who’s in, who’s out, what it all means for the U.S., and why Denmark vs. Hungary might just be the most important game of the day.

Today, we’ll start at the beginning with the draw itself, when and how it’s made, and some of the basic guidelines about which teams are in it and who can go where. This gets a little thick, but it is important to understand how the draw is made to better comprehend the significance of which teams make the tournament and which teams don’t.

The Finals draw will be held in Cape Town on December 4, 2009 after all of the regional qualifying games and playoffs have been completed and the 32-team field is set. The host South Africa is automatically in the tournament, along with thirteen teams from Europe, five from Africa, four from both Asia and South America, and three from North America and the Caribbean. The remaining two teams will come from two home and away playoffs between confederations. One pits North and South American teams vying for a spot, and the other sees an Asian side against the Oceania champion (this one’s already set: Bahrain vs. New Zealand).  

Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, it has created eight, four-team groups for the first round of the tournament with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knock-out stage. The groups are selected from four pots made up of eight teams each, with one team from each pot going into each of the eight groups. Teams are placed in the pots in one of two ways, either as one of the eight teams to receive a seed, or grouped together geographically in the three remaining pots.

We’ll get to who is in these pots later, but the basic breakdown is pot A has all the seeded teams, pot B has the un-seeded European teams, and pots C and D are some combination of the un-seeded African, South American, North American and Asian teams organized in geographic blocks as much as possible. The order of pots B, C, and D are irrelevant so the Europeans may be in D and the Africans in B. But critically, no two teams from the same region can be in the same group, except for the Europeans which can, and often do, have two.

FIFA will keep the regional blocks together whenever possible, so for example, if there are five unseeded African teams and three unseeded South American teams, they could go in pot C, while the five Asian teams and three North American teams would then go in pot D (I’ll have a lot more to say about just how significant it is which confederations get grouped together).

To make it more complicated—and add drama to the television broadcast of the draw—additional pots have group and position numbers and are drawn for each team. A team is selected out of pot A, then another ball is selected that identifies which group that team is in (A through G), and since the order in which the games are played is determined by the position in the group, yet another ball is chosen from another pot indicating position number 1, 2, 3 or 4.

So what does this mean for the U.S.? First off, we can’t be placed in a group with any other team from our region. Second, unless we are seeded (the subject of tomorrow’s post), we will be matched up with either the five African or Asian teams. And there is a reasonable chance that we will be put in a group with two European teams (and it’s very important that if we are, which two, the subject of another post).

This sure ain’t the lottery, but getting it right might well be just as rewarding.


One Response

  1. […] its time to start thinking about the World Cup draw. Last week I broke down some of the byzantine structure for the draw. Now, I’ll look at the equally complicated seeding process, why it’s so important for […]

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