The 32 team field of the World Cup Finals is now all set and soccer fans around the globe begin to turn their attention to the draw on December 4 in Cape Town. A while back, we looked in depth at the procedure for the draw and the seeding process. With all the teams in place, we can now say with confidence that the U.S. team will not get a seed. But we still don’t know which pot the US will be in—something that could have a huge impact on whether the US will advance to the knock-out stage.
We’ll be doing a lot of posts in the run-up to the draw, but today I’ll focus the 32 team field, the 8 seeded teams, which confederations get grouped together in the other pots, and some draw scenarios and how it would affect the US team.
The 32 team field: Europe (13): Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland; Africa (6): Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa; South America (5): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay; Asia (4): Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea; North/Central America (3); Honduras, Mexico, USA; Oceania (1): New Zealand.
For the draw, FIFA divides the field into four, eight-team pots. The first pot are the eight seeds, which is made up of the host nation South Africa, and the seven highest ranked teams in FIFA’s incredibly complicated seeding formula. In October, we discussed in detail, which combines past World Cup performance and FIFA world rankings for the last three years.
The last variable in the formula will be the November 2009 FIFA ranking released tomorrow and it will have a huge bearing on the last seeded team. Right now, France is sitting in the seventh spot, but Portugal’s late surge has moved them ahead of the Netherlands and, depending on the last ranking, could be within a whisker of catching France. Thierry Henry’s handball got the French into the World Cup. But it could be even more influential if the draw it earned Les Blues against Ireland (rather than a loss when they still could have gone through on penalties) gets them enough ranking points to stay ahead of Portugal and keep its seed.
As of right now, these are the eight seeded teams (in order of ranking after host South Africa): South African, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Argentina, and France. These teams will be in the first pot.
The eight remaining unseeded European teams make up the second pot: Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland.
Then it gets interesting. We know that the five remaining African teams and the four Asian teams will not be in the same pot, as that would unbalance the four pots. It seems likely that the lone Oceania representative, New Zealand, will be placed in a pot with the Asians, making two groupings of five teams. That would match nicely with the three each from North and South America; but which one goes where?
There are three reasons why it would be far better for the United States to be placed in the pot with the African teams rather than the Asians. The most important is that the African teams are simply much better than the Asian teams and going in their pot would mean that the US won’t be drawn with any of them. Ghana is the lowest ranked African team, at 38, but they have one of the best players in the world in Chelsea’s Michael Essien. The only Asian team ranked higher is Australia, and frankly I’d rather face them than Ghana.
Getting paired with the Asians would eliminate the chance of being drawn with one of the two genuine minnows, either North Korea or New Zealand. In fact, the three lowest ranked unseeded teams in the tournament are likely to be in the Asian pot, as South Korea is currently just one place ahead of Slovenia who are likely to move up after their win against Russia. Algeria may be considered the weakest of the unseeded African teams, but they are ranked 29th and demonstrated their class by beating two-time defending African Cup champions Egypt to reach the Finals.
The most discussed reason to be placed in the African pot is it dramatically increases the chances of drawing South Africa. In the Asian pot, there would be a 12.5% chance of getting South Africa. South Africa is in the North Korea range in terms of world ranking at 85. Since no African team could be placed in South Africa’s group, one of the other three teams must get the South Africans, a 33% chance.
With the US in the African pot, the four pots would look like:
Pot 1: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, and Spain
Pot 2: Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland
Pot 3: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria, USA
Pot 4: Australia, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, North Korea, Paraguay, South Korea, and Uruguay
Instead of doing a simple mock draw that produces just one of the hundreds of possible outcomes, we’re going to break the pots down into groups of teams that the US wants to avoid, wants to get, or can live with.
Even though the US beat Spain in the Confederations Cup this summer, I still don’t want them in the American’s group. Same goes for Brazil, Germany, and England. Clearly, we want South Africa and that’s it. I could live with inconsistent Argentina, and declining Italy or France.
Two teams stand out among the unseeded Europeans, world #3 Netherlands and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal; we don’t want those teams in our group. Slovakia and Slovenia are probably the weakest teams in this pot, though still no pushovers as the Slovenes demonstrated Wednesday. Denmark, Greece, Serbia, and Switzerland fall in the middle and we’d probably have to like our chances in a group with these teams.
Chile and Paraguay are probably the most threatening teams from the fourth pot, but are frankly on a similar level to the middle group of unseeded Europeans. North Korea and New Zealand are by far the worst teams in this pot. While Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Uruguay are all teams the US can beat.
Best case scenario group: South Africa, Slovenia, New Zealand, USA
Worst case scenario group: Spain, Netherlands, Paraguay, USA
Middle scenario group: Italy, Greece, Japan, USA
We’ll have much more on the draw before the teams come out of the pots in Cape Town on December 4th.