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Proof that the US had bad luck in the World Cup draw—and Nigeria had the best

Former England soccer player Geoff Hurst (R) draws a ball from a pot as former Brazil player Cafu (L), former France player Zinedine Zidane (2nd L) and former Italy player Fabio Cannavaro look on during the draw for the 2014 World Cup at the Costa do Sauipe resort in Sao Joao da Mata, Bahia state, December 6, 2013. The 2014 World Cup finals will be held in Brazil from June 12 through July 13.
REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
There’s got to be a better way to run a tournament than picking balls out of bowls.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After last Dec. 6’s World Cup draw, Ben Hoban, a fixed income trader at Oppenheimer & Co., put together a spreadsheet to statistically test a theory many American soccer fans arrived at intuitively: The United States Men’s National Team got hosed.

FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, starts the World Cup with eight four-team mini-tourneys. The top two finishers from each group enter a round of single-elimination match-ups. To keep the finals interesting, FIFA makes sure the top eight teams in the world according to its rankings don’t wind up in the same group, then fill out the rest by randomly picking from different geographical regions. That is how the US has ended up in the same group as past World Cup champs Germany; Portugal, which boats arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo; and Ghana, a country that has knocked the US out of the last two tournaments. It would be quite an accomplishment for the US team to even make it into the elimination rounds.

But what if the groups were set entirely by seed, similar to the way that the US college basketball tournament is structured each year? That’s what Hoban proposed to test. Using FIFA’s (already suspect) team rankings, Hoban compared how hard the average group game under the current draw would be to a draw governed by team rankings. It turns out that the average team the US and Ghana will play next summer is ranked 14 places higher than if they were “fairly” seeded. Belgium and Nigeria, on the other hand, will play teams that are ranked 10 places lower than they would play if the tournament were set up by rankings:

Belgium is already a dark-horse pick to win the World Cup, and the team’s well-placed draw certainly clears its path to the Cup’s latter stages. As for the US, well, the odds were always long, and this year, any upsets will have to come early.

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