’90 to Now: Rating the U.S. World Cup Draws

We heard that Charlize Theron—by the way, have you had enough of her yet? Is it possible? She’s gonna look so good at today’s draw, you will doubt all over again that that was really her in Monster.

Caligiuri and Co. were overmatched at Italia ’90.

Anyway, we heard that she drew an “Ireland” ball out of the bowl during a dress rehearsal for the draw, instead of a “France” ball, just to have a little fun with FIFA. Ha.

But why would there have been an “Ireland” ball at the draw, dress rehearsal or not? … Ah forget it, we are choosing to believe this story, just to add to our admiration for South Africa’s favorite daughter.

Where were we? Oh, right: U.S. World Cup draws. How will today’s stack up against the last five? Let’s take a look:

1990: Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Austria

Degree of Difficulty: For the U.S.’s inexperienced team, which contained two college players, a solid 9.

Results: Three and out; two goals scored and eight conceded.

1994: Switzerland, Colombia, and Romania

Degree of Difficulty: Playing at home helped, but remember, Colombia was a popular darkhorse pick to win the whole thing that year, and Romania had Gheorge Hagi, the Maradona of the Carpathians (best nickname of all-time?), who led the team to a win over Argentina and into the quarterfinals, where they lost on penalties to Sweden: 8.

Results: Tied Switzerland 1-1, beat Colombia 2-1 [!], lost to Romania 1-0. Advanced to Round of 16 meeting with Brazil, lost 1-0.

1998: Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia

Degree of Difficulty: With two legit European powers and an intense political rival in Iran—which was far more motivated by that rivalry than the U.S. was—this one scores an 8.5.  

Results: Lost to Germany 2-0, Lost to Iran 2-1, lost to Yugoslavia 1-0. Oof.

2002: Portugal, S Korea, and Poland

Degree of Difficulty: Like Colombia in ’94, Portugal entered the ’02 tournament as a trendy darkhorse; S Korea was hosting, and Poland, even though it was a second-tier European team, was generally tabbed to finish second in the group: 8.  

Results: Beat Portugal 3-2[!], tied S Korea 1-1, lost to Poland 3-1. Advanced to Round of 16 meeting with Mexico, won 2-0; met Germany in quarterfinals, lost 1-0.

2006: Czech Republic, Italy, and Ghana

Degree of Difficulty: This was a straight-up Group of Death, and was called so at the time: a world power in Italy, a Czech team fueled by Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, and big Jan Koller, along with a dangerous African power in Ghana, led by Michael Essien: 9.5.

Results: Lost to Czech Republic 3-0, tied Italy 1-1, lost to Ghana 2-1. Done.

2010: ???

But we’re optimistic, because as reader Mike G. points out, the U.S. has a pattern in World Cup performances.

See above: ’90: crap, ’94: second round, ’98: shite, ’02: quarterfinals, ’06: bollocks….’ 10: they’re due to get out of group play, at least!

Enjoy the draw.

Pot Luck 2.0

Luck Be A Lady: completely non-gratuitous semi-nude shot of World Cup draw joint-host Charlize Theron.

We’ve covered the best-case/worst-case scenarios for the U.S. at tomorrow’s draw, now let’s calculate the odds of the Amerks getting either a Group of Death or something more manageable.

Since we’re better with letters than numbers, we called in two friends of the site, AbesArmy, and Our Man at the Valley, to crunch the numbers.

First, a couple of assumptions: A “good” draw would be one that matches the U.S. with two or more “favorable” teams. We use the term loosely, because as we’ve said, unless you’re playing New Zealand, and possibly North Korea, you’re in for a battle every time you step on the field at this tournament. But there are definitely teams you’d welcome in your group over others.

In our opinion, these “favorable” teams are:

Pot 1—Just one favorable here: South Africa.

[Pot 2—U.S. is in pot 2, will not draw any teams from here]

Pot 3—Four favorables: Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Algeria

Pot 4—Five favorables: Denmark, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland

Before we get to the math, Our Man At the Valley points out that if the U.S. draws South Africa from Pot 1, it’s guaranteed a “favorable” team from Pot 3, because the African teams will then be ruled out (can’t have two in the same group). On the other hand, if the U.S. gets Argentina or Brazil from Pot 1, it has an 80% chance of drawing an “unfavorable” team from Pot 3, ie., the African teams would then all be in play. Got that?

Okay, take it away, AbesArmy:

“Looks to me like the alignment of the pots was even more influential than usual. Our probability of being drawn with South Africa is 1/8, but it’s 1/3 for the unseeded South Americans. Plus the African teams look so much stronger than the Asian ones, and they’ll have the home-turf advantage of all the continent’s vuvuzelas buzzing them on.”

Our Man at the Valley:

“So our probabilities are 1/8 for South Africa, 5/8 for a second-tier Euro team and 1/2 for second-level South American team or Algeria. But that is higher if we get South Africa from Pot 1 and lower if we get one of the seven other seeds, right? Does that put us around 25% for a favorable draw?”

/Blogger’s head starting to swim. Let’s cut to the results:


“My math says:

3 favorable teams: 8%

2 favorable teams: 28%

1 favorable teams: 45%

0 favorable teams: 19%

So, I would say that we have a 36% chance of a favorable draw using these odds—and assuming that you need two teams you can get results against to hope to advance.

This fails to account for the fact that not all favorable/unfavorable teams are created equal, but I think it’s pretty good.”

We agree (and he included a spreadsheet).

So that Brazil-France-Ivory Coast nightmare has only a 19% chance of becoming reality.

We feel better already.

World Cup Draw—What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

You feel that? That’s the current of anticipation that fills the air any time a World Cup draw is less than a week away. It would’ve gotten here sooner, but the 2010 draw is happening way down in Cape Town, so … it took a little longer.

But yes—the draw will go down on Friday, and an estimated 200 million viewers will tune in (it’s on ESPN2 in the States, from noon to 3:00) to see if their team lands in a Group of Death or a Group of… If-All-Goes-Well-And-We-Catch-A-Break-Or-Two-We-Have-A-Decent Chance of Advancing.

Because let’s face it, there is only one genuine patsy in this tournament, and that’s New Zealand. North Korea may be one, too—or, Kim Jong Il may have a slight surprise for the world. No one really knows. As Simon Kuper has pointed out, dictators are big into having good soccer teams.

There are definitely teams you’d rather have in your group than others, but—warning: cliché ahead—there are no easy games in the World Cup.

So let’s break it down from a U.S. perspective: FIFA throws the 32 teams into four pots of eight teams each. Teams from the same pot will not be grouped together in the tournament. Pot 1 consists of the hosts, South Africa, plus the seven best teams in the world, according to FIFA’s formula.

The remaining three pots are filled with an eye toward maintaining even geographic distribution among the final World Cup groupings (ie., no more than two European teams, and no more than one from South America, Africa, and Asia/Oceania in any of the eight WC groups).

FIFA has not yet revealed the seedings, but the general consensus is that the pots will look like this:

Pot 1—Italy, Spain, England, France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa

Pot 2—Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Portugal, Greece

Pot 3—United States, Mexico, Honduras, Japan, S Korea, N Korea, Australia, New Zealand

Pot 4—Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay

So what’s the best group the U.S. could hope for out of this draw?

We have to go with: South Africa, Slovakia, U.S., Chile.

And the worst? Brazil, Netherlands, U.S., Ivory Coast.

That would be a Group of Death, surpassing even the U.S. draw at the 2009 Confederations Cup, when they got Italy (world champ), Spain (European champ) and Egypt (African champ). And we all know how that turned out. Oh, wait–that turned out okay.

But this would be brutal–mighty Brazil, unstoppable Drogba and the Ivory Coast, and the Netherlands, a Pot 1-level team slumming in Pot 2–a legitimate contender to win the whole tournament.


Here, take your mind off the possibility with this image of one of the draw’s hosts, South Africa’s Charlize Theron:

Because who wants to see shots of men in suits holding slips of paper?