Demystifying the World Cup's Bizarre Process of Grouping Teams

Sergio Ramos of Spain lifts the FIFA World Cup trophy after defeating the Netherlands 0-1 in 2010. Photograph by Matthew Ashton/Corbis

On Friday, the groups for the 2014 World Cup will be picked. Apparently, dividing 32 teams into eight groups requires a six-step process—a very weird, six-step process. Part of it seems sketchy and leaves the door open for corruption, and the other part of it involves random balls.

In the U.S., the four major sports leagues (the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB) have well-defined rules for how teams make the playoffs. Everybody knows before the year starts what it will take to get into the playoffs—and exactly how the playoff groupings and seedings will work. Winning your division matters, having a better record matters, and specific rules explain how wild-card teams can make it.

College basketball has too many teams to be organized this way, so we appoint a committee to make the picks for us. They all cram into a room and come out with our famed NCAA tournament brackets. They think about where teams should be placed—and they are certainly not randomly just putting teams wherever.

True, in college football, we have the complete debacle known as the BCS. We mixed up secret votes with strange computer rankings to come up with a hodge-podge that everybody hates every single year. It was so bad even President Obama spoke out about it. We banded together, however, to put an end to that BCS nonsense with the new playoff system coming next year. That’s how important proper playoff arrangements are in this country.

But this soccer thing. This is surreal.

You start with these “pots.” There are four of them. They should have eight teams each, but they don’t. One has seven, another has nine.

Source: ESPN FC

One of the pots has the best teams in it, to be distributed out, so they won’t play each other in the first round: Sure, that sounds right.

The other pots have been grouped by geography: South America and Africa are in one pot, Asia and North/Central America are in another. But it could have been switched; maybe Africa and Asia could have been in their own pot. We don’t know why it worked out this way. That’s just what they did. Could there be some corruption involved? It’s not like soccer has ever had a corruption scandal, except for a few million.

Nine European teams are in their own pot, but one needs to be taken out and put in that pot of seven. So, to fix that, they need to do a “predraw” before the “real draw.”

And something like this is going to happen, too, quoting from the FIFA official site:

• The four seeded South American teams will be placed in an ancillary pot—Pot X.
• One of the four teams will be drawn.
• The group of South American teams that’s drawn will determine the group that the European team from Pot 2 will join.

Don’t worry, it takes only a 5-page (!!!) PDF to explain how we put 32 teams in eight groups. Does your brain hurt yet?

Don’t forget to remember this simple note:

Note: Groups may be skipped to respect the principle of geographic separation; e.g., Chile and Ecuador may not be drawn into groups with seeded South American teams.

Yet this thing is supposed to be sort of random. There are random balls that get picked to assign to the groups. You can even watch it live.

The combination of the pregroup insanity, mixed in with the random (but not when they don’t want randomness) selection process, elicits quotes like this:

From ESPN: “FIFA has caused more than its fair share of confusion in announcing the procedure for Friday’s World Cup draw, with the mysterious ‘Pot X’ ensuring plenty of head-scratching.”

And this reminder is even better: “Let’s make it clear here that FIFA—whatever you think of the decision—has not moved the goalposts. World football’s governing body had never made any kind of announcement about how it would build the draw. It never does until three days before the event itself. We can use precedent to guess, but that is all we can do before the official announcement.”

Or basically: FIFA can make up whatever process it likes, and we find out about it only three days before a bunch of random balls determine the rest, except if FIFA doesn’t like how the balls bounce, then it will do something else. The “beautiful game” has anything but a beautiful selection process.

To help explain all the various outcomes, you can use this computer program to simulate outcomes—because apparently it’s too hard for humans to do on their own. And from now until the draw, everybody can worry about whether his favorite team will face a randomized “Group of Death.”

It seems that these are all groups of death.

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