Thursday, September 10, 2009

2010 World Cup seeding

Note: This article was written with the assumption that FIFA would use a formula similar to the one they had used for the previous 3 or 4 World Cups. They instead went purely off of the October FIFA rankings making all of this incorrect. Here is a recent article on the draw setup.

This December they'll have the draw, where the groups for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will be decided. The teams are separated into 4 different pods and each group consists of one team from each pod. Three of the pods are done geographically so that teams from the same confederation are in the same pod. The other pod contains all the seeded teams.

The idea behind seeding is to ensure that there is some semblance of balance in the groups. Nobody would want to see Brazil, Spain, Italy and South Korea all in the same group. Well, I guess some would but it would clearly be bad for the tournament. So the goal of the seeding process is to put the host plus the 7 other best teams into the same pod. The difference between being a seeded team and not is often the difference between almost sure passage into the round of 16 and being put into the group of death. If you are seeded then you are not going to face a top team and likely will have only one above-average opponent in your group.

Determining the 7 best teams is certainly no easy task and there is always controversy when some teams feel that they should be included. To determine the 7 seeded teams, FIFA goes by a formula. This formula has two parts - one uses results from the last two (it used to be three) World Cups and the other uses the FIFA rankings.

Previous World Cup Results

The first part of the formula is based on the results of the last two World Cups, or at least it was for Germany '06. For Korea/Japan and before they used the previous three.

For each World Cup, the teams are ranked from 1-32. The first four spots go to the champion, runner up, third-place match winner and its loser. 5-8 are the teams that got eliminated in the quarterfinal round. These are sorted based on overall performance which I understand to mean that they go by points in the group stage and break ties by overall goal differential and goals scored. Teams 9-16 are the similarly sorted losers of the first knockout round. 17-24 are the teams that finished third in their group and 25-32 are the teams that finished last. Once the teams have been ranked in this manner, they are given points in reverse - 32 for first, 31 for second and so on down to 17 for the team placing 16th. For those teams eliminated in the group stage, the third-place finishers all get 9 points and those finishing fourth get 8.

In other words, you get 8 points for finishing last in your group, 9 points for finishing third, 17 for being 16th best and then 1 additional point for every spot higher up. In case you're still with me, the number of World Cup points each team gets is the weighted average of these points putting 2/3 weight on 2006 and 1/3 on 2002.

For example, Italy won the last World Cup and were eliminated in the first knockout round in South Korea. As it turns out, they were 15th overall for the 2002 World Cup according to the above method so they get 32 points for 2006 and 18 points for 2002. Their total World Cup points for seeding purposes is 32(2/3) + 18(1/3) = 27.33

FIFA World Rankings

For the next part, they take all 32 teams and look at their FIFA rankings from December 2007, December 2008 and November this year. For each year they give 32 to highest-ranked team (currently Brazil) down to 1 for the lowest ranked team (probably Bahrain if they qualify). The number of world ranking points each team gets is just the average of the three rankings.

Unlike the World Cup points, it isn't possible at this point to determine how many world ranking points each team will get. For one, it will be based on the rankings from this November. More importantly though, because it uses the Borda count method, teams' scores will change based on which teams qualify. It is possible, though to compare teams as I'll explain below.

Figuring Out the Seeded Teams

To determine where teams would be ranked for seeding purposes, I first got a rough idea where they would be based on the FIFA world rankings. To do that I gave points out assuming the top 32 each year were the 32 teams in the World Cup. That's a bad assumption, but again it's just to get a rough idea what the top teams are, that's not what I'm using to get the final results.

Here were the results of that:

Teams in green are now in and the teams in blue are very likely to qualify without needing a playoff.

Based on that chart, it's pretty clear that Brazil, Italy, Spain and England will be seeded along with Germany if they qualify. Below that Argentina, France, Portugal and the Netherlands are bunched up so I'll have to sort through those individually. Also, Croatia, Mexico, the United States and possibly the Ukraine, Paraguay and Sweden should be looked at. Once the worst of Mexico and the United States have been sorted we can stop because there would be 7 teams that have qualified or very likely will.

To compare each pair, I looked at how many teams are between them in the rankings that have been or could be eliminated from the competition in qualifying. To see how this works, let's go through Argentina and France. Looking at the table above, France stand a point behind in the standings, mainly because they have a worse rank score. Here are the relevant rankings, using today to represent the November rankings:
Argentina - 1
France - 7

Argentina - 6
France - 11

Argentina - 8
France - 10

A useful thing is that if we eliminate teams from these rankings because they didn't qualify, that will only help the lower-ranked team compared to the chart. In other words, eliminating teams above both France and Argentina doesn't matter, but eliminating teams in between them helps France. How much? It would move them up 1 point for that year, but because they are averaged, each team eliminated gains the lower-ranked team a third of a point.

Using this method, I can't say what the final numbers will be, but I can compare teams and give a ranking. Unless the final FIFA rankings change drastically I can therefore say which teams will be seeded.

For France and Argentina, the teams between them in the rankings are Brazil, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic for the first year Croatia, England, Russia and Turkey for the second year and currently Croatia is the only team between them. They need to knock out three teams. It's likely that the Czech Republic and Turkey are gone but Russia and Croatia (counted twice) are currently looking at a playoff spot. If either of those are eliminated or if France leap frogs Argentina in the final rankings then Les Bleus will be ahead of them. It doesn't actually turn out to matter because if both make it then both will be seeded. For now let's say Argentina rate higher as that will make things easier.

Next let's compare France and Portugal. This one is immediate. France has more World Cup points and is ranked above Portugal in every ranking so they will be seeded ahead of the Portuguese if both make it. Moving on to Portugal and the Netherlands, Portugal have more World Cup points and the Netherlands are more highly ranked every year. Because eliminating teams can only help Portugal, they rate above the Netherlands for seeding purposes. The Netherlands will rate above Croatia because they have more World Cup points and are ranked higher. Mexico and Croatia is the first place where the rankings switch. Mexico need to eliminate just two teams that are ranked in between them and the Croats and that's sure to happen. As a result, it becomes necessary to compare the Netherlands and Mexico. With the Netherlands 11.67 points ahead on the chart, Mexico would need to have 35 teams ranked between them on the three rankings not make the finals. Just glancing at them, I don't think that will happen but it I suppose it is possible.

So now we have a list that looks like this:

To continue, we need to look at Croatia and the United States. The US needs to gain 1.33 points, or eliminate 5 teams that ranked between them to jump over Croatia. That will happen, so the United States will be seeded before Croatia if it comes to that.

This brings us to Mexico and the United States. This is like Portugal and the Netherlands above. Mexico have more World Cup points and are ranked lower than the US every year, so eliminating teams will only help them. I hate to be the bearer of bad news for my American readers but for seeding purposes Mexico once again will rank ahead of the United States.

Looking down the chart, Sweden or the Ukraine could also pass the United States depending on which teams make it. I don't think that's likely, but it could happen so it's worth mentioning.

So What Teams Will Be Seeded?

These teams definitely will be seeded:
1. South Africa as hosts
2. Italy
3. Spain
4. Brazil
5. England

The last three spots will be given out in this order based on which teams qualify:
1. Germany
2. Argentina
3. France (possibly flip these)
4. Portugal
5. The Netherlands
6. Mexico
7. United States

So for the Netherlands, Mexico and the United States it comes down to how many of Germany, Argentina, France and Portugal fail to qualify. The US need all of them to fail, for Mexico only one can make it through and the Netherlands will be seeded if at most two of them qualify. Moving up the ladder, if Portugal qualify then they will be seeded if at least one of Germany, Argentina and France are out. Germany, Argentina and France will all be seeded if they make the trip to South Africa.


  1. Because the FIFA Rankings now reflect four years' worth of matches, it seems odd that FIFA would take the average of three overlapping periods (the November 2009 ranking will cover Dec 2005 to Nov 2009, the December 2008 ranking covered Jan 2005 to Dec 2008, and the December 2007 ranking covered Jan 2004 to Dec 2007).

    Each FIFA Ranking weights the most recent 12 months at 1x weight, the prior 12 months at 0.5x, the prior 12 months at 0.3x, the the prior 12 months at 0.2x. Hence matches in 2007 are weighted more in the 3-period average (average of 1x, 0.5x, and 0.3x is 0.6x) than either 2008 or 2009 matches (average of 0, 0, and 1x is 0.33x).

    A better solution would be to use just the November 2009 ranking which covers the last four years of matches -- including, incidently, the 2006 World Cup matches and all of the 2010 World Cup Qualifying matches. Plus, 2009 matches would carry more importance than 2008 matches, which in turn would carry more importance than 2007.

  2. Excellent point, thanks for bringing it up. I guess it has to do with the weighting. It seems like a better solution if they want the last 3 or 4 years would be to use whatever formula they use that translates results into the number with full weight on all the matches for whatever period they want - last 4 probably.

    This would put out there a second ranking system, so maybe they don't want to do that? I don't really buy that as an explanation because it's not like the derivation of world cup seeding is broadly known.

    I think seeding is good in general - nobody wants to see Brazil, Spain, Germany and the United States as a World Cup group, and I'm not sure how I'd do it myself, but there are definitely problems with the system. In fairness, there probably would be with any seeding system.