Sport simulations are wonderful. By compressing half a million individual World Cups into a few hours of computer time, we can see true percentages of expected success. Instead of reading anecdotal analysis on each group and team, we can look at numbers and learn Australia and Cameroon have less than 7% chance of making the elimination rounds. Why guess when we can know?
How does the simulation work
All teams have a strength rating (from http://eloratings.net), which is current as of May 18, 2014. Using Elo ratings (ER), an elegant metric for calculating current strength based on weighted recent relative performance, each match’s expected outcome was plugged into a Poisson random number generator. Using weights derived from historical regression analysis and the knowledge that soccer goals per game follow a Poisson distribution, the generator churns out game outcomes. Structuring the matches into the World Cup’s schedule and storing the results for a half million simulations gives us the analysis below. Note that percentages are rounded and so may not sum to 100% or 200% exactly.
Home field advantage
Studies have determined a home field ER has an advantage of approximately 100 points. This analysis is composed of two simulations, one without home field advantage (HFA) and one with it included. HFA is for Brazil only, not for the other South American teams. This article does not use the HFA enabled simulation for analysis. The next article, analyzing the elimination rounds, will use both sets of simulations.
The Luis Suarez Factor
What about Luis Suarez’s surgery? What about Landon Donovan being left out of the USA squad? Adjustments for events like these were not implemented because ER are an aggregate score. Nothing is summed from the player level. How much is Luis Suarez worth? Quite a bit, clearly, but how much? Anything would just be a guess so Uruguay remains at their current rating.
All tiebreakers are implemented in full, including the drawing of lots if all other options fail! Programming tiebreakers is not much fun so the less said the better. To the results!
Some group matches, like Spain versus Netherlands, appear to have a disproportionate effect on the overall results. Here are some key matches and how the odds of winning the World Cup change based on the match result.
Spain v Netherlands – 6/13/2014
The highest combined team rating for any game in the group stages has, as expected, a dramatic effect on the odds of winning the World Cup for both teams. Since Brazil awaits the second place team, winning this match helps avoid a difficult start to the elimination rounds. The simulation results look like this:
SpainWin/NetherlandsWin/Draw = 52%/21%/27%.
For Spain, the odds of winning the World Cup for each result are 20%/10%/16%.
For the Netherlands it is 1%/5%/2%.
Winning the first match gives Spain double the chance of winning the World Cup than if they lose. Netherlands have five times the chance of winning the cup with an upset over Spain. A surprisingly large effect from the first match of the group phases!
England v Italy – 6/14/2014
This is the tenth strongest match-up in the group phases. England and Italy are close in rating and involved in a difficult battle with Uruguay for advancement. Here is the breakdown.
EnglandWin/ItalyWin/Draw = 38%/32%/30%.
For England, the odds of winning the cup are adjusted as 1.28%/0.42%/0.84%.
Italy is 0.23%/0.82%/0.51%.
Not as dramatic as the Spain-Netherlands match-up because the teams are weaker and have much less chance of being the overall winner. Still, each side sees a three to four times improvement in World Cup winning chances with a clean win in the first round.
Germany v Portugal – 6/16/2014
This is the fifth strongest match-up in the group phases. However, both Portugal and Germany are clear favorites to advance from this group. Although they are strong teams, is this an important match?
GermanyWin/PortugalWin/Draw = 57%/17%/26%.
Odds to win for Germany = 16%/11%//14%.
Portugal = 1%/2%/1.4%.
It seems pretty clear that finishing first or second in Group G is not as important as for the other groups. A slight advantage for winning this match occurs for both Germany and Portugal.
Ghana v USA – 6/16/2014
Not necessarily the strongest match but certainly of interest for fans of the US Team. The USA have Germany and Portugal ahead of them in the simulations of Group G. Does beating Ghana make any difference? The USA only has a 0.16% chance of winning overall. However, if they beat Ghana the odds rise all the way to 0.22%. Not too impressive, is it? However, losing this match lowers the odds of winning to 0.04%. This mainly tells us that Germany and Portugal are so strong that beating Ghana is a requirement for the USA, but not nearly sufficient by itself.
Group A (Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon)
Does anyone really expect Brazil to falter at the group stage? Even without HFA Brazil advances 99% of the time and wins the group 90% of the time. Not only are they rated as the best team in the world, they also have the fourth easiest group opponents in the tournament. Brazil will advance. The fight for second is close to an even toss between Mexico and Croatia (45%/40%). Croatia’s ER decline the past year is the worst of any World Cup team. That should give the advantage to Mexico. Considering how Mexico got into the World Cup, they should consider themselves as having a fortunate draw.
Group B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)
This is the strongest group in the tournament, in aggregate. You have to feel sorry for Chile. They are the tenth best team in the tournament, with the third best improvement year over year, and they have a worse chance of advancing than Croatia. Perhaps Chile can take comfort that Spain and Netherlands have both declined slightly in ER over the previous year. But not much. Spain has an 89% chance of advancing, with a 64% chance of finishing first. Since they have a 25% chance of finishing second, there is a 1 in 4 chance we will see Brazil and Spain play each other in the round of 16. There is a 2 in 5 chance of Brazil against Netherlands in the round of 16. Netherlands have a 64% and Chile a respectable 40% chance of advancing. Sorry Australia. Not this time! 6% chance of advancing. If there will be a shock group exit for a favorite, this is the group.
Group C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)
Contrary to common belief, this is not the weakest group in the tournament. However, it easily wins as the least predictable group. Colombia is favorite, with a 76% chance of qualification. Then things get murky. Greece edges ahead into second place, via rounding difference, at 45%. Ivory Coast is fractionally behind at 45%. Japan is at 34%. Since Greece has improved over the last year and Japan and Ivory Coast have both declined slightly, Greece strikes me as somewhat underrated. I’ve seen betting odds with Greece as a strong contender for last in the group but the statistics disagree.
3. IVORY COAST
Group D (England, Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica)
This is the third strongest group. Costa Rica will not advance (14% chance). A complete brawl awaits the other three teams. England is most likely at 66%, Uruguay at 62%, and Italy at 59%. Tiebreakers were a frequent occurrence in this group as well, with draws and clustering of point totals more common than not. Uruguay is the wild card from this bunch. Not only is Luis Suarez’s injury a complicating factor, but Uruguay has improved more in the last year than any other team in the cup. England and Italy have both declined slightly but the amount is small. Whoever survives this mess and finishes first in the group has some good news, as the pairing with the Group C runner-up is likely to be a much weaker team.
4. COSTA RICA
Group E (France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras)
After their comeback qualification match against Ukraine, France’s good fortune continues. Their ER of 1872 is worse than the top three teams in Group D. In an unspectacular group, France leads with 71% chance of advancement, followed by Ecuador at 57%. Switzerland, at 55%, will be in a battle for second place. Honduras has a 1 in 5 chance of making a surprise run into the elimination rounds. For the neutral fan, this will likely be an entertaining group that is decided on the final day of group matches. In a further sign that France has a wonderful draw, their first round elimination match is likely against either Bosnia, Nigeria, or Iran.
Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, Iran)
Argentina (94%). There, it has been stated. Now that we know the winner of this group let’s examine who will get second place. The second worst group in the tournament has quite the scramble for runner-up. Bosnia has a 41% chance of advancing, Nigeria at 34%, and Iran at 31%. However, on current form, Iran is playing best, followed by Nigeria. If you are a believer in momentum then this group is a complete three way coin flip for runner-up. Rock, paper, scissors anyone? Expect a tiebreaker.
Group G (Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana)
The second strongest group, with all four teams improving over the last year, does not have much suspense. In a testament to their quality, Germany has a 92% chance of advancing from this difficult group. Portugal should be comfortable with a 64% chance. The USA has a difficult draw. In Group E they would have a 58% chance of advancing. In Group H they would be favorites to win the group, with a 76% chance of advancing. In Group G, however, they will likely go out, with a 35% chance of making the elimination rounds. Ghana has a less than 10% chance of advancing and they, along with Chile, will likely end up most frustrated in the tournament.
Group H (Russia, Belgium, South Korea, Algeria)
Belgium. The team many people believe will be the dark horse of the tournament. Can a team so many believe to be the dark horse still be considered an underdog? Perhaps their rating is misleading but this is a team that is currently behind Switzerland in ER. Switzerland has improved more year over year than Belgium. Belgium, in by far the weakest group of the tournament, has only a 72% chance of advancing to the elimination round. Then, if they get to the elimination round, they run smack into the Group G winners. The statistics don’t see them as a dark horse team. Russia, in fact, is the favorite to win the group, with a 76% chance of advancing and a 45% chance of finishing first in Group H. South Korea has a decent chance of advancing, 36%. In other words, South Korea, 22 places below the USA in ER ranked order, has a better chance to advance than the USA. This group is so poor that Algeria, the weakest team in the competition by some margin, has a 15% chance to advance.
3. SOUTH KOREA
The next article in the series evaluates the elimination rounds and give the percentage chance of each team winning the World Cup.