The Other Hand

Balanced commentary from an unbalanced mind.

SA2010: How the Groups Work

I thought it might be fun to blog about the World Cup. It’s a monster! You’ve got a month of high-pressure soccer matches. But if you’re new to the tournament, it’s not always clear how it works. So I thought I’d start by explaining the Group Play phase, which goes on for the first two weeks..

The World Cup Finals has 32 teams playing for the overall championship. But, unlike March Madness, the World Cup finals begin with Group Play. The 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of four teams. Each team plays the other three teams in its group, and the top two teams from each group move on to the Knockout Phase. So it’s like 8 mini-leagues, all playing for the right to advance.

In Group Play, standings are kept by points: 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw. So each team will finish group play with somewhere between 0 and 9 points (3 wins). With two teams advancing from each group, 4 points (1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss) is where things get interesting. In 2006, there were three teams on 4 points; two advanced and one didn’t. In 2002, with 8 teams on 4 points, half advanced and half didn’t. It’s possible to advance with 3 points, but you have to be extremely lucky.

The whole process takes two weeks, usually with three or four games every day. The first match sets the tone: win, and you’re doing well, but lose, and your back is against the wall. The second match sorts out the picture: some teams will already be advancing, while others will be eliminated. But many teams will still be fighting. When you get to the last set of games in the group, the final outcome will often depend not just on your score, but also on the score of the other game. So, the final games are played simultaneously, with fans often watching the other game’s score as closely as their own.

How does this work for the US? We’re in Group C, which includes the US, England, Algeria, and Slovenia. England are the consensus best team in the group; the US should be #2 but both Slovenia and Algeria will want to dethrone them. The US starts against England, which will be very interesting. A loss there isn’t a tragedy, because the US should have a decent good chance to win against Algeria and Slovenia. A draw or a win for the US, however, will be huge, giving us a wonderful chance to progress.

Meanwhile, in the other first-round match, Algeria and Slovenia will both be desperate to get a result. If either team loses, they will have an enormous challenge ahead. So they’ll play very carefully, and a draw wouldn’t be surprising.

The second game sees US-Slovenia and England-Algeria, with both games on Friday 18 June. The third and final games will be on Wednesday 23 June, with US-Algeria and England-Slovenia. Given the makeup of the group, it’s likely that three (or maybe all four) teams will begin the final game with a chance to advance. So it should be an interesting group!

And that’s just one group out of eight. Each one has its own mix of teams and will develop its own storyline, including quite a few surprises.

So after group play is finished, you’ve eliminated just half the teams, with 16 teams remaining. They then move into the “knockout stage”, which is a standard elimination tournament: win, or go home. No draws any more!

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Written by cisko

7 June 2010 at 08:13

Posted in soccer

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