Wednesday, June 09, 2010

In celebration of Americas least popular sport for straight white males over 18...

And in case any of you are wondering why your foreign co-workers, colleagues, friends and associated are acting completely insane for the next month; The FIFA World Cup starts this Friday, and runs through for 30 days following.

Like most American men of the last 40 years, I played soccer as a child, but as soon as I got big enough for football  and "too big" for soccer (which was technically two years before they allowed me to play football. I was too big for pop warner PeeWee as 10 year old, at 5'6" and 165lbs, and had to wait til 7th grade), I switched over.

I'm not a big soccer fan as such, but I like to keep an eye out for our national teams in international competitions. Also, I spent some years living abroad, including living in Ireland in 2002, when Ireland, England, and the U.S. all put in some unexpectedly great performances; so I've had an interest in the world cup specifically.

Yes, I'm the guy you hardcore fans love to hate; the one who only watches during the playoffs...

What can I say, American Football is my game. I watch every single New England Patriots game, plus every game that effects their playoff status, plus every game that has a major impact on their division and conference rivals plus... Yeah, I'm a fan....

I just don't have that kind of passion, interest, or involvement in soccer... and frankly neither do most Americans, which is why our professional soccer league is a small shadow of what countries 1/10th our size have.

But I'm interested, and at least somewhat knowledgeable, about FIFA world cup soccer (frankly, you can't live in Europe or South America without being inundated with the stuff whether you want it or not).

For those who don't know, the FIFA world cup is held every four years, and is a truly worldwide tournament for the global championship of Soccer (or football as it is known most places outside the US).

Collectively, it is the most watched, and most attended, sporting even in the world both by total viewership, and total attendance; which both dwarf the superbowl, or any other single American sporting event. The world cup also generates more revenue than any other single sporting event.

Of course the fact that it consists of sixty four games played over the course of a month doesn't exactly hurt.

The tournament consists of the 32 teams out of the 208 recognized national teams; that meet qualifying standards, and placed highest in their various leagues and/or qualifying tournaments and series each of which are allocated a proportional number of positions within the competition.

The team of the host nation is allowed to compete in the 32nd slot without competitive qualification (unless they do not otherwise meet eligibility requirements to play in the tournament, which to my knowledge has never happened); though they GENERALLY qualify anyway, and are rarely seeded last. Historically, the defending champions also qualified automatically, but that rule was changed  some years ago.

The teams are broken up into eight groups of four, who then play each other, each team playing each other team once. The winner and runner up of each group (decided first by win/loss point - 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, 0 for a loss -, then by the difference between goals scored, and goals allowed, then by total goals scored,) then advance to the round of 16 or "knockout" round; where the tournament becomes a bracketed single elimination contest (multiple tiebreakers are not uncommon).

From there it's not unlike your typical U.S. style bracketed playoff, as in NCAA basketball. The brackets can be very important, due to relative strengths of teams, and the order in which an opponent might be faced.

The U.S. has never won a world cup; though we reached the quarterfinals in 2002, and came in third in 1930.

Historically speaking, we've done quite well, especially as we're one of the few countries that participate but do not have an active and successful professional soccer league (we do have a league.. how active and successful it is, I leave to you to judge). I believe we're the ONLY nation without a large, active, and successful on the world stage soccer league; to have qualified for the tournament 9 times (there have been 19 world cups, including 2010); and we've qualified for all five world cups from 1990 to 2010.

Although international soccer fans, pundits, and the general commentariat are loathe to admit it; this record actually puts us far ahead of the majority of national teams; putting us in the top quartile overall, and the top quintile since 1990.

Those same pundits do point out, correctly, that our regional confederation (CONCACAF) is far less competitive than Europes (UEFA) association, or south Americas confederation (CONMEBOL); and if we had to compete extensively against those teams, we would not have done so well internationally.

Yes, that's true; but CONCACAF is a more difficult competitive confederation than either Africa (CAF) or Oceana (OFC), and goes back and forth with the Asian confederation (AFC) in terms of competitive quality (at least when you consider top ten type rankings. There are a lot of non starter teams in both confederations)

This is also balanced by the fact that currently (the number of slots allocated to each conference is re-evaluated every 4 years) CONCACAF gets the second fewest qualifying slots (only 3 slots for 40 teams, with Oceana only getting 1 slot for 16 teams, only 10 of which competed to qualify... and in fact, that slot isn't automatic, they have to compete for it).

UEFA  and CONMEBOL on the other hand are disproportionately represented with 13 slots (of 53 teams), and 5 slots (of 10 teams) respectively.

This is compared to Africa's 6 slots (55 teams), and Asia's 4 (for 46 teams); a factor that the central Americans, Africans, and Asians vigorously protest continuously;  noting with some justification, that in general, the bottom 3 or 4 European slots, are generally considerably less competitive than the best of their times which miss the qualification slot cutoff in their respective confederations

The fact is, just 1 in 16 teams from Oceana (historically only New Zealand and Australia have qualified; and for 2010, the Aussies moved over to Asia), 1 in 14 teams from north and central America, 1 in 12 from Asia, and 1 in 9 from Africa, are allowed into the tournament; whereas 1 in 4 European teams, and fully half the south American teams get a competitive slot.

The UEFA argument to counter this, is that they are the most competitive conference by far (which is true), and that they typically have at least half of the top 20 teams, and at least 1/3 of the top 32 teams, in any given cup year... Which is rather vigorously disputed by the other confederations, who believe (which is a bit of sour grapes, but also has some justification) that the entirety of FIFA is basically rigged to rank the Europeans higher...

There is considerably less griping about the south Americans, because although their proportion of slots to teams is by far the highest, they still only get 4 or 5 slots (5 this year), and basically all of their slots are always filled with a highly competitive team (pretty much always Brazil and Argentina in 1 and 2, and a hot contest between Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay for slots 3 and 4; and Ecuador and Columbia for slot 5 of they get it that year); something which can't be said by UEFA.

What it really comes down to, is that the U.S. (and for that matter Mexico, who basically always qualifies... in fact has qualified more than any team other than Brazil and Argentina) is still generally better than the bottom third of qualifying teams from UEFA; so the claim that we wouldn't make the tournament if we had to compete with Europe or South America doesn't hold water. Yeah, we'd be seeded 25th or below most of the time, but we'd still be there.

Frankly, the reason UEFA and CONMEBOL have 18 out of the 32 slots, is financial. By far, the majority of FIFAs revenue, governmental and institutional financial support, and fan base; come out of those two confederations... Something like three quarters of the television revenue, nearly all the advertising revenue, and essentially all their licensing revenue;  come out of Europe and South America as well.

Given all those factors, it just makes economic sense to ensure that more teams from those two regions compete. While I agree, the slot allocation should be refactored a bit... maybe giving Europe two or three less slots, and South America one less (2 to Asia, 1 or 2 to North/Central America maybe)... Calls to make the slot allocation directly proportional are a bad idea.

A world cup with competitive slots allocated to each confederation on a proportional basis simply would not work. Frankly, it would be a boring and unbalanced world cup.

Not only would the European and South American fan base be alienated (there would only be one competitive slot for South America, and only 8 for Europe); but with nine slots reallocated around the other four confederations (1 to Oceana for a total of 2, 2 to Africa for 8, 3 to Asia for 7, and 3 to North/Central America for 6), a number of less competitive teams would get in (Africa struggles to fill their 6 with competitive teams already never mind 8, and there probably aren't 7 competitive teams each in either Asia or North/Central America).

This would result in the utter domination of the tournament by the top 8 European teams (usually Spain, France, Italy, Germany around the top, the Netherlands, England, Portugal, and Greece somewhere in the middle; and Russia, Denmark, and the former eastern bloc states competing hard to knock one of the middle teams out of 7th or 8th), and Brazil (as if they didn't do so enough already).

The tournament is already unbalanced enough as it is; with only 8 teams having ever won (Brazil 5, Italy 4, Germany 3, Argentina 3, Uruguay 2, France 1, and England 1); and only 18 teams ever making it into the top 3 or 24 into the top 4 (and almost all of those teams are STILL in the top ranks most years). We don't need to make it any more unbalanced.

A boring, and unbalanced (some would say, even more unbalanced) world cup, would be a world cup that lost money... A LOT of money.

As you can see, soccer is a much more political sport than Americans are used to... though this may sound familiar to followers of  NCAA athletics. 

In terms non-soccer fan Americans are more familiar with, we're a playoff team who hasn't been in the championship yet, because we keep getting eliminated in the wildcard round, or the division game (though we made it to the conference game once).

The analogy doesn't map directly of course, because the world cup has an extra round, compared to the US playoff system; as there are 32 teams in the cup, whereas in most US professional sports, there are more like 32 teams in the league... but I think the concept should be clear.

So, what about this year?  What are my world cup predictions?

Well, I expect we'll (being an American, I'll say we) do OK this year but not great.

We're  in group C. I figure we can clear Algeria and Slovenia, but England is going to slaughter us.

The bookies agree; giving England a 1/2 and the US 6/1 on the match; whereas we've got good odds on Algeria and Slovenia (and England has great odds, giving 1/4 and 2/5 respectively).

I think we have a pretty good shot at clearing knockout given Group D however. We've got a solid shot against Germany, Australia, Serbia, or Ghana... though no walkover matchups there, and Germany is obviously the tough play.

Sorry Aussies, I don't like your chances this year, and the bookies are with me. I think you'll probably pull runner up in group D, but then you're going to face England, and barring a miracle, they're going at least to the quarterfinals.

If we can clear Germany (or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, Australia) in the round of 16 (and I recognize, that's a very big if), we're probably going up against either Argentina or Mexico in the quarterfinals... Mexico I'm not too worried about given our recent past, but Argentina... I doubt we can do it.

So, as it is, I expect us to make runner up in group; I'll be very happy if we clear knockout on the round of 16; and I think there isn't a chance in hell of us making it past the quarterfinals.

I'm still irritated about the Ireland-France qualifier... Though fairplay to Thierry Henry for admitting it.... Unlike Torsten Frings handball in the 2002 USA Germany quarterfinals; with what should have drawn the match, and given how we were playing could have boosted us to victory.

No, I'm not bitter... not at all...

Actually, given the bracketing, I think England has a pretty solid shot at the semis... I wont speculate any further than that. Spain, Brazil, Argentina, all pretty strong... It wouldn't surprise me to see any of that list in the semis.

Argentina and the Netherlands may have some bracketing trouble in the round of 16 and quarterfinals. Spain and Brazil should be walkover winners in their groups, and because of bracketing wouldn't have to face each other until the final. Portugal has probably the toughest bracketing in the tournament. I don't doubt they'll take runner up of group G (I'd call that 100%)... but I rate their chances of getting past knockout against Spain as basically zero.

My call on the semifinal... Spain, Brazil, Argentina, England. I'm not going to try to call the final, but it would VERY much surprise me if it weren't two of the four teams above.

On the outside, Italy, Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands, and Portugal, are all looking pretty good as well; but not top tier semifinal or final territory.

I don't think there will be any small country or host country surprises this year.

I think this years tourney is really all about the bracketing... even more so than usual. If you look at the group composition, and the likely bracket matchups... The bracketing is going to be the biggest factor into the semifinals. Some otherwise good teams aren't going to make it as far as they might, because they're going to go up against a dominant team early on... 

Of course, those are also the circumstances under which "stunning upsets" occur... 

And of course, I could be wrong in general about my picks, but the bookies seem to agree with me for the most part. Anything can (and frequently does) happen at game time, but in the long run, the bookies almost always win.


Ok... I said I wasn't going to speculate further, but based on some prodding I'm going to publish my full pool picks here.

I made my picks based on bracketology. Basically I looked at the individual matchups in each bracket, and the apparent probability of each teams victory or defeat in each matchup.

Where my personal knowledge of the teams in question was insufficient to give me a good idea for a single matchup, I used the bookies odds on that particular matchup (if they had what I would consider reliable odds for it... which means round of 32, and round of 16 at best), the bookies overall cup odds, and FIFA rankings on the teams, as weighting factors.

If you only look at the long odds for overall, you're going to miss a lot of important factors; and the round of 32 doesn't involve so many comparators that it is all that hard to call, given that IN GENERAL, the groups have a pretty clear strongest and second strongest competitor.

To me that looks like:
  • Group A: France and Mexico (outside Uruguay)
  • Group B: Argentina and Greece (outside Korea)
  • Group C: England and US
  • Group D: Germany and Australia (I just think they're better than Serbia, though the bookies don't)
  • Group E: Netherlands and Cameroon (outside Denmark)
  • Group F: Italy and Paraguay
  • Group G: Brazil and Portugal
  • Group H: Spain and Chile
Of course, there's always the "any given Sunday" factor you can't account for... and I'm going against the bookies in Picking Mexico over Uruguay, and Australia over Serbia. I also think Denmark has a shot against Cameroon.

My picks bracket out to a round of 16 looking like this:
  • France - Greece (France)
  • England - Australia (England)
  • Netherlands - Paraguay (Netherlands)
  • Brazil - Chile (Brazil)
  • Argentina - Mexico (Argentina)
  • Germany - US (Germany, but I think the US has a better shot than the bookies do)
  • Italy - Cameroon (Italy)
  • Spain - Portugal (Spain)
You'll note, unsurprisingly, none of the picks I thought might be iffy in the first round make it out of these brackets. Nor would the teams I would pick as alternates to the iffy teams. These brackets are just too strong for an iffy team to advance.

So, that brackets out to a quarterfinal of:

  • France - England (England)
  • Netherlands - Brazil (Brazil)
  • Argentina - Germany (Argentina)
  • Italy - Spain (Spain)

And that brackets to a semifinal of:

  • England - Brazil (Brazil)
  • Argentina - Spain (Spain)

Which of course leads to a final of:

  • Brazil - Spain

And god help me if I can pick there. I normally wouldn't bet against Brazil, but Spain looks really good right now.... maybe just a tick better than Brazil.