The definition of luck is ‘success or failure apparently brought by chance rather
than through one’s own actions’. The draw for the groups to qualify for the 2014
World Cup was made more than a year ago, nearly four months before the end of
qualification for Euro 2012. Not only is luck present in the draw itself as I
discussed as part of my last post but this gap has provided a secondary impulse of chance due to the changes in rankings in the intervening periods. These changes will have altered
the balance of some, if not all of the groups in the UEFA section of qualifying.
If the draw had been made last week using the FIFA rankings which were released on September 5 it would look very different from now as 23 of the 53 competing nations would occupy different pots from the ones they were present in when the draw was made 13 months ago. So, how has this affected the nine qualifying groups?
Group A: Croatia (FIFA rank 9), Belgium (40), Serbia (42), Wales (45), Scotland (47), Macedonia (97)
Croatia have profited from the 13 month gap since the draw as they are now
by far the strongest team in Group A. Serbia’s 15 place drop coupled with Wales’
enormous improvement from 112th to 45th and Scotland’s rise appears to have created
an enormous battle for second place in this group between that trio and
Group B: Italy (6), Denmark (10), Czech Republic (19), Armenia (53), Bulgaria (89), Malta (139)
Group B now contains three of Europe’s best 13 teams according to the FIFA
rankings and Denmark would be amongst the top seeds with Italy if the draw was made
now. When the groups were drawn in July 2011, Italy was the only one of these
teams amongst Europe’s best 13 so their task is now a great deal more difficult
than it looked then.
Group C: Germany (2), Sweden (18), Ireland (26), Austria (49), Kazakhstan (146), Faroe Islands (154)
Similarly to group B, this group now contains three of the best 16 teams in
Europe due to the Republic of Ireland’s improvement in the FIFA ranking over
the last 13 months. Compare this to the four qualification groups, each of
which now contain just one of Europe’s best 16 teams
Group D: Netherlands (8), Turkey (35), Hungary (37), Estonia (55), Romania (57), Andorra (199)
Like Croatia, the Dutch have profited from the 13 month interval since the
draw and are now ranked 27 places higher than their biggest rivals Turkey.
However, like Group A, there are now five teams ranked amongst the top-60 teams
in the world, providing plenty of potential banana skins for the favourites,
particularly in away fixtures.
Group E: Switzerland (20), Slovenia (24), Norway (34), Albania (84), Iceland (118), Cyprus (135)
Norway were the top seeds when this group was drawn in July 2011 but they
have since dropped from 12th to 34th place on the FIFA rankings, allowing both
Switzerland and Slovenia to overtake them. The Swiss were in pot 3 in the
original draw but are now the highest ranked team in the group. The Swiss win
in Slovenia and Norway’s defeat in Iceland in the opening fixtures has only
made Switzerland more likely to take first place in this group. Group B has
three teams ranked higher than anyone in this group.
Group F: Portugal (4), Russia (13), Israel (75), Luxembourg (106), Azerbaijan (107), Northern Ireland (129)
Now a very unbalanced group due to Israel and Northern Ireland dropping 43
and 67 places respectively in the FIFA rankings since the July 2011 draw was
made. Portugal and Russia’s task to finish in the top two here has thus become
a whole lot easier. It is worth noting that there are five teams in group A who
are ranked higher by FIFA than the third best team here.
Group G: Greece (11), Bosnia-Herzegovina (30), Slovakia (45), Latvia (94), Lithuania (116), Liechtenstein (149)
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia have more or less swapped positions,
keeping the balance of the best three teams in this group as it was when the
draw was made. The remainder has become significantly weaker with Lithuania’s
58 place drop in the FIFA rankings to 116th.
Group H: England (3), Ukraine (39), Montenegro (48), Poland (56), Moldova (141), San Marino (206)
Montenegro were ranked as the second best team from pot 2 when the draw was
made but they have fallen 31 places in the FIFA ranking since July 2011. The 36
place difference between England and the Ukraine is the biggest between the
highest two ranked teams in a European qualification group so England should
have no problem qualifying.
Group I: Spain (1), France (15), Belarus (76), Georgia (86), Finland (96)
Like group F, this group has also become unbalanced due to a big drop in
ranking for the team from pot 3 during the draw. Belarus were 42nd on the FIFA
rankings in July 2011 but have dropped 34 places since. Spain and France should
have no problem finishing first and second.
The Winners – Croatia, the Netherlands, England and Switzerland
Based on the FIFA rankings from September 5, there is no longer a major
rival to first place for Croatia, the Netherlands or England. However, none of
the trio have done anything to bring this about. Indeed, the Dutch have
actually dropped down the rankings since the draw was made. The next best
ranked team in each of their groups is no longer amongst the top 18 teams in
Europe according to FIFA, a requirement to take a place in Pot 2 of the draw
if it had been made last week. The position of those three top seeds has been
made much stronger in their respective groups due to nothing more than luck.
Norway’s fall down the rankings has made Switzerland the favourites to win
group E despite being in pot 3 when the draw was made. Every other original top
seed in July 2011 is still ranked amongst the world’s best 11 international
teams so Norway’s drop has proved particularly fortunate for the Swiss and
possibly Slovenia too.
The losers – Italy, Sweden
Italy have been hit by bad luck as Denmark’s rise up the rankings makes
their group the only one in which two of the current best eight teams in Europe
are present. This was impossible in July 2011 as the best nine European teams
were all in pot 1. The Czech Republic have also improved since the draw was
made hitting Italy’s chances still further.
The chances of Sweden finishing above top seeds Germany were already slim but
now their chances of second place in Group C are being squeezed by the
improvement of pot 3 team Ireland. Only Italy’s group has a stronger trio of
teams originally in pots 1, 2 and 3 during the July 2011 draw.
This exercise illustrates that the current draw procedure is wrapped up with
luck not only during the draw itself but also in the period before the
competition begins if that period is as long as the 13 months since the groups
were drawn. The draw for the 2014 World Cup qualification took place earlier
than ever before and before the end of qualification for the European Championship
for the first time. The positions of teams in the FIFA rankings now used for the draw
have thus changed far more drastically by the time the qualification matches started
than in the past making the groups far more disparate than they have ever been.