Oct 20, 2022
Oct 20, 2022

Will World Cup 2022 qualifying affect tournament performance?

World Cup 2022: Can qualifying form predict World Cup success?

European and South American qualifying statistics

Which continent does the World Cup winning nation usually come from?

World Cup 2022 form and stats

Will World Cup 2022 qualifying affect tournament performance?

International soccer is notoriously difficult to bet on. Whereas club sides play 40-50 games per season, countries may only play around 10 which makes it far harder to gauge their form and performance. There are also countless other factors to consider. The players in the squad usually change and managers can also be changed between one international game and the next, and some countries don’t play their home matches in the same ground every time either. 

So, is World Cup qualification a good measure of tournament success? Andrew Beasley uses the data behind the results to help you find value ahead of World Cup 2022.

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With the World Cup in Qatar fast approaching, bettors want to know how teams are likely to perform. As there will be little more than a handful of friendlies or Nations League games to turn to when assessing recent form, we need as much other data as we can get our hands on.

There is a correlation between qualifying automatically and going deeper into the competition.

But can bettors use qualifying data to assess the ability of teams participating at the World Cup? Does the performance of teams in qualifying translate to the finals themselves?

As the majority of the semi-finalists in World Cup history have been from Europe and South America, we will focus upon those two continents for our research.

The format of both the qualification process and the finals tournament has changed over the years, so we’ll look at the last six editions, from 1998 to 2018. We’ll exclude host nations as they all automatically reach the finals, and also Brazil 1998 and France 2002, as they qualified as reigning champions.

European nations at World Cup 2022

Europe have sent either 13 or 14 nations to the recent World Cups, with a total of 80 teams qualifying for the last six World Cup tournaments (though many countries have appeared more than once, of course).

Of those, 53 have reached the finals thanks to winning their qualification groups, with 27 either qualifying via a playoff, or in three instances by being the best runner-up across the European groups.

If we look at how far teams went in the tournament, then there is a correlation between qualifying automatically and going deeper into the competition, as you would expect.

Qualification method

Quarter-finals or better

Semi-finals or better

Finalists

Winners

Group winner

35.8%

22.6%

11.3%

7.5%

Best runner-up or via playoff

25.9%

14.8%

7.4%

0.0%

This stands to reason, as the strongest teams should top their groups. However, there are exceptions, with 22 of the 53 group winners (41.5%) falling at the first hurdle for instance.

This issue hasn’t only affected weaker qualifying group winners either; Italy, Spain, and Germany all went out in the group stage when they were the defending champions in the last three editions. The former two nations have also won their qualifying group but crashed out in the first round on one other occasion within the last six World Cups, and footballing giants like England and Portugal have done that too.

However, 12 of the 16 European sides to reach the semi-finals or better in the last six tournaments had won their qualification groups. One of the four others was Germany  and only Croatia four years ago have managed it since 2002.

But even the big nations usually struggle to get very far in the tournament when needing a playoff berth. Italy made the quarter-finals in 1998, as did France in 2014, but the French also went out at the group stage in 2010, as did Portugal in 2014. Spain have also got through after failing to qualify automatically, in 2006, but only made the round of 16, and the same was true of Portugal four years later.

2022’s playoff victors are Poland, Portugal, and Wales. Pinnacle’s World Cup odds imply that none are expected to reach the last four in Qatar. While all rules have exceptions, on the whole only teams who qualify automatically from the UEFA pool have decent tournaments at the main event.

South American nations at World Cup 2022

With far fewer teams in their continent, South America relies on a simple league featuring all the nations. The top four qualify automatically, with the fifth side taking part in a playoff with a team from another confederation.

This obviously means we have a much smaller sample of data than we do for Europe, but there are still some interesting examples.

The greatest exception of all from this study are the Brazilian side of 2002, who won the tournament despite losing six qualifying matches and finishing in third place. It’s not just odd that they would go on to win the World Cup from that position, but it’s unique for Brazil to qualify so poorly. To date, it’s the only time they have lost more than two matches or finished below first in the South American qualifying group.

The Brazilian side of 2002 won the tournament despite losing six qualifying matches.

The continent’s other team who made the final after having to qualify in the last 24 years were Argentina, in 2014. It’s interesting to note they topped the qualification group that year, albeit Brazil weren’t in it as they were the tournament hosts.

The Argentines have also qualified in first place and gone out in the group stage, an unwanted feat they achieved in 2002, and they are the only South American side to do this in the last six World Cups.

Although there are exceptions, the general trend when getting to the last eight or better is clear. Five out of the last six qualifying group winners made the quarter-finals, whereas three nations who finished second, two who finished third, and just one of the teams who finished fourth also reached the last eight.

Uruguay came through the 2010 playoff and reached the semi-finals, but generally in South America, the better the qualifying performance, the better a team tends to do in the competition.

For the record, Brazil won the 2022 qualifying group, and were followed by Argentina, Uruguay, and Ecuador. History might suggest the Argentines might struggle to reach the last eight, but the draw for Qatar gives them a chance. It will be interesting to see how their campaign unfolds, particularly as there’s a decent chance they could face Brazil in the semi-finals.

Conclusion

By combining the two continents, we have a fairly even split of 59 countries who topped their group to qualify, and 49 who did not. Here are their performance statistics.

Qualification method

Quarter-final or better

Semi-final or better

Finalists

Winners

Group winners

47.5%

28.8%

18.6%

6.8%

Others

30.6%

14.3%

8.2%

2.0%

This table follows the same pattern as the one for Europe alone: a higher proportion of group winners reach each stage than from the other methods.

Like any betting system, this isn’t flawless. There are many exceptions, as have been highlighted here, and seeding for the group stage draw is not entirely determined by qualification performance.

The nature of the draw also means that two European group winners can be drawn together, and this has occurred four times for the 2022 World Cup. Group D contains France and Denmark, Group E has Spain and Germany, Group F contains Belgium and Croatia, while Group G has Serbia and Switzerland (plus CONMEBOL’s top qualifying side Brazil for good measure). As some of these teams will finish second in their group, it suggests it’ll be harder for them to go far into the tournament.

But it does seem that if you want to pick a side to reach the latter stages, then generally you should choose one who won their qualification group.

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