A team's form heading into a World Cup can be difficult to predict. Can bettors use qualifying data to assess the ability of teams heading to the World Cup? Do the strongest qualifiers progress at the World Cup? What made the 2002 Brazil team's success unusual? Read on to find out.
International soccer is notoriously difficult to bet on. Where club sides play between 40 and 50 games per season, countries may only play around 10 which makes it far harder to gauge their form and performance.
Even then, there are countless other factors to consider. The players in the squad usually change from international break to international break, managers can be changed between one game and the next, and some countries don’t play their home matches in the same ground every time either.
With the World Cup in Russia fast approaching, bettors want to know how teams are likely to perform. As there will be little more than a handful of friendlies to turn to when assessing recent form, we need as much other data as we can get our hands on.
Teams who finish 3rd at the World Cup traditionally fail to qualify for the next tournament for some reason, but does the performance of teams in qualifying translate to the finals themselves?
As 78 of the 80 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 five editions from 1998 to 2014. We’ll exclude hosts as they all automatically reach the finals, and also Brazil 1998 and France 2002, as they qualified as reigning champions.
Europe have sent either 13 or 14 teams to the recent World Cups, with a total of 67 teams appearing at the last five World Cup tournaments (though many have appeared more than once of course).
Of those, 44 have reached the finals thanks to winning their qualification groups, with 23 either qualifying via a play off, or in three instances by being the best runner-up across the European groups.
If we look at how far teams got through the tournament, then there is a correlation between qualifying automatically and getting further, as you would expect.
This stands to reason, as the strongest teams should top their groups. However, there are exceptions, and 18 of the 44 group winners have fallen at the first hurdle for starters.
This issue hasn’t only affected weaker group winners either; both Italy and Spain went out in the group stage when defending champions in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Both nations have also won their qualifying group but gone out in the first round on one other occasion within the last five World Cups, and footballing giants like England and Portugal have done it too.
However, nine of the 12 European sides to reach the semi-finals or better in the last five tournaments have won their qualification groups. One of the three others was Germany, who rarely fail to qualify automatically anyway, and no side has done it since both they and Turkey did so in 2002.
But even the big nations usually struggle to get too far when needing a play-off 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 last sixteen, and the same was true of Portugal four years later.
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This year’s play-off winners were Croatia, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. It would be a surprise anyway if any of them were to reach the last four in Russia, but history is not on their side either. While all rules have exceptions, it’s generally true that only teams who qualify automatically from the UEFA pool have decent tournaments at the main event.
With far fewer teams in their continent, South America relies on a simple league featuring all of the nations. The top four qualify automatically, with the fifth side taking part in a play-off with a team from another confederation.
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
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 2 matches, or finished below first in the South American qualifying group.
The continent’s other team who made the final after having to qualify in this period were Argentina, last time out. 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, as they achieved this unwanted feat in 2002, and are the only South American side to do this in the last five World Cups.
Although there are exceptions, the general trend when getting to the last eight-or-better is clear. Four out of the last five group winners have made the quarter finals, two each of from the teams who finished second and third, and just one of the teams who finished fourth. In South America, the better a nation qualifies, the better they tend to perform.
For the record, Brazil won the 2018 qualifying group, and were followed by Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Peru (who beat New Zealand in a play-off).
History might suggest the Argentines will struggle to reach the last eight, but the draw suggests they definitely have a chance. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.
By combining the two continents, we have an almost even split of 49 sides who topped their group to qualify, and 46 who did not. Here are their performance statistics:
Overall qualifcation record vs World Cup progress
It’s surprising to see that a higher proportion of group winners have fallen at the first hurdle, but they’ve had more teams reach every stage from the last eight onwards.
Like any betting system, this isn’t flawless. There are many exceptions as have been highlighted here, and seeding for the group stage draw are not entirely determined by qualification performance.
The nature of the draw also means that two European group winners can be drawn together, as has happened for the 2018 finals with Portugal and Spain in Group B, and Belgium and England in Group G. As one will finish second in the group, it makes it 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.