The seedings did their job. Amid the slew of negativity surrounding Russia 2018 — from struggles to find sponsors to a Russian FA president having to spend the day before the draw denying allegations of systematic doping — this was perhaps the biggest takeaway: we will see a World Cup like no other with balanced groups and, more than ever before, clear favorites to advance.
FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) has 10 teams with at least a 70 percent chance of advancing into the Round of 16. And while you can quibble with statistical projections, even a basic eye test suggests that on paper at least, none of the big boys (certainly none of the bookmakers’ favorites) appear to be in serious danger of missing out.
That certainly wasn’t the case in past World Cups, and it sets up the possibility of plenty of legitimate heavyweight clashes in the knockout rounds. (How you define heavyweight is subjective, of course, but if you go back to look at the Round of 16 in 2014 or in 2010, you’ll see what I mean.)
That’s good for sponsors, ratings and neutrals, provided things go according to plan. And that, thankfully, is often the great imponderable.
For example, Portugal and Spain in Group B and England and Belgium in Group G look head and shoulders above the opposition. But you have to actually play the games. And you have to do it within the context and pressure of a World Cup and an expectant nation, as well as within the dynamic of a four-team group.
Imagine, say, Spain thumping Portugal in their opening group game and Morocco doing the same to Iran. A despondent Portugal then face a high-flying Morocco and suddenly, your scenarios and projections go out the window. Similarly, it ought to be straight-forward in Group G too. But one stumble (say, a win turning into a draw) and then you play the other big team in the final game: a loss there and you’re stuck on four points, which will often see you going out.
France (Group C), Argentina (Group D), Brazil (Group E) and Germany (Group F) look a cut above the rest, but it’s relatively open scramble for second place… at least if there’s any power left in the Icelandic thunder clap against Lionel Messi & Co.
Meanwhile, Group H looks legitimately wide open. Colombia and Senegal are both hugely gifted sides that could either go on a tear deep into the tournament or break hearts early on. Poland’s savvy at playing the FIFA Rankings game got them a top seed, but you underestimate a Euro 2016 quarterfinalist at your peril, especially when they have Robert Lewandowski’s broad shoulders to ride on. And while Japan may have disappointed at the last Asian Cup, with a veteran manager in Vahid Halihodzic and plenty of Europe-based talent, they’re going to be a tough out. Not to mention the fact that they advanced from the group stage in two of the last four World Cups.
All of which leaves Group A, the one with hosts Russia. When you’re the lowest-ranked nation in the competition but get a top seed as host, you hope the draw will be kind. In many ways, it was, especially with the “soft landing” opener against Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, the prospect of having to navigate past either Egypt, with the scary pace of Mohamed Salah up front and the physical might of Ahmed Hegazi at the back, and Uruguay, who have qualified the group stage in seven of the past eight major competitions they’ve entered and only boast some $200 million in striking talent, isn’t pretty.
The other obvious thing to remember is that this is the World Cup and that corniest, cheesiest of cliches applies: we get upsets. Lots of them. Don’t let the snobs, primarily from Europe and South America, fool you either. This is not the Champions League; the gap between the haves and have-nots is as tight as it has ever been.
Or do you need a reminder of what happened in 2014, when Croatia, Spain, England, Italy and Portugal all failed to advance from their groups? When Algeria terrified future world champion Germany by taking them into extra-time? When only the woodwork denied Chile that most massive of upsets against hosts Brazil? When Costa Rica took the Dutch to penalties forcing Louis Van Gaal to pull the Tim Krul sleight-of-hand?
When nearly two-thirds of the matches in the tournament (and three-quarters of those in the knockout round) were either stalemates or decided by a single goal? When Argentina managed a single goal in the 90 minutes in four knockout games and still came within a Gonzalo Higuain shot of winning it all.
The fact is, the world is a smaller place. The revamped seedings and Friday’s luck of the draw may make it seem as if the pedigreed nations have a nice, easy highway into the Round of 16, and maybe they do. But if recent history is anything to go by, it might not be quite as straightforward.
And if you’re a neutral, if you love tension, uncertainty and scripts that get torn to shreds by a sudden turn of events, that can only be a good thing. Or so we tell ourselves.