Like many of the world’s soccer fans, excitement for the 2014 World Cup has taken me over. In my passion, I have enjoyed delving into the various rating systems and statistics in an attempt to fill out my brackets and predict a winner. The answer: Brazil, Germany, Spain, and Argentina can all claim front-runner status, but any one of a dozen teams could end up taking the coveted trophy home with them. So much for fool-proof predictions.
The kindred spirits over at FiveThirtyEight have also pursued this hopeless task of ranking the teams in Brazil this month. Today, they posted a particularly interesting article where they standardized the scores of three other prominent rating systems and compared them against their own. I found their chart interesting not so much because the systems had any clear consensus on a champion, but rather because it showed which national sides generated the most and least consensus. I find consensus very useful in the prediction game. For instance, in my yearly fantasy football draft, I often use fantasypros.com for my cheat sheet. They combine the predictions of dozens of forecasters. It tends to remove the bias that individuals and their systems have for or against certain players or teams. We have bias. We must recognize the bias and account for it. The consensus cheat sheet provides a purer measurement of predicted value for every player. It won’t always win me a championship. Injuries happen and fantasy football playoffs remain a crapshoot, but I find myself in the playoffs year after year.
As I observed the great chart that Nate Silver populated, I quickly began calculating which teams had the largest and smallest spreads between their highest and lowest rating from the four ranking systems. Below, I list the 11 most predictable or volatile teams in the 2014 World Cup.
Why: Most raters have Switzerland rated as a mediocre to poor World Cup side. They do have potential, but most of that potential rests in a young crop of immigrants working their way up through the Bundesliga and Serie A. Switzerland makes the volatile list largely because of their strength in the much-criticized FIFA rankings. FIFA only takes world cup qualification into account, where the other rankings consider friendlies, player form, player worth, and other factors. The Swiss advanced to Brazil by dominating a weak qualification group. However, that group happened to reside in UEFA, FIFAs favorite regional federation. Switzerland has a chance to make noise in this tournament, but only if Europe is as strong as FIFA believes it is.
Predictable: Ivory Coast
Why: It surprised me to see all four rankings predict a poor performance from the Ivory Coast. They still have the world class talent that marked their golden generation. On closer inspection, I realize that much of that talent has gotten a little long in the tooth. Stars Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba have 31 years and 36 years, respectively. Anything past 30 constitutes old age for a soccer player. Ivory Coast benefits from a weak group after tough draws in 2006 and 2010, but no one expects anything past the round of sixteen from the elephants.
Three of the ranking systems expect nothing from Cameroon except a swift exit. Transfermarkt, a site that lists the likely transfer fees for professional soccer players, believes the Lions could at least steal a couple of points from their Group A competitors. Players like Samuel Eto’o, Alex Song, and others that dot Europe’s domestic leagues provide Cameroon with the name-brand recognition. If they hope to reach their subpar ceiling, those players must step up.
Why: The lack of expectations for this year’s England team feels a little unusual, but their outcome likely won’t surprise any supporters. All four ranking systems believe the Three Lions have talent, but none believe they have the ceiling to win the whole thing. England will escape the group only to suffer another disappointing exit in quarterfinals. Same story, different year.
Why: Like Switzerland, FIFA likes Greece far more than the other systems because they qualified through UEFA. At the other end of the spectrum, Tranfermarkt abhors the utter lack of star power on the team. No one on Greece plays for a team any average American fan would recognize. The Greeks could totally flame out, but they have a precedent for a completely unforeseen championship run. They entered the European Championships with little history and low expectations and shocked the world by winning the whole thing.
Predictable: Costa Rica
Why: So long, Costa Rica. Thank you for playing. The only difference in the rating systems is whether Costa Rica will perform poorly or worse. They qualified well, but they arrive from CONCACAF, one of the weaker regions. Beyond their inherent team weaknesses, Costa Rica suffered the misfortune of falling into one of the strongest groups as the only weak team. Costa Rica should consider it a victory to take a single point from the likes of England, Italy and Uruguay.
Volatile: United States
Why: My beloved national team enters this world cup with so many questions. I would both believe it if they finished last in their group or if they made a run to the quarterfinals. The team profiles as a slightly better Greece. FIFA likes the US because we conquered CONCACAF en route to Brazil. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has produced a solid overall record since taking over the team in 2011 and the US has had better results against the high caliber results they will likely see in the World Cup. However, the Transfermarkt would seriously question Klinsmann’s decision to bring a young and untested team to the Finals. The coach left off at least one player who would have certainly improved that ranking, US legend Landon Donovan, in favor of the likes of 19-year-old Julian Green. Anything could happen.
Why: Iran has no soccer history and qualified from the second weakest region in the world. Pencil them in for zero points in group play and move on. All rating systems see Iran as overmatched.
Very Volatile: France
Why: The various rankings have good reason for being all over the board with the schizophrenic French soccer team. Ratings that include player talent and form like Transfermarkt and SPI love the French. With world class players like Benzema, Evra, and Lloris, France should contend for the Cup, even with Frank Ribery sidelined with a back injury. With few notable exceptions, most of the soccer playing world envies France’s talent pool. Unfortunately, that talent doesn’t always gel like it should. The FIFA and ELO rankings take exception because of a less direct qualification season. The French needed every goal in a 3-0 home win over Ukraine in their final match to reach Brazil. Even France’s recent World Cup history demonstrates their boom or bust nature. Over the last four Cups, they have alternated two finals appearances (including the 1998 Championship) and two first round exits (including one team mutiny). If the trend holds, the French would play in this year’s championship match. With an easy group, they appear primed for a long run, but they may flame out just to prove their unpredictability.
Very Predictable: Russia
Why: The four rating systems share the most consensus about Russia. They all believe the Russians are thoroughly mediocre. They played well enough to emerge from UEFA qualification, but every single player on the team plays in the Russian domestic league, a second-rate league. You could easily mark the Russians down for four points. That sometimes gets you to the second round. Sometimes that sends you to a quick exit. Regardless, I can say with certainty that Russia will not have a long run in the 2014 World Cup.
Very Volatile: Chile
The SPI and the Tranfermarkt rankings vehemently disagree on Chile’s ceiling in this world cup. SPI ranks the South American squad fifth in the field and would back a deep tournament run, perhaps even an outside shot at the whole thing. Chile qualified comfortably in CONMEBOL over the likes of Ecuador and Uruguay. SPI feels the same way about the South American region as FIFA does about UEFA, seeing CONMEBOL as far and away the strongest region this qualification cycle. However, Transfermarkt doesn’t see many of Chile’s players commanding high transfer fees. They lack the international star power of even the two other contenders in their crowded group. If the players of Spain and the Netherlands play up to their lofty potential, Chile could face an early dismissal. No other team has such potential for joy or despair.
Of course, this shows just why we watch world soccer. We think we know certain outcomes, but the game can surprise us. I wish to see something extraordinary.