So much emphasis at the World Cup is put on getting out of the group. If you get out of the group, anything can happen! Technically this is true, but when zero of the teams that finished second in their respective groups at the 2014 World Cup won a game in the round of 16, it made me wonder if this was an anomaly or if it was relatively standard. Here’s what teams that finished second in their group have done in the round of 16 since 1998:
Only 9 teams at the past 5 World Cups have won a round of 16 match when they advanced as the second place team out of their group. 1998 was when the World Cup shifted to 32 teams, so previous World Cups aren’t relevant as third place teams advanced from the group stage too. The teams that did win a round of 16 game after finishing second were Croatia and Denmark in France ’98, England, Senegal, Turkey, and the United States in Korea/Japan ’02, France and Ukraine in Germany ’06, and Ghana in South Africa ’10.
The quarterfinals is where the tournament ended for most of these teams. In 1998, Denmark crashed out against Brazil. In 2002, the United States lost ever so painfully against Germany when Torsten Frings got away with a handball that Thierry Henry would have been proud of, England couldn’t beat eventual champions Brazil, and Senegal was beaten in extra time by fellow second place in the group finishers Turkey. In 2006 Ukraine was defeated by eventual champions Brazil and in 2010 Ghana went out in a riveting match against Uruguay where Luis Suarez’s handball kept Uruguay alive and allowed the match to go to penalties instead of Ghana winning in extra time after Ghana missed the ensuing penalty. Two-thirds of the teams that finished second place in their group that won a round of 16 game could not get past the quarterfinals.
Three teams however did go deeper into the tournament, with one making the final. Croatia advanced to the third place game in ’98, losing to eventual champions France in the semifinals after defeating both Romania and Germany to get there. Croatia then went on to defeat The Netherlands in the third place match. Turkey also finished third in ’02 after advancing as the second place team in their group, knocking off Japan and Senegal to set up a meeting with Brazil in the semifinal. Brazil won, sending Turkey to the third place game, where they defeated co-hosts South Korea. France advanced the furthest of any team who finished second in their group, as they lost in the World Cup Final in 2006 on penalties. They escaped their group with two draws and a win, with the win coming on the final group stage match day, and then defeated Spain, Brazil, and Portugal en route to the final. You might remember how that all went down.
What does all this mean? If you finish second in your group, it’s unlikely that you will win your round of 16 match. From the past 5 World Cups, less than 25% of second place finishers win their next match. Of those who do, 66% go out in the quarterfinals. Only one team that finished second in their group has gone on to play in the World Cup final. Most importantly, there has been no team that finished second in their group that went on to win the World Cup. Winning your group is a big advantage because it gives you an “easier” match up in the round of 16. In a tournament where you have to win 4 games in a row to win it all, an easier route certainly has a lot of upside. Easier might not be the best word though, as in 2014 5 of the 8 round of 16 games went to extra time, two of which ended in penalties. Having to likely beat three teams who won their group instead of four certainly increases your odds of winning it all, and in a tournament where teams often live and die by extremely thin margins, any way you can make your route to the final easier is one you should capitalize on.
The paradigm shift here is that as the US gets better, their team World Cup goals must change. Getting out of the group should no longer be the target, but winning the group. Winning your group sets you up for a better chance to make a deep run into the World Cup. Certainly this isn’t plausible with every group (say one with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana perhaps?) but it is worth knowing that your odds of making a deep run increase dramatically if you win your group, and perhaps gambling a bit more in the group stage when provided with a chance to win it has more upside than previously thought. Would this knowledge have shifted the tactics that the USMNT used against Germany in their final group stage game? Unlikely, but certainly something to think about going forward.