World Cup Group Assignments

The highly anticipated draw for the 2018 World Cup took place in a snowy Moscow on Friday. Here is a breakdown of the eight groups for the tournament, which begins with Russia vs Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in the capital on June 14. 

Group A

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay: The hosts had the advantage of avoiding some of the biggest hitters like Brazil and Germany with their position in pot one, but will still be challenged in a group which includes Egypt, who will have high hopes for one of the Premier League's in-form players in Mohamed Salah, and a Uruguay side packed with quality playing throughout Europe's major leagues and spearheaded by Luis Suarez; Uruguay will surely be the favourites to top the group given their smooth qualification. The opener against Saudi Arabia is not the glamour tie organisers might have hoped for but is an opportunity to get off to a winning start for the hosts. Saudi Arabia will have their work cut out to qualify but this is a fairly open group – and the lowest in terms of cumulative world rankings – which will be difficult to predict. 

Group B

Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran: The third game of the tournament will be the first heavyweight clash: the Iberian derby. On paper it appears one of the strongest groups with Morocco one of the most impressive teams in African qualifying (they did not concede a goal), up against the reigning European champions Portugal and the 2010 World Cup winners Spain. Iran will be unfancied by that will suit Carlos Queiroz's well-organised team who have enough quality and spirit to spring a surprise along the way. 

Group C

France, Australia, Peru, Denmark: France will begin Group C as strong favourites to progress with a multi-talented squad at Didier Deschamps' disposal but there is no obvious weakness in the group and they will need to avoid the kind of mistakes in qualifying which led to defeat against Sweden and a draw with Luxembourg. Australia are in a state of limbo following the resignation of coach Ange Postecoglou in November but have strength in midfield with Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy and Celtic's Tom Rogic, as well as the evergreen Tim Cahill. Peru are the least fancied of the South American teams but have some talented young players, while Denmark will need Christian Eriksen at his best – as he was in the play-offs against Republic of Ireland – in order to progress. 

Group D

Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria: On paper this is another strong and open group. Argentina will understandably be the favourites with Lionel Messi determined to finally claim a major trophy for his country, but they struggled in qualifying and all three of their opponents in Group D will fancy their chances against Jorge Sampaoli's team. It is Groundhog Day for Nigeria who face Argentina for the fifth time in their six World Cups, though they won impressively when the two teams came up against each other in a recent friendly. Iceland will be hopeful of taking the thunder clap on another memorable run in a major tournament while Croatia tick when Luka Modric does; Iceland beat Croatia to top spot in their qualifying group to reach Russia. 

Can Lionel Messi finally win a trophy with Argentina? (AFP/Getty Images)

Group E

Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia: Brazil were one of the teams to avoid and it seems likely Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia will be battling for the remaining qualifying place. The Swiss needed a play-off win over Northern Ireland to make it to the tournament but have sparks of quality in their squad in Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber. Costa Rica reached the last eight four years ago and are tricky to predict but will fancy their chances once more, while Serbia's confident qualification – in which they only lost once – makes the team with Nemanja Matic in central midfield a potential threat. 

Group F

Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea: Germany are the reigning champions and are the slight favourites for the tournament, just ahead of Brazil in most quarters. It is another group that appears set up for a fierce battle for second spot, with Mexico leading the way after a convincing qualification and Javier Hernandez in their front line. They will face a South Korea side currently under the management of their youth coach following the sacking of Uli Stielike in June in the wake of some less than convincing displays, and Sweden who lack the superstar quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic but remain a well-organised force. 

Germany are the reigning world champions (Getty Images)

Group G

Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England: England avoided some of the biggest names in world football but it would be wrong to consider the group an easy one, with Belgium producing a record-breaking qualifying campaign. However Kevin De Bruyne publicly criticised Roberto Martinez's tactics last month and it is clearly not a totally settled camp. Panama are a hard-working but callow team albeit with an experienced leader in manager Hernan Dario Gomez, who has coached Colombia at four World Cups, while Tunisia topped their qualifying group to reach Russia and have plenty of unpredictable attacking flair which England must find a way to contain. 

Group H

Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan: This might just be the weakest group in the tournament, on paper, as the only group without a former World Cup winner, but it could also provide a compelling contest between four reasonably well-matched teams. Robert Lewandowski is the standout player, having racked up 16 goals to drag his country to Russia, while Sadio Mane will have a similar level of expectation on his shoulders when Senegal take on Poland in the group's opening game. Colombia finished fourth in South American qualifying and in James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao they have abundant ability in the final third. Japan have an experience both on the pitch in Maya Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki and on the touchline in Vahid Halilhodzic.

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Before the World Cup draw on Friday, there was reason to suspect that Russia would get off easy. As the host country, it was slotted into Pot 1, which made it impossible for them to be grouped with a powerhouse like Brazil or Germany. But it looks like the Russians also had a little luck on their side. In fact, by one metric, Russia’s Group A is the weakest group in modern World Cup history.

Based on Elo ratings — a measure of a team’s quality that takes into account factors such margin of victory, game importance and game location — Russia’s group with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia has an average rating of 1720, which is 98 points worse than the average of all World Cup teams. That’s the largest gap between group strength and the World Cup average for any group in the World Cup since the expansion to the modern format in 1986.1

Luck of the draw?

The easiest groups in expanded World Cup history based on the difference between average Elo rating of group and the average of the tournament, 1986-2018

YEARGROUPTEAM 1TEAM 2TEAM 3TEAM 4AVG. ELO RATINGDIFF. FROM TOURNAMENT AVG.
2018ASaudi ArabiaEgyptRussiaUruguay1720-97.8
2014HAlgeriaBelgiumSouth KoreaRussia1734-92.0
2010FParaguayItalySlovakiaNew Zealand1713-66.9
2006GFranceSwitzerlandSouth KoreaTogo1732-57.2
2002BParaguaySouth AfricaSpainSlovenia1749-53.0
1998BAustriaCameroonChileItaly1747-52.3
2002CBrazilTurkeyChinaCosta Rica1750-51.8
1986BBelgiumMexicoIraqParaguay1757-45.0
2006HSaudi ArabiaTunisiaUkraineSpain1744-44.7
1994DArgentinaGreeceNigeriaBulgaria1757-43.6

The Russians avoided a whammy each time a pingpong ball was selected. After Uruguay joined them as the group’s Pot 2 team — Uruguay is middle of the pack, with an 1849 Elo rating — things really started going Russia’s way. Egypt, which has the second-weakest Elo of any team in Pot 3, was drawn, and the group was rounded out with Saudi Arabia, which has the lowest Elo in the field of 32. Compared with all of the potential ways Russia’s draw could have played out, its group ended up being among the easiest 2.2 percent of all possible combinations, according to the average Elo rating of its members.

(Of course, this is even better news for Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, because they get to face Russia — the worst Pot 1 team by a wide margin — in addition to one another.)

While Group A is the easiest when compared to the 2018 World Cup field, it actually doesn’t hold the claim for lowest raw score among all groups since 1986. That distinction belongs to Group F in 2010, which featured the defending champion Italy, Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. No team from this group would make it past the quarterfinals.

That said, Russia should stroll into the knockout stage. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight is giving Russia a 74 percent chance of advancing that far, with Uruguay followed closely behind with a 72 percent chance of reaching the knockouts.

Using Elo averages, no group in this next World Cup cracks the top 10 most difficult since 1986, but all are obviously tougher than Group A. Here’s a look at which teams should advance from each:

Group B is projected to be the strongest in the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, and will be headlined by an early game between old rivals Portugal and Spain, which will face off for just the second time at a World Cup. The Iberian Peninsula neighbors met for the first time in 2010, when the Spaniards won 1-0 on their way to the country’s first ever World Cup victory. And the duo could meet again on the grandest stage of them all: They have the highest combined chance of making the final of any two teams in the same group.

Powerhouse France, coming off a loss in the finals of the 2016 European Championship to Portugal, will be looking to move through and claim its second ever World Cup trophy. Peru owns a 47 percent chance to make its second-ever knockout stage appearance and first since being defeated by Pelé’s Brazil in Mexico in 1970.

After scraping through the qualifying stages, Argentina is the clear favorite in Group D, with a 74 percent chance of advancing. But all eyes will be on Iceland, which famously beat England in the 2016 Euros on their way to the quarterfinals, to see if the country of just 330,000 people can go on another magical run. And they may be ready to shock the world again: Iceland’s chance of advancing to the knockout stage is just 33 percent, which will likely become even smaller after they face the Argentines in its first game.

After its heartbreaking 7-1 defeat by Germany in front of its home fans in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, Brazil will be out for revenge in Russia. The way the tournament’s bracket is set up, Brazil and Germany could be on a collision course to meet in the final if they both win their respective groups. As it stands, Brazil and Germany have the highest and third-highest chances of making the final in 2018.

Group F is in the mix for being this tournament’s “Group of Death” as reigning champions Germany will be joined by Mexico and Sweden. The Mexicans’ and Swedes’ qualifying chances are separated by just 3 percentage points, which is the smallest difference of any teams drawn out of Pots 2 and 3 in the same group. Rounding out the group is South Korea, which famously made it all the way to the semifinals in 2002, when they co-hosted the tournament, and currently have the third-worst SPI rating of any team traveling to Russia. The prize for second place in Group F? A possible date with Brazil in the Round of 16. Good luck.

Belgium and England will be extremely pleased with how the draw turned out for them, as they’re combined chances of making it out of the group stages are the highest of any two teams in the same group. What’s more, they don’t play each other until the final round of group-stage matches, so depending on how they fare against Tunisia and Panama, the Belgians and English could have already qualified by the time they meet.

The Polish could be the most likely team from Pot 1 to fail to qualify for the knockout stage, as they currently have the second-lowest SPI rating of any team from Pot 1. They’ll be joined by Colombia and Japan, which have a 70 percent and 49 percent chance of advancing to the knockout stage, respectively. This means that Group H is the only group that has three teams with at least a 49 percent chance of making it out of the group stage. With the Colombians ranked the ninth-best team in the tournament and the Japanese being the highest-ranked team of any from Pot 4, Poland faces one of the toughest tests of teams from Pot 1.

Additional contributions from Neil Paine and Dean Strachan.

CORRECTION (Dec. 4, 10:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Colombia’s and Japan’s chances of making it to the knockout stage of the 2018 World Cup were 2 percentage points apart. Poland’s and Japan’s are 2 percentage points apart.

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