Friday features one of the great ping pong ball-based spectacles in sports, the draw for the 2010 World Cup. Here’s a quick primer on what will happen and what to root for.
The draw will create 8 groups of 4 teams each. Each group will include one seeded team. The seeds will be determined by . . . well, in point of fact nobody knows exactly how they’ll be determined, because FIFA hasn’t released the seeding formula yet.
But, on the unsolid assumption that they keep the formula the same as last time, the formula will take into account a combination of a country’s average world ranking over the past three years and its performance at the past 2 World Cups. According to these mad geniuses, that formula would churn out the following top 8:
However, FIFA traditionally give one of the seeds to the host country, in a pretty transparent attempt to keep them around longer in the tournament. So replace Portugal with South Africa in the above list.
The rest of the teams are then randomly drawn into the groups by region. So each group will have one unseeded European team, and a combined two unseeded teams from the African, North American, South American, or Asian regions. Unseeded teams from the same region are kept separate for the group round, sort of like how the NCAA handles conference affiliations for March Madness
As a sense of how important it can be to dodge the top 7 seeds, just look at the U.S.’s recent World Cup results:
2006: Drawn with real seeded team (and eventual champ) Italy, U.S. goes 0-2-1 and doesn’t make it out of the group.
2002: Drawn with “seeded” host team South Korea, U.S. makes it out of the group, catches a good Sweet 16 draw against Mexico, and comes within a hideous uncalled handball of making the semis.
1998: Drawn with real seed Germany, U.S. finishes dead-ass effin last.
1994: As hosts, U.S. benefit by being the fake seed, and make it out of the group.
So, from the U.S.'s perspective as an unseeded team, the single best outcome would be to get drawn into the group where South Africa is the fake "seeded" team. SA are way, WAY worse than any of the other 7 teams, even after accounting for home-field advantage. The U.S. would also want to draw one of the weaker Euro teams for their group, someone like Greece or Slovenia. That would make the U.S.’s dream group something like:
The worst case would be to catch one of the tough unseeded Euros AND a top seed that the U.S. can’t surprise. After the Confederations Cup, you’d have to figure that Brazil and Spain would take the U.S. seriously. So the nightmare group would be:
The draw will be live on ESPN and soccernet.com Friday afternoon, so check in and see how the ping pong balls crumble for the U.S. Once the groups are finalized we’ll throw up our trademark early analysis (which, if you’ll recall, nailed the winner of the most recent major tournament).