World Cup 2018 seeding, and the anatomy of a Group of Death

The 2014 World Cup Draw didn’t quite offer up a true Group of Death. Will the 2018 edition do so? (Getty)

World Cup qualifying is in the books. That means the field for the 2018 tournament next summer in Russia is set. It also means seeding for the 2018 World Cup Draw has been confirmed. And it means two weeks of speculation, dreaming, online draw simulators and endless discussion can commence.

The 2018 World Cup Draw will be similar to past iterations, but with one small, though important, tweak. The seeding process this time around was different. In years past, the host and the top seven teams in the FIFA Rankings went into Pot 1, and the rest of the pots were set based on geography.

This year, Pots 2-4 have also been filled out based on the FIFA Rankings. But the geographical stipulations remain in place. No two teams from the same region can be drawn into the same group, with the exception of Europe, which can have two teams per group.

The new system leaves us with a much more hierarchical seeding structure. Here are the pots for the draw, which will take place Dec. 1 in Moscow:

2018 WORLD CUP SEEDING

Pot 1: Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France
Pot 2: Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia
Pot 3: Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran
Pot 4: Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

The FIFA Rankings aren’t perfect, so the seeding isn’t either. Three of the four favorites are in Pot 1, but the top two pots are very similar in overall strength. Russia, of course, is the outlier. If it weren’t the host, it would be seeded in Pot 4 as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams.

Now let’s look at the pots another way. As we move toward delving into the implications of the seeding, here they are again, but this time with a team’s standing in FC Yahoo’s first 2018 World Cup Power Rankings in parentheses:

Pot 1: Brazil (1), Germany (2), France (4), Belgium (5), Argentina (6), Portugal (8), Poland (13), Russia (21)
Pot 2: Spain (3), England (7), Uruguay (9), Colombia (10), Mexico (11), Croatia (12), Switzerland (14), Peru (15)
Pot 3: Sweden (18), Senegal (19), Denmark (20), Iceland (22), Iran (24), Egypt (25), Costa Rica (27), Tunisia (30)
Pot 4: Serbia (16), Nigeria (17), Japan (23), Morocco (26), South Korea (28), Australia (29), Panama (31), Saudi Arabia (32)

The average ranking of the eight Pot 1 teams is 7.5. Pot 2’s average is 10.1. Pot 3’s is 23.1. Pot 4’s is 25.3.

Crucially, the top 15 teams all made it into Pots 1 and 2, which explains why the gulf in the above averages is between Pots 2 and 3. The new seeding system will make for more balanced groups. There’s no Mexico lurking among lowly Asian and Central American teams. There’s no Colombia or Uruguay alongside Tunisia and Morocco.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal opinion. But the main side-effect of the equity is clear: A true Group of Death is very unlikely.

THE ANATOMY OF A 2018 WORLD CUP GROUP OF DEATH

Let’s first define a Group of Death. In its truest form, the term is used to label a group of four teams that, in a vacuum, would expect to advance to the knockout round. It’s debatable whether anybody in Pot 3 or 4 at the 2018 World Cup Draw fits that bill.

But “Group of Death” has come to simply mean the toughest of the eight groups. It was Brazil, Portugal, the Ivory Coast and North Korea in 2010. It was Spain, Chile, the Netherlands and Australia – or Germany, Portugal, the United States and Ghana – in 2014. The 2018 draw can give us similarly treacherous pods of four. Let’s take a look at how.

Pot 1 — If we’re getting greedy, we’d ask for Germany, Brazil, or France. But really any group that doesn’t include Russia or Poland has Group of Death potential.

Pot 2 — With Spain clearly the Pot 2 giants, any group that includes La Furia Roja will be among the most difficult. But England or Uruguay could make for a deathly experience, too. A group featuring Colombia or Mexico could qualify as well.

Pot 3 — Pot 3 is where the definition begins to stretch. Sweden with Zlatan Ibrahimovic would probably be the pick of the bunch. Senegal could cause problems for nations from the top two pots as well. Denmark, if its the fourth best team in the group, could also perhaps contribute.

Pot 4 — It’s Serbia, Nigeria or bust. OK, maybe Japan. But the Nigerians are the ones to really be wary of from Pot 4, especially because they’re more likely to be drawn with Sweden or Denmark from Pot 3. A Group of Death involving Serbia would likely have to include Senegal. (Serbia can only be drawn with Sweden or Denmark if the group’s Pot 2 team is Mexico, and if its Pot 1 team is either Argentina or Brazil. That would be a Group of Death, but because of the geographical rules, explained above, it’s unlikely to materialize.)

So, what’s the best we could come up with?

POSSIBLE GROUPS OF DEATH

The toughest single group would probably be Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Nigeria. If we wanted a second, we could get Germany, England, Senegal and Japan. And a third? Argentina, Mexico, Denmark and Serbia.

POSSIBLE GROUPS OF LIFE

On the other hand, any truly easy group will include Russia or Poland. The top “Group of Life” would probably be Russia, Peru, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. A second could be Poland, Switzerland, Egypt and Panama. After that, all or most of the nations in Pots 1 and 2 will be decided favorites to advance.

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.