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ANALYSIS: Myth-busting – how crap are the World Cup group matches?

A nerdy look at what to expect from the World Cup group stages

by Aidan Elder | June 5, 2014

In your first round of World Cup myth-busting, we found that yes – most World Cup group games have a tendency to lean towards the Michael Owen side of excitement – very little.

They mostly feature one or two goals and a handful of yellow cards. There are of course numerous exceptions which blow that neat summary out of the water, but in this world of short attention spans the key message is:

group stage matches = below average entertainment

That round of analysis merely whetted our appetite for more group stage nerd-work. It was metaphorically the heavy petting of statistics when we were looking to go for a vigourous bout of sexytime. We wanted more. Namely, we wanted to see if World Cup group stages are getting more or less boring over time and are they really as tentatively contest as we suspect. Do somewhat establish some facts, we examined:

  • How many goals and drama have the group stages provided over time?
  • Are group stage matches as cagey and tight as commonly perceived?

Snoring Or Scoring?

The answer to the first question is not good. Certainly not good if you like decent football and aren’t Sam Allardyce. The average number of goals we’re seeing in the group stages is on the decline. That was always likely to happen after the ‘five a game’ madness of 1954, but even excluding that improbable peak, the last couple of tournaments point towards a grim dystopian future – imagine a team managed by Tony Pulis taking on another team managed by Tony Pulis. Nasty. Here’s some proof:


The average number of goals has mostly hovered around the low-ish 2.5 mark, but it’s dropped below that to 2.44 in 2006 and an all time low of 2.1 in 2010. With so much at stake, it looks like teams are happy to park the bus and throw the keys off a cliff.

But maybe the lack of goals is compensated for by late drama? Sitting through 89 minutes of low-scoring, entertainment free football doesn’t feel like as much of a kick in the pills if it ends in a dramatic late goal. And hopefully a grown man crying – either in the stands or on the pitch.

In this aspect, we seem to be getting more late action. Since 1986, every tournament has featured a late goal (after the 80th minute) in at least 33% of group stage matches with a peak for the period of 52% in 2006. It doesn’t match the 55% of 1954, but it’s certainly better than the comparatively drama-free spell from 1966 and 1986.

There’s a very faint correlation between the average number of goals scored and the rate of games that feature a late goal, but in reality it’s looser than a glamour model who has just been introduced to a Premier League football. If you’re an Over/Under Goals backer, going low is the play.

Everything’s Gonna Be All Tight

The second question seems to go along with the preconception – teams in the group stages of the World Cup like a cagey game more than the Kings of Leon like a nonsensical lyric. Here’s the evidence:


The frequency of draws has remained roughly similar since the arrival of the group stages. 1950 and 1954 represent anomalistic low points on account of the relative imbalance of strength between the teams while 1958 and 1974 seek freakish peaks of stalemates (42% and 38% respectively), but in the majority of other tournaments, draws happen between around 21% and 33% of time.

You could argue that draws are nudging upwards in the longer term, but there are enough dips to ensure it’s far less nailed on than Justin Bieber’s inevitable stint in rehab.

But draws don’t maintain the monopoly on tight games. A moment of genius here, a deflected goal there, a suspect refereeing decision favour South Korea in front of their own supporters everywhere can give a team a narrow win even in a closely contested game. That’s were the ‘one goal margin of victory’ comes in.

Looking at the number of group stage games decided by a single goal, there’s a definite increase in tight games. With just 17% of matches decided by a single goal, 1974 represents the low point of close group stage games, but since then it’s been far higher with frequent forays above the 40% mark and a figure of 35% being around average.

All in all, that means close games are on the increase across the long-term. By compiling the draw and one goal victory figures, we can see that in 2010 a record of 73% of group stages matches were either draws or a one goal win, extending a broad trend that began in 1978.

One of the reasons is the world is getting better at football. The weaker nations (pretty much anyone not considered among the game’s aristocrats) have improved. Except maybe Ireland. They may still lose to the likes of Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and even England etc., but they’re making them work harder for it and that’s reflected in closer scorelines.

Oh yeah – you may laugh when you hear Iran’s goalkeeper plies his trade towards the bottom of the Portuguese second division, but don’t be surprised if the minnows make life more difficult than understanding Brad Pitt’s movie choices.

Sadly, it looks like the received wisdom of World Cup group stages being a bit crap holds true. Still though, things could be worse – we could be spending the summer pretending we care about who West Brom’s new manager is.



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