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ANALYSIS: Can my team still win the World Cup?

Can teams overcome a disappointing group stage turn it around to win the World Cup?

by Aidan Elder | June 18, 2014

That’s it. We’ve seen every team in action at least once. And we’ve seen inaction from quite a few. Spain, Portugal, Uruguay and England were some of the big names beaten in their opening games of the tournament and they’ve very little margin for error from now on.

Being the group stages, the defeats weren’t fatal, but can teams turn it around after a less than encouraging start? Spain spring to mind after they lost their opening game in 2010 before going on to win their first World Cup, but is that sort of Lazarus-like recovery common? The Paddy Power Blog team have nerded their way through the history books to see if teams can still win the World Cup after patchy performances in the group stages.

#1 Not if they concede more than 3 goals in the group stages

With Spain and Portugal slipping to heavy opening defeats, the interweb was full of comments pointing out that although the scorelines were about as encouraging as a doctor bringing in a box of Kleenex as he or she is about to give you the diagnosis, it was but a single defeat and two wins would see them through.

That may well be the case, but the stats don’t look good for their chances of going on and winning the tournament. ‘Once a leaky defence, always a leaky defence’ is the not-quite-a-proverb to back up that claim.

If you’re conceding goals in the group stage matches, the chances are you won’t be able to fix it in time to suddenly become world beaters, concede goals in the knock-out phase and facing better quality opponents, the chances are you’ll be watching an in-flight movie on the way home before the tournament reaches a climax.

Only once in the history of the 17 World Cups with group stages has a team that conceded more than three goals in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. That was West Germany in 1954. They conceded a whopping nine goals in the group stage, but the slightly extenuating circumstances were that eight of those came against the famous Hungarian team of the era that couldn’t follow-up by beating the West Germans in the final.

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Since then, the most goals the eventual winners have conceded in the group stage is three (in this case we’re talking only about the first group stage, not the second group stage where applicable). And that’s only happened four times in 14 tournaments. Generally, it’s one, two or, on two occasions, no goals conceded.

#2 Probably not if they don’t win their group

The beauty of the group stage is you can afford to be less than perfect and still progress, saving your best stuff for the knockout stages. That’s the theory and its strong enough that many teams are still clutching at that particular straw this time around. Yes, you’re likely to face stronger opposition in the second round, but you’re still in it and that’s got to count for something.

It does. Kind of. Both practice and theory tell us you can still win the World Cup without topping your group. At certain points, it was absolutely essential to win your group because only the group winners progressed, but that ended in 1954 and finishing second (and sometimes third) would see you through to the next round. From there, you can find a bit of form and navigate your way to success! Easy.

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Except it’s clearly not easy. Only four times since 1954 have teams who haven’t topped their group gone on to win. The aforementioned West Germany did it in 1954 and then 1974, Argentina did it in 1978 and Italy did it in 1982. That means of the 15 winners since West Germany in the 50s, 11 have been group winners which is a solid if not overwhelming 73%.

Moreover, the importance of winning your group seems to be more relevant now than it was previously. Every winner since Argentina in 1986 has won their group which ended a run of three World Cups in a row in which group runners-up took the title. If you’re second, you’re not quite nowhere, but you are up against it.

#3 It’s unlikely if they’re not scoring regularly

Given the right set of results, you could get through the group stages scoring a single goal and in some extreme cases, possibly scoring no goals. The former is possible, the latter far less likely. Either way, even if it does qualify you for the next round, there’s very little chance you’ll suddenly start thumping the goals and romp your way to glory.

Only once since 1954 have a team gone on to win a World Cup averaging less than a goal a game in the group stages. True to their catenaccio stereotype, Italy managed to score just two goals in the group stages in 1982, but that was enough for three draws and progress to the second group stage. In general, you need to average more than a goal a game. Five teams averaging 1.33 goals a game in the groups have gone on to win World Cups, but for the most part, the winning team have average well in excess of that with Brazil’s 3.67 a game in 2002 being the high point*.

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All in all, a whopping 94% of World Cup winners have averaged more than a goal a game in the group stages. You don’t need to be racking up huge numbers, but if you’re even slightly goal shy during the group stages, your chances of going all the way look smaller than Piers Morgan’s sense of humility.

(*Uruguay did manage an average of eight per game in 1950, but that was a bit of a farce because they only ended up playing one group game)

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