The FIFA men’s rankings are almost universally derided as nonsensical. They are not predictive in any way, and they are easily manipulated with smart scheduling. This is a problem, given that they’re the basis for seeding in international tournaments. The 2018 World Cup draw has been set, and the pots are based on FIFA’s bad rankings. But what if they were based on considerably less bad rankings?
Currently, the best thing we have to go on is Elo, a system used to rate chess players. No one’s publicly released a widely respected and proven ranking system like KenPom or Sagarin (which uses Elo as a component) for soccer, but we do have reason to believe that Elo is a lot better than FIFA’s men’s rankings. Even FIFA seems to have some idea that this is case, since its women’s rankings are based on Elo and much more predictive than its men’s rankings.
Using information from eloratings.net, here’s what the World Cup draw pots would look like if Elo was the ranking system, leaving Russia as a Pot 1 team for being hosts.
And for comparison, here are the actual World Cup draw pots. Some big differences stand out.
England and Spain are underrated, Belgium and Poland overrated
Poland got a top seed for the real World Cup draw, but Elo ranks them as the 15th-0best qualifier. Conversely, Spain is a Pot 2 team in real life, but Elo thinks they’re the third-best team in the world. Belgium and England also swap pots if Elo is used to rank teams, which English fans will likely find outrageous.
Don’t sleep on Asia’s best
You probably haven’t heard much hype for Japan or Iran, but Elo likes them quite a bit more than FIFA. Whichever group they get drawn into in December are unlikely to be considered the “Group of Death,” but perhaps they should be.
What are the best possible groups in the World Cup?
It’s fun to consider what the draw might look like with good rankings, but it’s probably even more fun to use Elo to look at the best possible real-life draw scenarios.
The group with the highest possible ELO rating is: Brazil, Spain, Iran and Serbia. But some other scenarios are even juicier.
There’s also a great way to get two almost equally nasty groups of death. Brazil, Spain, Sweden, and Japan could be in one group, while Germany, Colombia, Iran, and Serbia could make up another. Argentina, England, Denmark, and Australia would make up the next strongest possible group in that scenario, leaving us with three groups where every game is must-watch.
What’s the weakest possible group?
Unsurprisingly, all of the weakest possible groups feature Russia. The host’s Elo rank of 45 means they’re probably better than FIFA’s ranking of 65 suggests, but they’re only ahead of four other teams. They also all feature Saudi Arabia, the lowest-rated team in the World Cup.
Russia, Mexico, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia would make up the worst possible group, according to Elo. While El Tri supporters might not be a fan of that disrespect, they’ll certainly be pleased if that group pops up during the draw on Dec. 1.