You probably think you know everything there is to know about Friday’s event. You know the four seeded pots by heart. You know the procedure inside and out. You know what group stage matchups you want to see, and why. You might even know why Poland is in Pot 1 and Spain isn’t.
If you think you know everything there is to know, then this column is for you. Because you’re wrong.
There are so many intricacies embedded within an event that seems so simplistic. There are so many scenarios to consider, so many details to be cognizant of.
The following points are by no means a comprehensive list of those intricacies. But they dive deeper into the draw than you probably have. They get nerdier about it than you probably thought possible. We’ll begin with a chart, and a bunch of tiny numbers.
1. Not all group stage possibilities are created equal — Due to the geographical restrictions, some pairings are far more likely than others. For example, Serbia has, roughly, a 6.2 percent chance of drawing Spain from Pot 2, but a 32.9 percent chance of drawing Mexico. The reasoning is very complicated, but a full chart of percentages, based on 20 million simulations, is below, courtesy of soccer stats wiz MisterChip:
Here you have the probabilities for every single pair of national teams based on 20.000.000 simulations and using the official rules announced by FIFA last monday #WorldCupDraw pic.twitter.com/YCZFSLLrwX
— MisterChip (English) (@MisterChiping) November 29, 2017
For the most part, the chart backs up our knowledge based on a brief examination of the pots and the process. The European teams in Pot 1 are more likely to draw a South American team than a fellow European team from Pot 2. The lowest percentages of all are for Serbia against a European team from Pot 3, because that would require a Mexico-Brazil or Mexico-Argentina match from Pots 1 and 2.
Some more thought about those procedures and probabilities uncovers interesting elements of Friday’s reveal. But first, some simple percentages that stand out:
2. Notable matchup probabilities — A non-South American team in Pot 2 – Spain, England, Croatia, Switzerland, Mexico – has a 40 percent chance of drawing either Brazil or Argentina. Because of that Mexico probability, though, Brazil and Argentina are the two unlikeliest Pot 1 partners for Costa Rica.
Serbia has a 48 percent chance of getting one of those two South American giants, but the Yugoslav Derby against Croatia is a long shot at 6.2 percent. Elsewhere, Iran has a greater than 57 percent chance of being paired with either Nigeria or Morocco.
3. Pot 1 probabilities hinge on group placement — The closer a Pot 1 European team is to Group A, the more likely it is to draw a fellow European team from Pot 2. Again, the reasoning is a bit complex, but a European Pot 1 team in Group B has a 50 percent chance of being matched up with a second European team from Pot 2. (A European Pot 1 team in Group H has a significantly lesser chance.)
The question is whether that’s advantageous. On one hand, a Group B placement leaves a European side more vulnerable to Spain. On the other, it increases its chances at Switzerland. And, crucially …
4. The European teams in Pot 1 really want Switzerland — And they might even take Croatia ahead of Peru. That’s because the Euro-Euro double right off the bat means those teams automatically avoid Sweden and Denmark – two of the top three teams in Pot 3 – and Serbia – the best or second-best team in Pot 4.
5. Rooting for an African team from Pot 3 — The other Pot 4 outlier is Nigeria. Every Pot 1 and 2 team, therefore, is hoping for Tunisia or Egypt from Pot 3. (Not Senegal, though. Senegal is almost as good as Nigeria anyway.)
So, if you’re following, the ideal draw for Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal or Poland is Switzerland from Pot 2 and Tunisia from Pot 3. You then take your chances that you’ll get Saudi Arabia or Panama, rather than Japan, from Pot 4.
6. The Mexico-South America scenarios — After Pots 1 and 2 have been emptied, either one or zero groups will be without a European team. As mentioned above, that group would be either Mexico-Argentina or Mexico-Brazil. That would lead to a very interesting Pot 3 draw. Mexico and the South American team would then be hoping for one of the three European teams, rather than hoping to avoid them, because if they avoid them, they are guaranteed Serbia from Pot 4.
7. All pots matter … even Pot 1 — The least dramatic portion of the draw is the Pot 1 unveilings. But they’re not meaningless. In addition to the point about European teams above, the order in which teams are drawn could determine knockout round matchups. A1 plays B2 in the Round of 16, A2 plays B1, C1 plays D2, and so on.
That’s not to say Germany in Group C and Brazil in Group D would spell Round of 16 doom. If both win their groups, they’d go to opposite sides of the bracket, and couldn’t meet until the final. But what an alignment like that does do is leaves those teams vulnerable to a Pot 2 power. If, say, Spain were to join Brazil in Group C, that’s not only tough luck for Brazil; it’s brutal for Germany, who would be virtually guaranteed to face one of the two at the first knockout stage.
8. Immediate drama — The most important Pot 1 ball drawn will be that first one. Knockout round matchups with Russia’s group – likely to be the weakest – are a major plus. In general, independent of group foes, everybody wants to be in Group B.
9. The Group of Life — There won’t be a Group of Death. And there won’t be too many evenly balanced groups, either. But – and this is kind of stating the obvious – as long as Spain doesn’t join Russia, Group A has great potential as a “any of these four teams could realistically advance” group.
10. The positions within a group matter — By positions, we mean, for example, C2, C3 and C4. There’s no one golden rule for which slot is best, but just know that a team in position 2 plays the team in position 1 first, then 4, then 3. Position 3 plays 4, then 1, then 2. Position 4 plays 3, then 2, then 1. The Pot 1 team is automatically in position 1, but the other three placements are random.
The one rooting guideline for neutrals: We don’t want a good Pot 2 team in position 4. That opens up the possibility of a relatively meaningless game on the final day of the group. Better to have that clash of giants in the first or second round of matches.
11. Is there a Russian Manaus? — The specific positions – B1, G3, D2, F4, whatever – matter as well, because match locations are already locked in. And no two travel itineraries are the same. Match locations, if you’ll remember, were a big deal in Brazil.
There’s no draining trip to the jungle this time around. There’s no Manaus equivalent. There could be heat, especially in an inland southern city like Volgograd, but there is no unbearable, sapping climate.
Based on an unscientific look at the match calendar and a map of Russia, the positions that require the most travel between the three group stage matches are A3, B2, D4 and F3. For example, D4 takes a team to Kaliningrad (far west, Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea) for its opener, then down to Volgograd, then back up to Saint Petersburg.
But no flight should be any more than four hours. So, while potentially inconvenient for fans, the travel shouldn’t have much effect, if any, on players and teams.
More FC Yahoo coverage of the 2018 World Cup Draw
- How the World Cup Draw works
- The most enticing potential group stage matchups
- Why FIFA’s new seeding system will prevent a Group of Death
- Gaming the FIFA Rankings: Why Poland is in Pot 1 ahead of Spain
- World Cup Power Rankings: Brazil, Germany lead the way
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.