Monday, December 28, 2009

Soccernomics: A Review

For those of you looking for some interesting reading that doesn't involve vampires, Dan Brown's (in)eloquence, or the incomprehensible ramblings of an ex-Alaskan governor or a tearful conservative TV host, there is some relief. Pick up Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey-And Even Iraq-Are Destined to Become Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport. I'm sorry if what follows roams into book report territory, but it's my post and I can write what I want.

Soccernomics is co-written by Simon Kuper, familiar to some of you as the author of the classic Soccer Against the Enemy and Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War, and Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist. Apparently Kuper likes very long subtitles.

The thrust of Soccernomics is that the authors are seeking a way to understand soccer through statistical analysis in a very general and broad sense.

This basic premise raises a lot of immediate red flags. Taking directly from my friend Pat, soccer is the most continuous of sports, therefore statistical analysis will always play a less important role in soccer than in a sport like baseball. I think everyone agrees with this.

Fortunately, Soccernomics is more than just an attempt to develop a Moneyball approach to soccer (though that is a stated goal of the authors). Additionally, there is no attempt to create the soccer equivalent of baseball's sabremetrics like WHIP or VORP, which are aimed at objectively measuring and analyzing baseball players through statistics. Again, there is some of this is in the book, such as Arsene Wenger's well-known prediliction for statistically tracking his players with stats like meters run during a match, and I can even think of other useful stats like passing percentage that aren't actually discussed by the authors.

Still, Kuper and Szymanski provide some thought provoking statistical analyses. Some of their conclusions have strong merit, others are quite surprising, and still more plainly suffer from glaring deficiencies and biases. In fact, I often found myself simulaneously pointing out many problems with their analyses as I was reading and enoying the book. But my critique comes from the fact that I was so engrossed by the topic and I had very high expectations. I wanted something perfect and earth shattering -- something that would open up a whole new way of looking at soccer -- and what I got was flawed. Yet it was certainly an interesting read. Excellent at times even. But it won't be studied by legions of future team presidents and general managers.

The big caveat here is to always take an attempt at statistically analyzing soccer as a great exercises in sparking a debate, be it a barroom debate or a genuine intellectual one. That's why I liked Soccernomics, not because I'm going to start using its analysis as a way to judge the World Cup, but because I could debate some of its points and conclusions for hours with friends.

The main topic, which bookends Soccernomics, is an analysis of the performance of national teams. This analysis is based on how a particular nation should perform in terms of goal differential when taking into account the country's population, income (GDP per capita), and international experience, and the actual over- or under-performance (in goal differential) against the expected goal difference.

This is a simplistic explanation, as the formula the authors use involves giving each criteria a particular weight and taking into account home field. For example, home field boosts expected goal differential a certain amount, as would be expected, though it does less so in Europe than it does elsewhere across the globe. Not earth shattering on its own (homefield certainly means more to the bag-o-piss throwing Central Americans than it does the Swiss or Italians). Similarly, being twice as rich or twice as large in population correlates to a country having a certaing degree greater expected goal differential.

Some of this leads to surprising results, though when you think about it maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. Given England's small relative size they actually over-perform against the expected results. The problem of course is the public's expectations and the "conventional wisdom," which is based largely on the historical sense of England as the mother of the sport and therefore center of the soccer universe, including the English League.

There are other factors to take into account of course. In a very interesting review of the Three Lions's roster over a number of years, it seems that only about 15% of the players came from "middle class" upbringings rather than lower class, whereas the English population as a whole certainly has a greater percentage of middle class -- the implication being that England inherently limits the pool of potential young boys who have a chance of becoming the next Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard. Somewhat reminiscent of the discovery in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that Canadian hockey players benefit from being born in the early months of the year.

Despite discrediting the idea that England is an under-performer (and a few other nuggets of conventional wisdom), the authors don't take similar detail in examining other countries. They look at the data and point out some of the surprising results - other classic "underachievers" who are actually overachievers include Spain and Portugal (consider Portugal's small size, population, and GDP per capita and it's quite amazing they are so good and produce some of the best players of all-time, going back from Eusebio to Figo to C. Ronaldo). Shockingly, unified Germany and Italy are slight underachievers!

Sometimes the mere difference is that when it comes down to it, Italy and Germany might struggle through qualification, but they win when it matters. This is a big flaw of course in pure statistical analysis, because looking at win percentage and expected v. actual goal differential doesn't take into account the fact that even though a unified Germany should be winning more games at a slightly greater goal difference, the games they nonetheless won were World Cup semi-finals, not friendlies against England.

Still, you'll like looking at the lists of overachievers -- a surprising team is number one, and Armenia are big time overachievers! -- and underachievers. The list of underachievers includes one huge nation that I think we can all guess.

To the authors' credit, they inject a degree of common sense when looking at some of the numbers to determine who the best overachieving nation is (excluding Brazil, who is not only expected to do great but also overperforms!) and who is the relative worst nation. For instance, Honduras is a great overperformer, but they face much weaker competition regularly than European teams. Unfortuantely, because there's so much data here to mine through for the authors, they don't always keep everything straight. It made sense when I was reading it, but looking back it's a little confusing to compare and figure what exactly went into the "overperformers" rankings versus the "overachievers" rankings and how they are constantly breaking out tables comparing just the top European teams. Nonetheless, the great overachiever, and someday a threat to the world order of the sport is probably not the country most people would have predicted, especially considering its political, um, instability.

Another analysis I greatly enjoyed was a look at which country was the most soccer mad (this analysis in particular is very interesting, but involves huge caveats, particularly limited to just Europe due to availability of accurate and reliable data) and which country per capita is the greatest sporting nation. Unsurprisingly, considering its dominance in the Summer Olympics and international sports like basketball, tennis, and golf, the US blows away the competition in absolute sporting terms, but -- spoiler alert -- the best country in relative terms across all sports and also in soccer fandom is actually Norway.

As hinted above, a major flaw with Soccernomics is that it is largely Anglocentric in its analysis of club teams and very Euro-centric in the analysis of national teams. Part of the reason behind this makes sense practically -- Europe simply has better, more reliable statistics, both for matches and general national data. Furthermore, western Europe is the center of the game's knowledge network (think about the high demand across the globe for Dutch, German, and Italian coaches). Yet it doesn't take a genius to see the flaw in examining a sport where two of its greatest teams reside in South America. That's not to say they are ignored, but it's not sufficient to explain Brazil as an outlier by simply exclaiming it so and leaving it as such.

The big exception to this flaw in the book is the examination of Lyon in considering how to beat the transfer market. To those knowledgeable about soccer, this won't surprise much. Lyon have been a dominant team in France (though Bordeaux has finally broken their stranglehold domestically), while threatening to break through in Europe despite never splashing to sign big stars. Of course their system makes perfect sense -- buy young up-and-coming players who are likely to be undervalued, sell those same players at their peaks when someone offers you more than they're worth, always have young players ready to step into their place, and remember that center forwards are usually overvalued. There's more to why Lyon is so successful, much of it having to do with the city's particular demographics and fan history.

This is the one part where the real Moneyball analysis starts coming from the authors. Not just for Lyon (and Nottingham Forest in the early 80's and Wenger's Arsenal teams) as it pertains to the transfer market, but regarding a number of factors most closely correlated with successful teams in the English League. Transfer fees or player wages? Real Madrid will not be heartened. Is a team's league position correlated to its profits? What type of municipality (capital city, industrial or provincial city, or small town) produces the best team, and which will do so in the future? Are blonds valued correctly? Against my natural inclinations, Kuper and Szymanski say to stay away.

Of course to the reader the obvious is screaming back at them - Lyon has yet to break through in Europe, and some say they never will, while Wenger's Arsenal also have not won the Champions League (and it's looking more and more like the big money injections into teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, not to mention Man U is still Man U, will keeping them from winning the Premier League as well).

The above are just some of the questions the authors look at, and there's a lot of other good nuggets in Soccernomics. The examination of the existence of racism in the English League, an economic analysis of penalty kicks, a discussion of sport's effects on suicide rates and happiness, and an intriguing look at whether most fans are actually polygamists rather than diehards (which is surprising in countries other than the US, where you'd expect a degree of polygamist soccer fans) are all fascinating topics that are less controversial than those discussed above. Of course some also have less relevance to how the game itself functions on the field (now that racism is mostly gone from team selection). And an economist might love penalty kicks, but they'll never convince a true fan that penalties are a fair way to decide a championship. (John Terry is slowly nodding in agreement.)

I highly recommend Soccernomics for anyone who wants an engrossing read about soccer or even sports analytics, but just keep it in perspective -- the beautiful game is beautiful because of samba football, Barcelona's passing, and the great drama, not because you can statistically measure why Messi was the best player in the world or Barcelona the best team. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you'll just know it when you see it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Barca Among Greatest Ever Teams

Today Barcelona beat North American champions Atlante 3-1 in Abu Dhabi in the Club World Cup. Barca already had a historic season, becoming the first Spanish team to win the treble last year (La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League). But they just continue to win everything imaginable, simply leaving all in their wake.

At one point in 2009, after winning the Football League Cup, a.k.a. the Carling Cup, Manchester United were the holders of five trophies - the reigning champions of the Premier League, UEFA Champions League, Community Shield, Club World Cup, and lastly the League Cup.

Well, Barca looks like they'll do Man U one better. The Club World Cup final has yet to be played, and I'll be on vacation when it happens, but if the the blaugrana win they will hold six championships: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercup, European Supercup, and the Club World Cup.

Read that again. Just ridiculous.

And it will have all happened in one season proper (with the Supercups and Club World Cup following the previous season because they use the champions from the previous year). Yes Man U held their five trophies at once, but their League Cup title was really in the cycle for the following year.

Equally amazing, in scoring today, Pedro became the first person ever to score in six competitions in the same season. And I barely even knew of him last season.

With youngsters like Pedro, Bojan Krkic, Sergi Busquets, a 22 year old named Leo Messi , and 22 year old Gerard Piqué and 23 year old Dmytro Chygrynskiy in defense, not to mention that players like Andrés Iniesta and Dani Alves are only 25 and 26 respectively, they seem pretty nicely set to dominate for quite some time.

(For comparison at Real Madrid, Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Fernando Gago, Marcelo, Raul Albiol, and Lass Diara are all 24 or younger. Which set of under 25s would you take, meaning excluding Iniesta (otherwise it would've been an absolute no brainer to me that you pick Barca)? Tougher than one would think when you consider the general notion that Barca breeds their players from youth and Real Madrid sign up stars in their primes or just entering them.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Champions League Group Stage Results

The group stages are done in the UEFA Champions League, here is the list of teams advancing:

Group A: Bordeaux, Bayern Munich
Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow
Group C: Real Madrid, AC Milan
Group D: Chelsea, FC Porto
Group E: Fiorentina, Lyon
Group F: Barcelona, Inter Milan
Group G: Sevilla FC, VfB Stuttgart
Group H: Arsenal, Olympiakos

For those of you scoring at home, the teams break down as follows: 3 English, 3 Italian, 3 Spanish, 2 French, 2 German, 1 Russian, 1 Greek, 1 Portuguese, 0 massive surprises.

Yes there were maybe two or three small surprises. Fiorentina finished tops over Lyon and Liverpool, which was a surprise. But you'd have to be naive to have thought going in that Liverpool was a shoe-in to advance. They were so obviously flawed, and Fiorentina is better than most people realized.

Bordeaux advancing rather than Juve is also a small surprise, but under their current situation, again it's not a big surprise that Juve was knocked out. A good Europa run could be good for them. However, it was a bit of a shock to see them capitulate at home to Bayern. This blog on ESPN said it wasn't a surprise, and even I warned that Bayern could be finding form. And considering Bayern's firepower, a victory surely wasn't shocking.

However, I would like to point out, purely because I like pointing out blatantly absurd things, that the previously linked blog based the idea that it wasn't a surprise victory on the theory that the Castrol Index Rankings of footballers foretold that Bayern was far more talented than Juve. These "rankings" are laughable at best. All you need to see is the number one player - Thierry Henry. That's right. Apparently hand balls are the triple word score here. I didn't even bother with checking out how the rankings are devised other than seeing that it's supposedly based on how they actually perform in-game because I could pull names out of a hat and do better. Rafa Marquez is tied for #5. I almost puked. Luca Toni at #10?? He doesn't even play and Bayern is just dying to offload him. OK, granted some ratings are right (Messi and Ronaldo at #2 and 3). But then Gigi Buffon is ranked #163? That puts him tied for 10th in Italy among goalkeepers. Are there even 10, no 5 keepers in the world better than him right now? Anyhow...

OK, back to the whole no surprises point. So there are really two, maybe three teams here that you'd normally be surprised to see. Olympiakos stands out, but they were in the pee-wee group compared to the Barca-Inter-Dynamo and Juve-Bayern-Bordeaux groups of death. The only surprise remaining is seeing CSKA advance above the German champs, VfL Wolfsburg. Spanish apologists will be disappointed Atlético Madrid didn't advance, but then again they've sucked balls this year.

On the winning side, I was encouraged by Man U beating Wolfsburg at the Volkswagen Arena despite lacking a starting defense and playing a team of might mites. Still, Michael Owen scores a hat-trick and everyone in England suddenly wets themselves thinking they could have a second striker to use in South Africa. I will say I've been impressed with Gabriel Obertan even though he's been used mostly as a substitute. If they were somehow to prise Edin Dzeko away from Wolfsburg and preferred destination Milan, they could be formidable next year with young developing wingers like Obertan and Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney, and other youngsters Macheda, Walbeck, and Gibson down the pipeline. Center midfield reinforcements still needed though.

Finally, a shout out to David Moyes for getting Landon Donovan on a two-month loan for injury plagued Everton. Hopefully Donovan will get a fair shake with the Toffees and we may even see him play against some of the aforementioned Champions League failures in the Europa League. Good luck LD.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Champions League Group Stage - The Final Days

If you'd like a preview of many of the players who'll be featuring in South Africa in the summer of 2010, today and Wednesday provides a chance to see many of those key players.

This would be the last matchday for the UEFA Champions League group stage, with a number of spots in the knockout stage still up for grabs.

First, in group A, one of the big boys of Europe will be out of the Champions League as Bayern Munich visit Turin to face the Old Lady. Juventus is coming off a nice victory over Serie A leaders Inter over the weekend. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means, but Juve seemed to have grasped the importance of that match and played with the sort of motivation and determination that they need to sustain regularly if they are to challenge for any trophies.

Bayern on the other hand are unbeaten since Sept. 26, though you'd never really know that. They were expected to romp through the Bundesliga, but that hasn't been the case. And yet, even though they've been known for up and down play this season they could be gaining steam as they climb up the German table.

This match pits a number of future World Cup participants from a number of nations, but does that mean the match will be entertaining? I'm not so sure. These are two of the more inconsistent sides, both capable of playing attacking football, but Juve sometimes reverts to a more calculated approach, while Bayern have had some fitness issues to stars Ribery (out for today) and Robben, along with disgruntled Luca Toni out of favor.

An interesting match to keep an eye on will be Man U visiting Wolfsburg. Man U has played well recently, crushing West Ham on Saturday, but are in the midst of an absurd defensive crisis. The starting center backs are likely to be Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick, with Darren Fletcher also a possibility. Edin Dzeko and the Wolfsburg goal scoring machine will certainly look to take advantage of that as they look to ensure passage at the expense of CSKA Moscow (they need to simply equal the efforts of the Russians to advance with Man U).

Of the other big name teams, no one in group C is guaranteed through, though Real Madrid only need a point against Marseille, while AC Milan will be hoping to lock things up against FC Zurich.

The Inter-Barcelona group also has it all to play for, with the unlikely but still actual possibility that Inter and Barca could be knocked out in favor of Russian champs Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kiev.

Let's face it, most everyone is rooting for the big teams because we want to see the big name players face off in the knockout draw. But is there an underdog poised for an upset? The knockout stages could actually be populated with teams from France and Eastern Europe, as well as German sides that are strong but not as fancied as the English and Spanish sides. I think that would make for a very interesting Champions League, and it would give some players a chance to shine prior to the World Cup that we might not otherwise see. Of course that hope just means that it's going to end up business as usual (Liverpool's early exit not withstanding).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Wait Begins

Now comes the hard part -- for us fans anyway -- waiting until June for the kickoff of festivities. There's going to be plenty of time to sit around and pour over the matchups, as well as watching club teams to see who's in form and who's not, who's healthy and who's not, who's in or out of your favorite team's squad.

In a World Cup year everything becomes focused on that singular goal, in the US in particular. It's basically going to be a six month build up to the Cup. Even though I have my favorites in the Euro League, a lot of my time is spent following how the US players are faring, and with MLS being in hiatus and only really getting in about two months when the National Team will be getting together for their pre-World Cup preparations, the mind inevitably will have an eye pointed toward South Africa.

I'll get caught up in the Derby D'Italia for 90 minutes today, but really for all the Juve or Man U or Barcelona games I watch the meaning of the results, though still important, will somehow be secondary to the play itself. Especially for the Man U games (and even more so late in the season) I'll be pondering, does Rio look fit, can Jozy exploit him? Or, is Rooney firing on all cylinders, enough so to allow Man U to keep up the title challenge and to make England genuine threats?

Starting with the group I care about most, my quick thoughts on the draw:

GROUP C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia.

My brother was wary after the US was drawn with England because he feels the US just always plays poorly against England. That may have been the case before, but even in those cases England never ran rampant, and I can't remember the US ever having a true full-strength squad.

Still, the draw of Slovenia and Algeria that have the English and US fans very excited about their prospects of progressing into the knockout stages. I genuinely think the US can get a result against Fabio Capello's men, and I think most US fans would tell you the same. And while I think this World Cup is the most even that I can remember (there's not many push overs, maybe New Zealand, so there shouldn't be a healthy serving of Saudi Arabias to get thrashed 7-0 by everyone), the US should still be able to beat Algeria and Slovenia. I almost have to calm down I'm getting so excited thinking about being in a group that doesn't contain three serious threats. Let's just say I feel pretty good about it. Prettaaaay, prettaaaay good.

GROUP A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.

I was about to get slightly (I'm being nice) angry about the fact that Mexico somehow always gets an easy or manageable draw. What the hell? I suppose I shouldn't care, especially since they're just bound for more disappointment and loss in the second round. But this group is no cakewalk. Any four can advance, though I might give Uruguay the lowest chances. South Africa may be the lowest of the teams, and I don't see them advancing despite a better than expected on field showing, but never count out the home field advantage. That and having France makes this a tough group to call. I still like France here even if I wouldn't bet on them.

GROUP B: Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, Greece.

This will be a tough but very manageable group for Argentina. South Korea isn't the threat they were at home in 2002, and though Nigeria is always a tough out, they are no longer a leading light among the African nations. Greece play the most disgusting brand of football but aren't likely to get blown out, and their stifling tactics could very well frustrate and threaten a bumbling Maradona-coached side.

GROUP D: Germany, Australia, Ghana, Serbia.

Yikes. Having any four progress wouldn't be surprising, though the Socceroos are the weakest of the bunch and without Guus Hiddink's magic we'll see what they can do. Based on odds, my friend thinks Ghana is a good underdog bet to advance and actually win the Cup. I have to disagree, respectfully of course. Ghana is dangerous in the midfield, but they lack a dangerous striking option and I think they are weaker than previous years. Germany and Serbia will still like their chances.

GROUP E: Netherlands, Japan, Cameroon, Denmark.

Those beautiful, flying Oranje ought to make nice work of this group. Title-wise, I'm not sold because they still have some big chinks in their armor, but the Dutch should be fun to watch (and hey, all those orange jerseys, a beautiful sight in the crowd). I don't know much about Cameroon's current make up other than it'll be nice to see Eto'o at a World Cup. They traditionally are one of the better African teams at World Cups, and usually a little more organized than a team like Nigeria that was always seen as disorganized but highly talented. Denmark was very strong in qualifying and I would guess that their match against Cameroon decides second place in this group.

GROUP F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia.

Italy has to be very happy, because they lucked out on a draw that potentially could give them a nice passage to the quarterfinals (if they win this group they'd play the second place team from group E). However, they've been indifferent recently, and could slip up to Paraguay or Slovakia. I wasn't impressed by Slovakia even though they beat the US. The US lacked Donovan and Slovakia didn't show much attacking creativity or threat really. So I'll give Paraguay the nod as the other team that will advance here. Sorry Kiwis, I love Ryan Nelsen for winning a MLS Cup for DC United, but you aren't going far. Enjoy yourselves.

GROUP G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal.

Oh boy. Who's excited about seeing this group play out? First, Alexi Lalas actually made me laugh pretty heartily during the draw when everyone was sort of talking at once and he offhanded said, "North Korea, welcome to the World Cup." Not funny reading it now, but how and when he said it was pretty classic. And seriously, if they were a normal country that existed in color rather than in black and white, they'd look at this draw and ask, what the hell did we do to deserve this?

So, basically one pre-tournament favorite is going to be out before the knockout stages. I would love to see Côte d'Ivoire make a good run and get the entire African continent behind them. They have the talent and are being talked about as Africa's first true title challengers. But then they get hit with the Portuguese-speaking one-two haymakers. Can Portugal play up to its talent levels? Will Ronaldo remind people that two years ago he was so much better than everyone else on the planet that you wouldn't dare bet against him? Can the unthinkable happen and can Brazil be truly upset and knocked out in the group stages? I don't know, but I'm going to love finding out.

GROUP H: Spain, Honduras, Chile, Switzerland.

Spain either got a sneaky difficult group or a one that will be disappointingly easy. Honduras is actually somewhat dangerous, more so than Mexico of the two CONCACAF teams, but they could easily disappoint by just being happy to be there. The danger is teams taking them too lightly. If that happens they will spring an upset against the Swiss or Chile. Chile is a strong team that likes to attack, and I've bought into HalaMadrid's advocation of them as being a top footballing nation. They have every bit the chance the US does of advancing out of their group. But then there's the Swiss. They don't excite anyone, but they have a good defensive record and some decent talent in the middle, even if their best known striker is 30 year old Alexandre Frei. They're just one of those teams that can get results even if afterwards you think to yourself, how did they just win, they aren't that good. Any three can finish second to Spain.

So, get those earplugs (unless you like the sound of vuvuzelas) and get ready, the World Cup is almost here. Will it be a classic, or one to forget? I think it may end up being a very good World Cup. Until then, it's 6 months of watching and waiting and praying. (Lord, please please please let Landon Donovan and Tim Howard stay healthy. Thank you.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cup Draw In T-minus...

I suppose it's obligatory to post something in advance of the World Cup draw, seeing as it can practically make or break a nation's Cup hopes.

The big brouhaha has been over FIFA's decision to base things on whatever they find most expedient for their needs. In this case, it was using the October FIFA rankings and scrapping past World Cup performance to determine the seeds, leading to the Netherlands getting a seed over France. I think based on current form that probably holds, but let's face it, FIFA made the change to punish France for the controversial nature of their qualification.

Second, FIFA grouped the CONCACAF nations in the pot with the five Asian and Oceana qualifiers, rather than with the five African qualifiers. This practically ensures the US will have a difficult draw, since they will face a seeded team, another European team, and either an African or South American team. The key will be to draw a weak Euro nation (I'll take an order of Greece thank you) or one of the weaker African nations (Algeria please). If the US doesn't draw South Africa from the seeded nations, it becomes more likely that they will face an African nation rather than South American from pot 3 since South Africa cannot face an African team from that pot, leaving only two South American teams for the remaining 7 groups.

Interestingly, this article points out that FIFA's decision to use the October rankings actually put the US surprisingly close to getting a seed. The "if" was rather large, so if Portugal and France failed to qualify, and with Croatia already not qualified, the US was next in line for the seed. Of course without needing to somehow rectify the France problem, FIFA probably would have used some other scheme which would have had the US in its same position.

Still, there's no point in trying to do a mock draw, which I find a useless exercise. On the other hand, FIFA has a way of partnering the inevitable when it comes to things like political or historical pairs (England-Argentina and France-Senegal in 2002, USA-Iran in 1998). Unfortunately FIFA can't pit the US against North Korea, but we could see rematches with Italy, who has become something of a nemesis recently, or Spain, and what would be the money on Spain trying to destroy the US to exact revenge for the Confederations Cup?

Anyway, in case you're the last person on Earth to see the pots, here they are:

POT 1 - Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Netherlands, England, Italy, Germany, South Africa

POT 2 - USA, Mexico, Honduras, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand

POT 3 - Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

POT 4 - France, Portugal, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland