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How to Pick a World Cup Winner: Part I

Are you looking to make a bang-up bracket at this year’s World Cup to impress your friends? Well, here’s a guide for you.

Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Igor Russak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Every four years, I get absolutely obsessed with the World Cup. I meticulously pour over squad details, the histories and stories of different teams, possibilities for how match-ups play out, how the table and bracket line up. And, at the end of this process, in the days right before the tournament begins, I know who will win the World Cup.

You might think that this is merely posturing on my part. Which is fair enough. This is absolutely an exercise in self indulgence. But, I do know my stuff. I correctly predicted the winner of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. I called the winner of the Copa America Centenario. My score is not perfect. I predicted the Netherlands would win the 2010 World Cup, while I said France would win the 2016 European Championship. But, at the last World Cup, I correctly predicted the winner, the other finalist, and the margin of victory (Germany over Argentina by one goal). This process that I’ve got, it clearly produces results. And I’m going to share my journey through that process for this year’s World Cup with you. (And, yes, this journey starts in February. There’s a lot of stuff we need to look at.) I don't know who will win the World Cup right now. But I will. And I will help you figure out how to make that prediction for yourself.

The first thing you have to do is dive into researching the tournament itself. You need to understand the format and how teams make their path to the trophy. That means knowing the groups inside out, and being able to predict the match ups in the knockout stage. It is a bit obvious to say that it is only the teams that make it to the final who can win the whole. But an easier path to that final makes that final appearance a bit more likely.

In this tournament, there are 8 groups. The two teams that finish in the top two spots in each group (first tiebreaker is goal difference) advance to the knockout rounds. The knockout rounds are organized so that teams from the same group are placed on opposite sides of the break, avoiding each other until the final. Group winners are paired against a runner-up in the round of 16. This is what the groups look like.

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Let’s take a second for some first impressions on these groups. In general, none of them particularly stand out to me as stacked groups of death. There are no groups stacked with 3 or 4 stand-out strong teams. Some of that is because of who is missing in this World Cup. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, the United States, Ghana, and Ivory Coast are all among the biggest names in their respective confederations, and all of them missed out of this World Cup. Some of that, of course, is luck of the draw. The closest that stands out to me is Group B, with both Portugal and Spain, with Morocco and Iran not wielding the same sort of prestige (though, remember, these are stereotypical first impressions.) Instead, there are some interesting possible races for second places, with middling teams duking it out for one spot in Groups C, E, F, and G.

Of course, who finishes first and second matters for the knockout stages. By using FIFA rankings as a crude stand-in for actual research, we can make an initial prediction of how the bracket will fall in order to see if there are particularly interesting match-ups in the Round of 16 or Quarter Finals.

A filled bracket using FIFA Rankings to make a rough prediction of the knockout stages in the 2018 World Cup. The FIFA Rankings are notoriously bad, with a massive bias towards Europe and South America. In fact, the only country outside of those two regions that makes it into the knockout stages based on ranking is Mexico. Further, this ranking necessarily means that the final will be predicted to feature the two teams with the highest rankings, specifically Germany and Brazil, respectively. This does not automatically mean that Germany or Brazil will win the World Cup. Or that particular matches will fall the way that this prediction suggests. In fact, I will be personally pretty upset if the tournament actually looks like this.

The final, the semifinals, and the quarterfinals all look unsurprising to me. However, there are a few interesting matchups in the Round of 16. Uruguay, as winner of Group A, plays Spain, the runner-up of Group B. The way that Group A is set up, the winner of Group B will have a tough match up against one of the two Iberian nations. The match between Colombia (Group H winner) and England (Group G runner-up) also seems interesting.

Anyway, that’s what stands out to me. What do you think? Do you see some patterns that seem relevant to you? Tell us in the comments below. And look out for the next edition!