Part 1: The Identity
To some people, the month of March means the beginning of spring. To others, such as my family, my newfound friends in Australia and even me; it signifies summer is coming to a close and winter is drawing near. Yet others even see the month of March as a time to party for St. Patrick’s Day. However, for football enthusiast the world over, March; especially this year, means only one thing: the World Cup is just around the corner…and…inevitably with March come discussions of who will advance, who will disappoint and who will ultimately hold up the cup in Rio when it is all said and done.
Being born and raised in the United States, I have grown-up knowing the month of March to signify something much different on the American athletic calendar; March Madness, so named because the majority of the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament takes place in March and is the culmination of a college basketball season that begins in November. For the teams invited to play, it’s their chance to prove they’re the best in the country. However for fans, it’s something completely different. While some people genuinely want to see their favourite team win the title, others just want to see the bracket they filled out win the office pool. For some, basketball doesn’t even factor into the equation. They treat the bracket as a puzzle or brainteaser. Yet, still others don’t care for basketball or the challenge of the bracket. They just want to have some fun with their co-workers, family or friends.
Having lived in Australia for the last 28 months and thus being not just a whole day ahead of the NCAA Tournament, but also being in a location where even if I was able to find a tele or internet feed of tournament games they were taking place smack-dab in the middle of the night, my fondness for the March ritual of filling-out numerous brackets and following them as the tournament progresses has never swayed. That is more-than-likely because my history with March Madness Bracketology goes back into my earlier days and will always have a place in my heart. However, the game of football has long-since taken the driver’s seat in that regard and while I still filled-out my own March Madness NCAA Bracket; this year I find myself more excited to delve into the bracket that is the 2014 FIFA World Cup that begins in June, as opposed to March; hence my referral to it as “June Madness!”
So, a question that may be bouncing around in the back of your mind about now is, “how do we break down the World Cup bracket and best guarantee that your individual bracket will bring you success?” Analysts, sports casters, networks and amateurs have all tried to nail down the perfect technique for picking teams using “Bracketology,” or the study of the brackets, for the NCAA Tournament for years and they’ve all hit the same conclusion: There isn’t an exact science to guarantee a winning bracket. However, there are things to consider that can give you a leg up on your competition.
To the bracket novice, the process can seem a little daunting. Where do you start? What teams should you advance? What can you do to make sure you select the most correct winners? Well, that’s why I’m here! So, just read on to find out everything you need to know concerning the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; tips to help you win the bracket and the bragging rights that invariably come along with it.
Let’s Begin by Taking a General Overall Look at the Entire Bracket
There are a lot of misconceptions about evaluating a bracket. Due to the specific arrangement of the World Cup bracket in which it begins with round robin group play before melding itself into one-and-done elimination rounds of which are established by criss-crossed placements due to the finishing placements in the respective groups…WOW…you can see how ominous it can be to not just understand, but more-less begin to predict.
Basically, you have to look at each individual match within each individual group during the group stage and then rank them 1-32. Once these rankings are done, the teams are split back up into their increments of four, or back into their respective groups. The last eight teams on your list of 32 are automatically the fourth-place (or third and fourth place if two fall in the same group) teams in their respective groups and the first eight teams on your list of 32 are automatically the first-place (or first and second place if two fall in the same group) and represent what is called the “Power Eight.” Once I break the teams back-up into their respective groups, it is easy for me to see where one team maybe should finish ahead of another. Once I’ve done this and after all teams are seeded within their groups, I make sure to note the “bottom eight” and the “Power Eight” to keep full radar on teams for when I begin to break-down individual matches.
As far as selecting teams, my process is not really as complicated as it first appears to be. Remember, I am only selecting 16 teams because only the top two from each of the eight groups advance to the knock-out rounds. During the group-stage, I use the current FIFA World Rankings to start me off in beginning to determine who my two advancing bids go to. Once I have these teams selected, I rank them 1-16. I rank these teams based on factors like geography, travel, how they played during qualification and leading up to the World Cup, etc…, with special focus on certain characteristics like quality wins and strength of schedule. I look at each team independently within their respective groups, so I try not to let previous results have too much of an effect on my bracket. I believe it is OK to have a natural bias towards South American teams in this World Cup, for example; especially with the history of success they’ve had in them when being held on their own soil. Never-the-less, I try very hard not to let this bias be a major influencer within my bracket.
For my personal bracket, I used previous competitions between teams along with my own research about them. I would refer to the FIFA Rankings as a reference for who is “expected” to be good; usually the only time I would really ever call upon these rankings for bracket purposes. I am interested to see how the shift of power towards the major federations affects not only group outcomes, but also matchups in later rounds. CONCACAF teams, as well as the African and Asian nations all lost consistently to teams based in Europe and South America. However, there have been some shifts among the low-major nations that will have minor impacts. Bottom line: previous tournament reputations will be more irrelevant than ever and there will be a period of feeling-out within the group stage that is surely to bring several unexpected results and surprises.
In my opinion, UEFA returns as the best region, but CONMEBOL is not far behind. CAF and CONCACAF are about equal, while AFC continues to lag slightly behind, despite having some impressive individual performances of late. This concoction will make the 2014 FIFA World Cup as competitive as always.
So, without further ado; let’s begin our course on “Bracketology 101; 2014 FIFA World Cup.”
A More Detailed Look at the Tournament Field
The next few months may drag on with stories of roster changes, stadiums that aren’t finished, protests in the streets, etc…, but once all of that is put aside, there is certainly no shortage of talking points.
At first glance there is an immediate jostle between Group B and Group D for the coveted title of the “Group of Death,” with the latter featuring a greater spread of quality across the four teams; England vs. Italy in particular may be arguably the most high-profile dual-European affair in the entire group stage. Yet, the former includes both finalists from the 2010 World Cup, along with Chile, one of the most exciting and up and coming national teams. Group B, in particular, features four sides that all play possession-based systems, meaning it should also create the most attractive, attacking matches of the entire group stage.
At the other end of the spectrum there is also a battle for the weakest group between Group E and Group H. France will no doubt be delighted by the relative ease of which they should progress; however given the country’s penchant for self-destruction at recent international tournaments what appears a poor group on paper could well turn into one of the more fascinating. Likewise for Group H, which features no one single outstanding side, but rather a cluster of middle-range teams, although Belgium and Russia will both fancy their chances of finishing top.
The rest of the bracket tosses up plenty of plot lines. Group G appears to be nothing short of a FIFA sponsored reunion. Germany and Ghana were also paired together in the group stage at the last tournament and Ghana were the United States’ opponents in the Round of 16 clash in South Africa that sent the Americans home (at the hands of Ghana for the second consecutive World Cup, I should point out). Even without Portugal Group G would have been fascinating, but the inclusion of the European side; who boast arguably the tournament’s most decisive player in Cristiano Ronaldo, takes the group’s dynamic to a whole other level.
I’ve heard many make the claim that this is the strongest pool of teams to ever assemble together and compete at a World Cup. Even though, I’ve heard this said about almost every World Cup that I can recall, casting an eye across the other groups leads me to believe that the claim does become somewhat hard to argue. There are a host of tantalising matches that should provide plentiful entertainment. For example; Bosnia whom are competing in their first-ever World Cup, will take on Argentina who rather ominously have been placed in a group that means a potential Macarana final against the hosts is certainly likely.
Speaking of the Samba Kings; Brazil, meanwhile, will be pleased with the challenge presented by their opponents beginning with an opening round fixture against Croatia. The millions in Rio will think this a fantastic way to launch the tournament and yet another reason to party!
Now, before we can go any deeper into the individual matches, let’s take one final look at some of the obvious favourites and get them out of the way.
The Big Five
The Canaries are going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as favourites. Not only are the Brazilians a tremendously talented team with the quality to win a World Cup, they are also the host nation. These two factors put them as one of the favourites, if not the overall favourite. If the Selcao can replicate the form they showed at the Confederations Cup, they could be lifting another trophy.
The Spanish are the defending champions. That in itself makes them a favourite. Take that and add the quality of the players that Spain’s team is littered with and La Roja will go far. Spain’s issues are in the back and up front. They still haven’t settled on a number nine and struggle in central defense. Throw in the fact that Iker Casillas may be rusty and slowing down by the time June rolls around and you have some problems. Spain could face some major issues against complete teams like the Selcao, Germany and Italy. The midfield dominance will win Del Bosque’s team some games and keep them in some others, but upper-tier countries will give Spain significant problems.
Spain won’t be the only European power that could topple Brazil’s apple cart. The Azzurri will also be strong. Italy may not come off as a side that belongs in the “Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Germany” discussion, but that may be the best thing possible for the Italians. Since Cesare Prandelli has taken over, the peninsula’s football team has gained a reputation of playing strong in big tournaments. Prandelli likes to use friendlies as a way to experiment with his team, trying different players in different formations. All that experimenting has led to strong showings in top competitions. Italy redeemed themselves in Euro 2012 not only by playing Spain tight in two matches, but also beating England and demolishing Germany on their way to the final. Italy has performed well in tournaments, but they are also the “bogey” for many teams. The Italians have never lost to England in a World Cup and are unbeaten against Germany in all competitions. They also hold the distinction of being the first team to figure out how to crack the puzzle that is the Spanish.
A rare mix of technical efficiency and physical dominance; Germany are one of the favourites in Brazil. Like Spain, their strength is in their midfield. Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and friends are almost a younger, more athletic version of Spain’s midfield. Sticking to similarities with the Spanish, Germany could have problems at the number nine spot. Miroslav Klose is getting older by the minute and there are injury concerns with other strikers, so goals from that spot could be a problem. The Germans will have no issues at the back, however, as Manuel Neuer remains one of the best keepers in the world.
Brazil’s closest competition from a geographical and possibly a football standpoint; the Argentines’ strength is a ruthless attacking force that includes Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi and of course, arguably one of the worlds’ best in Lionel Messi. Argentina’s attack is so absurd; I’m not even going to write about their “mediocre” defense. The Argentines’ success will depend on their attack and to an extent, Messi. If Messi is on, the South American side will be tough to stop. On the other hand, if Messi is injured, or off his game, then this team will be somewhat easier to beat. Argentina’s offense will carry them. Whether that leads to a World Cup remains to be seen.
That should get you started thinking. Now, get your World Cup brackets printed and grab something to write with because in Part #2 of this series, we’re going to dive right into each and every group and dissect them from top to bottom, inside and out.