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Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Four points aren't a guarantee

By Paul Carr
ESPN Stats & Information

As the World Cup draws near, a familiar refrain will emerge from teams considered underdogs in their groups: four points to advance.

Conventional wisdom says that four points -- a win and a draw -- will get a country into the round of 16 as one of the top two finishers in its group. But do the numbers support such a theory?

Looking at the past three World Cups (the only ones to use the current 32-team format), we can see exactly how many points have been earned by teams that reach the knockout stage.

Frankly, the answer is rather simple. The magic number should be considered five, not four. All 40 countries that earned five or more points since 1998 have advanced to the round of 16.

Four points results in a much more tenuous situation, a coin flip in fact. Of the 14 teams to accumulate exactly four points, only seven have moved on, all as second-place finishers in their group. In this case, relying on conventional wisdom will leave a country in a precarious position.

You might remember that the United States advanced from the Confederations Cup Group Stage last summer with merely three points from one win, through a convoluted system of tiebreakers. The Americans shouldn't count on that method again. No country has ever advanced in that manner under the current World Cup format.

Only one team out of the 14 with three points has advanced to the knockout round in the past three tournaments. That was 1998 Chile, which drew all three matches before getting shellacked by eventual runner-up Brazil in the knockout stage.

If a country's priority is not simply advancing but winning the group, with the hopes of earning an easier round of 16 matchup, then the goal should be seven points. Twenty of the 24 group winners since 1998 have earned seven or more points, which requires at least two victories. Two more have won their group with six points, resulting from two wins and a loss. And the final two have had five points, from a win and two draws.

If a country wants to win the World Cup, it ought to win its group. The last champion to finish runner-up in the group stage was Italy in 1982, when Paolo Rossi led the Azzurri to its third title despite only three draws and two goals in the group stage.

By the way, how did those eight teams that swept their group stage games do in the knockout stage? Here's the list:

2006 Germany: Lost 2-0 to Italy in semifinals.
2006 Portugal: Lost 1-0 to France in semifinals.
2006 Brazil: Lost 1-0 to France in quarterfinals.
2006 Spain: Lost 3-1 to France in round of 16.
2002 Spain: Tied South Korea 0-0 in quarterfinals, lost on penalty kicks.
2002 Brazil: Beat Germany 2-0 in championship.
1998 France: Beat Brazil 3-0 in championship.
1998 Argentina: Lost 2-1 to the Netherlands in quarterfinals.

Paul Carr is a researcher for the ESPN Stats & Information group.