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Monday, May 31, 2010
Don't overlook Chile in Group H

By Nate Silver
Special to


How difficult you rate Group H depends on which perspective you're coming from. For the favorite Spain, it's a relatively average draw. It does get a tough and underrated Chilean team that, if it manages to wrestle the top qualifying position from the Spaniards, could force Spain into a round-of-16 matchup against the Group G winner -- likely Brazil.

But neither Honduras nor Switzerland is as threatening, each one being tough enough to draw against Spain if the Spanish are in atypically poor form, but probably not to beat them. (Honduras has only an 11 percent chance of beating Spain and Switzerland a 10 percent chance, according to our formula.) While far from being a dream draw for Spain, it certainly would not want to trade positions with Brazil in Group G or perhaps even Germany in the overlooked Group D. But Spain, to state the obvious, does not have to play itself; the other three sides are stuck fighting for one qualifying position and will face one match that will be nearly impossible to win.

Spain (86 percent chance to advance, 60 percent to win group). Spain's track record -- winner of Euro 2008, undefeated and untied in World Cup qualification -- is so robust that we probably do not need to spend a great deal of time singing its praises. That Brazil ranks very slightly ahead of Spain in SPI speaks merely to the Brazilians' strengths (Brazil is 10-0-0 in its last 10 matches against other World Cup qualifiers) and not to any weakness on the part of the Spaniards (who are 8-1-1 by the same metric, their only loss coming to the United States in the Confederations' Cup). What's especially compelling about Spain is that it's really a cohesive team, rather than a collection of individual talent, and its balance is self-evident, as it places second (behind Brazil in both cases) in both offensive and defensive rating.

Chile (60 percent to advance, 24 percent to win group). CONMEBOL qualification is one of the toughest tests in the soccer world. South America has perhaps seven or eight teams that could hold their own in South Africa, including some of the world's best; only four are guaranteed qualification, however. But Chile persevered through that to finish second in the group, and just one point behind Brazil.

Outside of competition against other South American teams, the Chileans have received fewer tests, having not qualified for the World Cup since 1998. For instance, they've played only five matches against European teams over the past two years -- all friendlies -- and went 2-2-1 against that competition (a record which is more impressive once one considers that none of those matches were played at home). As it happens, they've also played friendly matches against each of the other three teams in their group, losing each one. But each of those matches was away from home; in South Africa, by contrast, the Chileans are a quasi-home team, being acclimated to both Southern Hemisphere seasons and high altitudes.

Honduras (29 percent to advance, 8 percent to win group). Honduras is another team that is difficult to get a handle on, as it rarely plays important matches outside of its confederation. Its schedule of tuneups has been less than rigorous, for instance, as just one of the eight friendly matches scheduled between qualifying in October and the World Cup was against another World Cup qualifier; that opponent was the United States, whom Honduras beat 3-1 in January in a friendly in California. Still, there is some talent on the roster, as the Honduran roster features three players who are playing in Serie A and another three who make their homes in the Premiership; none of these are Carlos Pavón, the team's legendary 36-year-old striker, whom it'll remain highly dependent upon if it hopes to pull off an upset or two.

Switzerland (25 percent to advance, 7 percent to win group). Switzerland, by contrast, is a more familiar foe -- although not necessarily to the other teams in Group H, where it is the misfit in a group of three Spanish-speaking nations. Since the last World Cup, where it was eliminated by Ukraine on penalties, Switzerland has played 16 matches against other World Cup qualifiers -- among the most by any team -- and is 6-8-2 against that competition. That speaks to a team which is perhaps slightly too inconsistent to qualify out of a tough draw, as Switzerland's record is marked by an equal number of highlights (such as a 2-0 win against Portugal at home in the European Championship) and lowlights (a 2-1 loss to Luxembourg early in qualifying). The match against Chile -- arguably its most important -- will be Switzerland's first one in South Africa.

Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential election and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.