Imagining the World Cup as a League

An analysis of the all-time World Cup records of this year’s competitors reveals grand narratives and small insights

The general themes of World Cup history are familiar even to casual fans: Brazil plays beautifully, Germany is ruthlessly efficient, and England is doomed if its match goes to penalties. But do these and other nuggets of received wisdom stand up to the statistical record? Or, to take it another way, what other gross generalizations can we derive from a big sweeping look at the data?

I put the all-time World Cup records of 31 countries (Bosnia-Hervigovina is this year’s only first-time nation) competing in this year’s tournament into the familiar form of a league table. I took each team’s average points per game and multiplied it by 38. (In a standard 20-team league, a season is 38 games long.) I counted knockout round matches that were decided by penalty kicks as a tie, awarding both teams one point. All wins count for three points, even though, as history nerds will note, FIFA used to award only two points per win.

World Cup league standings

Click to enlarge

 

Some observations. Brazilian soccer is not only beautiful but effective. The Seleçao has won 69.1 percent of its matches, losing only 15.5 percent. Brazil’s 85 points falls right between this year’s Premier League champion and runner up, as Manchester City and Liverpool finished the season with 86 and 84 points, respectively. Brazil’s goal differential of +48 is also quite similar to Liverpool’s +51 in the most recent Premier League campaign.

Germany’s record includes the achievements of West Germany but not East Germany’s single appearance in 1974. The country’s 76 points is closest to Arsenal’s total of 79 in 2013–14. Along with Brazil, Germany is the only country to average two goals per World Cup match—perhaps not surprising for a country that has won the cup three times, and come in second and third four times apiece.

Italy, which has been brilliant but less consistent than Germany, currently sits on an Evertonian 73 points. Italy is also the king of the draw, finishing tied (at least going into penalties) 21 times. (England and Germany are tied for second with 19 draws each.) Perhaps the Azzurri view their four titles as acceptable consolation for these minor indignities.

The rest of the upper part of the table consists of previous champions Argentina, Spain, England, and France alongside quadrennial also-rans Holland and Portugal. Each of these countries have had excellent and painful World Cup campaigns, sometimes both at the same time.

For all the teasing England endures for its World Cup performances, though, the team is worthy of praise on at least one score: its defense has been tops among regular qualifiers with 0.88 goals allowed per match. Brazil and Italy have been similarly stingy, also allowing less than one goal per game.

Meanwhile, French World Cup history has been an exercise in extremes. Since 1954, Les Bleus have either finished in the top four or outside the top ten.

Of the 10 countries with at least 40 games played, nine are in the top 13 for points per game. Only Mexico, which has the most losses in World Cup history, languishes in the lower half of the field, having earned 49 points through 48 matches.Mexico V St. Vincent

The rest of the mid-table teams either have respectable long-term records or mostly positive results in a small sample size of matches. For instance, Uruguay won two titles in the early years of the tournament, but its 2010 run to the semifinals was its best outing in 60 years. This is also where many of this year’s best non-qualifiers, such as Sweden and Serbia, would have fallen.

It’s no surprise that teams from the lesser confederations of North America, Asia, and Africa take over as you move down the table, with Colombia the only team in the bottom half of the table that comes from outside of those regions. The United States, despite at least a handful of fine World Cup moments, is solidly mediocre with 26 points from 29 matches.

Countries that have played in more overall World Cup matches tend to enjoy better average results. Of the 10 countries with at least 40 games played, nine are in the top 13 for points per game. Only Mexico, which has the most losses in World Cup history, languishes in the lower half of the field, having earned 49 points through 48 matches. Germany and Argentina are tied for second with 20, and it is hard to imagine either losing more matches than El Tri will next month.

The league table is interesting, but it probably isn’t very useful for making predictions. The World Cup’s structure has changed a great deal from it’s single-elimination origins in 1930, and some countries’ strengths and weaknesses have vacillated wildly over the last 84 years, too. Brazil, Germany, Italy, and others deserve plaudits for past excellence, but every four year cycle represents some upheaval in players and tactics—exactly why it will be so much fun to sit back and watch more history unfold this summer.