The most popular sporting event on the planet returns today. One month of the 32 best footballing nations competing for the World Cup title. After the good news of the 2026 World Cup coming to the United States, Canada and Mexico being announced yesterday, I am looking forward to the 2018 tournament beginning today, which promises to write another exciting chapter in the history of the beautiful game. Before we kick off in Russia, I wanted to share some of the facts and figures from past tournaments, in efforts to better predict the 21st edition of the World Cup.
Facts and Figures
This will be the 12th time the World Cup has been hosted in Europe, and the first time in Europe since Germany hosted the tournament in 2006. In the previous 11 editions of World Cups hosted by European nations, only once has the final been won by a nation outside of Europe — Brazil in 1958, when the tournament was hosted by Sweden.
There has not been back-to-back World Cup Champions since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962, winning three tournaments of four from 1958 to 1970. Brazil are also the also the last team to make consecutive finals, making three in a row from 1994-2002. The past three World Cup finals (2006, 2010, and 2014) have been competed by six different nations. All of this considered, it would not surprise me to see neither Germany, nor Argentina, making the final this year.
The last three World Cup finals have all gone to Extra Time, including the 2006 final that went all the way to PKs. Six of the last seven finals saw the losing team get shutout in the final after 90’ or 120’ minutes. Of the 20 previous finals, eight have been decided by just a single goal.
Another surprising fact can be found in the Third Place matches. The last nine Third Place games, going all the way back to 1982, have been won by European nations. That is an unprecedented streak that I do not see any other confederation breaking. Look for another European country to claim a third place ranking this year. Of also note, the last four winners of the Third Place match, have all scored three goals to win the fixture.
The the story of European and South American dominance is practically the story of the World Cup itself. Since the first tournament in 1930, only two nations outside of UEFA and CONEMBOL have made the semifinals of the tournament — the United States in 1930 and South Korea in 2002. UEFA’s streak of three consecutive World Cup champions hailing from Europe is the longest for any confederation in tournament history, having also won four of the last five titles. We enter Russia, with UEFA currently leading in World Cup titles, 11-9, over CONEMBOL. Is South America due for a champion this year?
How well have hosts done in the World Cup?
Since 1930, though the format has changed numerous times, South Africa of 2010 remains the only host nation that did not advance past the first stage of matches—whether that’s initial group stage or knockouts of the earlier tournaments. Based on these trends, as hosts, it would be assumed that Russia should be likely to advance to Round of 16.
However, Russia are entering this tournament as the one of the lowest rated hosts in recent history per Elo Ratings, with their starting rating for this year‘s World Cup is 1678. Compared to recent years, Russia ranks as the fifth lowest host by rating, with South Africa of eight years ranking as the worst nation to host a World Cup — 1594 was South Africa‘s opening rating for that tournament for comparison.
Brazil of the last World Cup were considered, by Elo, the best ever nation to host the tournament, at an opening rating of 2138, 460 points ahead of this year‘s Russian side. Despite all of this, I do believe Russia will end up advancing, keeping with the trend of recent tournaments, but it is hard to ignore the host‘s poor form entering the World Cup.
What About Iceland?
Since being the underdogs of Euro 2016 that knocked off England, to becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup, Iceland have become the nation everyone wants to root for, contrary to their Mighty Ducks 2 hockey team counterpart. But how have other nations done in their debut tournament?
The last time a nation made their first appearance in the World Cup was Angola in 2006. Angola ended up exiting in group stage, but picked up two draws against Mexico and Iran, scoring just one goal.
Prior to Angola’s 2006 appearance, China in 2002 and Jamaica in 1998 were the last debutants in the World Cup. China exited in group stage, losing all three of their matches, while also failing to score a goal. Jamaica fared better though, despite falling in group stage, Jamaica left France 1998 with a win over Japan.
So what does this mean for Iceland? History has indicated that it is a tall task ahead of them to advance out of Group D. With the World Elo 5th ranked Argentina and and Elo 17th ranked Croatia topping their group, it looks difficult, but not impossible. It is quite possible to see Iceland steal the runner-up spot from Croatia if results go their way. But it will be a baptism by fire, as Iceland’s first World Cup match comes against last tournament’s runner-ups, Lionel Messi and Argentina in Moscow.
Countries in the Finals and Winning it All!
It is of no secret, but I have never been a fan of the official FIFA Rankings. I have looked towards the Elo Ratings as a better measure of ranking for comparing international sides, which is why I was thrilled to see FIFA announce a change to their rating formula to more emulate the Elo system. Prior to this change, eloratings.net had recorded the Elo ratings of every decade of international football all the way back to the 1900s. This has included every pre and post-World Cup rankings.
In the last five pre-World Cup ratings, the eventual World Cup Champion had an average pre-World Cup rating of 1999.8. Per June 13th, France is the closest nation to that average at 1987, with Brazil ranked first with 2142, followed by Germany in second (2077) and Spain in third (2044). Furthermore, four of the past five champions, began the tournament ranked in the top ten of the World Elo Ratings — Brazil in 2002 began the tournament in 13th, prior to their World Cup title. If any nation is likely to win the World Cup, look to the current World Elo top 10 to find your potential champion lying in wait.
The Third Place matches allow for more wide open play though. Of the last five tournaments, three of the five Third Place game winners began the tournament in the top 10. Turkey finished third in the 2002 World Cup, beginning the tournament ranked 28th in the world. Croatia, who claimed third place in 1998, started that year‘s contest in 15th. The average rating of the teams winning the Third Place match in the past five tournaments is 1893.8 (a full 100 rating points less than the average champion from the past five World Cups). In the current rankings, the closest team to the average Third Place winning country is Uruguay — World Elo #12 at an 1894 rating. If any underdog nation makes a run in knockouts, the Third Place game will likely be their ceiling.
James Rodriguez lit up the scoreboards during the 2014 World Cup for Colombia, scoring a tournament high six goals, to win the Golden Boot. However, only four times has the World Cup Golden Boot winner come from the World Cup Champions (1962: Brazil, who had a tie that year between Garrincha and Vava, 1978: Argentina with Mario Kempes, 1982: Italy with Pablo Rossi, 2002: Brazil with Ronaldo). While a player may take the tournament by storm in the scoring department, it is highly doubtful that the Golden Boot winning player will walk away from Russia as champions. Though, of the last five Golden Boot Winners, they averaged six goals across the World Cup.
However, winning the Golden Glove Award almost ensures that the goalkeeper is leaving the World Cup a champion. Four of the last five Golden Glove winners — Fabien Barthez with France in 1998, Gianluigi Buffon with Italy in 2006, Iker Casillas with Spain in 2010, and Manuel Neuer with Germany in 2014 — were from the World Cup champions. Oliver Kahn from Germany in the 2002 tournament was the only one from those five not to play for a winning nation.
Everything above has only got me more excited for the World Cup! Will the winner of the tournament come from Europe or South America? Almost certainly. But we watch for the fantastic football being played, and the spectacle of nations uniting behind their team. As of right now, every nation in Russia can still be crowned champions at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15th. So let‘s all come together as a world, and enjoy the ride for the next month!
Who do you think will win the World Cup? Who are you rooting for this year in Russia? Any group stage matches you are looking forward to, let us know in the comments below!