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World Cup Knockout Round Scenarios

The more interesting discussion at this point is probably not who is going to advance, the scenarios for which have become fairly straightforward for all but a couple of teams, but instead what it means for the knockout round. Let’s take a look at SPI’s estimates of the probabilities of each team finishing in each of the 16 slots that FIFA has designated for those happy teams who will continue to play soccer after Friday.

Before we proceed, let me emphasize again that the percentages listed herein reflect the probability of each team finishing in each particular slot, e.g. 1st place in Group A. In some cases, these results are a bit paradoxical. Ghana, for instance, are actually the most likely team to qualify from Group D, but they are not most likely to finish in 1st place (Germany is), nor in second (Serbia are). A similar problem manifests itself in Group C for Slovenia. A more prominent example is Spain, which is about a 70 percent favorite to qualify but is less likely to do so in first place than Chile, or in second place than Switzerland. You can see a team’s overall chance of advancement in the table we maintain in the upper right-hand corner of the page, and which is updated a couple of times per day.

The second thing to notice is that with just one or two exceptions, everything remains quite fluid. What are those exceptions? Argentina is almost certain to win Group B, Holland is almost certain to win Group E, and Paraguay are about 87 percent likely to win Group F. Otherwise, it’s a little tenuous to bet on whose exactly who is going to finish exactly where.

Still, there are some interesting scenarios. Perhaps the most important is who finishes first in Group A, which will be resolved by the Uruguay-Mexico match later today. Whoever finishes first should get a hugely favorable draw: South Korea, most likely, in the Round of 16 (and that’s the downside case: it could be Nigeria or Greece), and then any of a hodgepodge of teams in the quarterfinal, Serbia and England being nominally the most likely but very possibly also Slovenia, the USA, or Ghana. It could also be Germany, but that’s less likely as Germany will probably qualify first, and be in the other half of the bracket, or not at all. While Serbia and USA are no pushovers and England may not have written their last chapter in this tournament, you don’t usually get a more favorable path than that into the semifinals. And then you win one game on penalties and another where the bounces just break your way, and Mexico or Uruguay could be the Cinderella story of the century.

Not that we should necessarily be thinking of them that way: both Uruguay and Mexico are strong football teams on their own merits, but a little bit of luck helps too. Conversely, the second-place finisher in Group A will draw Argentina. And if they somehow win that match, very possibly Germany. Good luck with that.

The dynamics in the match could be a little weird: both teams guarantee qualification with a draw, but with France and South Africa down by multiple goals, their position is unlikely to be imperiled even if they lose. Uruguay do qualify first in the event of a draw with Mexico, so look for them to slow down the pace early, but should they fall behind, it would probably behoove them to go for the equalizer — and risk falling behind by two goals — unless the France-South Africa result looks especially lopsided. With their shapeshifting style, they should be fine. And Mexico would obviously be silly to play for the draw, and they won’t.

The other interesting case is in the bottom half of the bracket, where Portugal and Brazil will be playing for first place in Group G. It was the conventional wisdom for awhile (which I helped to perpetuate) that you’d rather finish second in Group G than first, since that way you’d avoid Spain in the Round of 16. But after yesterday’s action, Spain are more likely to qualify first, which they do with a win over Chile provided that Switzerland doesn’t wallop Honduras, than second. Meanwhile, those times that it doesn’t get Spain, the first-place finisher will most likely get picante Chile, while the second-place finisher will more likely get room-temperature Switzerland.

So you’d indeed rather finish first in Group G than second. Or would you? While contra conventional wisdom, the Round of 16 matchup is liable to be easier, you’ll probably get Holland in the quarterfinals. Or perhaps Italy, for those of you who insist that the Azzurri will magically become threatening even though they drew with New Zealand and haven’t won a match against another World Cup team in more than a year. On the other side of the bracket, your Round of 16 game could be brutal, but your quarterfinal opponent will most likely be Paraguay, or perhaps Denmark or Japan.

But there’s a counter-counter-weight to this if you look all the way forward to the semifinal. The team finishing second in Group G, if they’re fortunate enough to win their first two elimination matches, seems likely to run headlong into Argentina in the semis — and if it isn’t Argentina, it’s liable to be Germany. Meanwhile, the team finishing first, if they can beat the Dutch, could then take a breather against one of the Cinderellas: Uruguay, Serbia, maybe Mexico, South Korea, etc. Again, not to dismiss these teams, some of which are dangerous, but you’d rather hope that someone else knocks off the confident-looking Argentines than have to do so yourself.

Overall, winning Group G seems not disadvantageous, and may in fact be advantageous after all — there’s certainty no reason to besmirch the integrity of the sport. I’d frankly think there is more likelihood of shenanigans in the Ivory Coast – North Korea matchup, should the outcome start to look like an American football score (e.g. 10-3).

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.