Coming second in FIFA World Cup group stages not good enough any more

Looking at the trends of the last three FIFA World Cups, if you come in second in the group stages, you might as well kiss your chances of progressing beyond the round of 16 goodbye.
The FIFA World Cup tournament isn’t kind to those teams that finish second in the group stages.(REUTERS)
The FIFA World Cup tournament isn’t kind to those teams that finish second in the group stages.(REUTERS)
Updated on Jun 13, 2018 10:32 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent

For a FIFA World Cup team, trying to qualify from the group phase is a hard enough task. There are three other teams there that are just as good as you or even better.

Even if your group isn’t a ‘Group of Death’, you can’t take any matches for granted.

Say you somehow get through to the knockout rounds, you manage to come in second by the skin of your teeth and start looking forward to your next match.

Even if you manage to get a team like Brazil, you’d fancy your chances against them in a one-off match. Anything could happen right?

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Not really. Looking at the last three World Cups, if you come in second you might as well kiss your chances goodbye.

Only three group runners-up have won their Round of 16 matches over the last three tournaments. In fact, in the last World Cup in Brazil, none of the runners-up won their Round of 16 matches.

In the 2002 edition of the World Cup, at least four group runners-up won their ‘Round-of-16’ matches and went through to the quarter-finals. That came down to 2 in 2006, 1 in 2010 and 0 in 2014.

If we look at how many group runners-up made it to the semi-finals, only one has done so in the last three World Cups, France in 2006. The team also made it to the final, where they lost to Italy.

And if we look at how many teams that have won the World Cup after finishing second or third in their group, we have had none in 36 years.

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There were three World Cups in a row in 1974, 1978 and 1982 that were won by teams that had finished as runners-up or third in their groups (West Germany, Argentina and Italy respectively).

But after 1982, no team that finished 2nd in the group phase has won the World Cup (see table below).

How far have second - or third-placed teams gone?
This table looks at the best positions historically of teams that have finished 2nd or 3rd in the group phase of the World Cup.
Year Farthest a Group Runners-Up or 3rd-placed team has gone Team
1930 no places for runners-up -
1934 not applicable, straight knockout format -
1938 not applicable, straight knockout format -
1950 no places for runners-up -
1954 Winner West Germany
1958 Semi-finals France, West Germany
1962 Runners-up Czechoslovakia
1966 Quarter-finals Argentina, North Korea, Hungary, Uruguay
1970 Semi-finals Uruguay
1974 Winner West Germany
1978 Winner Argentina
1982 Runners-up Italy
1986 Runners-up West Germany
1990 Runners-up Argentina
1994 Runners-up Italy
1998 Semi-finals Croatia
2002 Semi-finals Turkey
2006 Runners-up France
2010 Quarter-finals Ghana
2014 Round of 16 Chile, Uruguay, Nigeria, Algeria, Mexico, Greece, Switzerland, United States
Source: FIFA.COM

As mentioned earlier, France went all the way to the final in 2006 after finishing 2nd in their group, but since then, group runners-up haven’t had much luck.

So what is going on here? Why are teams that are finishing second not progressing further any more?

Logically, it may seem that since runners-up have to face group winners in the next round, it will only seem natural that they will have a hard time getting past them. But that was also the case in the 2002 edition of the tournament, when four runners-up managed to win their Round-of-16 ties and go through to the quarterfinals.

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The woes of group runners-up may have to do with how international football is becoming less competitive at the very top. After all the World Cup has been held 20 times, but only 8 national teams have won it.

The most accomplished teams might be getting stronger resulting in a growing gap between the elite teams in world football and the second tier. It’s hard to escape the feeling that even if a team gets out of its group, once they come up against someone from this elite group, they’re pretty much done for.

The FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia will give us an idea if the trend in international football is continuing or if second-placed teams can fight back the dominance of the top teams.

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