Statistical regularities of the recent World Cups

The World Cup is getting closer, so we want to glimpse the future or at least understand what to expect from the upcoming tournament in Qatar. Statistics will help. Based on past World Cups, some patterns and surprising conclusions can already tell us what will happen in Qatar.

Official matchball for the World Cup Qatar 2022


The BBC study took into account the last six FIFA World Cups. After all, they have followed a familiar format: 32 teams divided into eight groups. There were 384 matches played in the six tournaments between 1998 and 2018. Enough to reveal some trends.

How the location of the tournament affects the teams

Let’s start with the simplest but not the most obvious. It is a minor influence. But statistics show that European countries have placed ten out of 16 in the playoffs in the last three European tournaments. When the tournament was held outside Europe, that number dropped to an average of seven. 

As usual, the competitiveness of the World Cup can be determined by how many of the strongest teams in the FIFA rankings take part. You can even use World Cup betting apps to see who can qualify for the playoffs in Qatar 2022.

However, South Americans benefited most from this European drop, while Asian teams were twice as likely to make the playoffs when the World Cup was held outside Europe. 

Is there a link between World Cup qualification and how far teams advance in the tournament?

Five of the last six world champions have been Europeans. All of them, with the exception of France 1998, the host country, had to qualify, and they did so brilliantly. World Cup winners Italy (2006), Spain (2010), Germany (2014) and France (2018) have either not lost at all or have lost just once in ten qualifying matches. If we count a draw as half a win, their winning percentage was at least 80.

If we focus on the Europeans (although Brazil and Argentina in their current form are also contenders to win), we can look ahead and see who, based on these statistics, is closest to winning the 2022 World Cup. Who will exceed the 80 per cent threshold to win the qualifying tournament? But the list will be narrower. There are many: Denmark (95%), England and Germany (90% each), Serbia and Belgium (87.5% each), Spain, Switzerland and France (81.3% each), Croatia and the Netherlands (80% each).

How well have the teams performed in the knockout phase

At first glance, it might seem that these teams that made it through to the knockout stage are second-ranked teams that won’t have much impact on the tournament. But only at first glance. In the case of European teams, 67 per cent of those who make it through the qualifiers qualify for the playoffs, but only 57 per cent of those who make it directly.

Two of the last six World Cup finals have been played by European teams that made it to the knockout stage. Those were Germany in 2002 and Croatia in 2018. Croatia in 1998 and Turkey in 2002 reached the semi-finals, although they got to the tournament via the knockout stages, i.e. through the last leg.

Why are the reigning champions having a hard time?

The last time anyone managed to defend the title was in 1962. In 14 consecutive world championships, only twice have the reigning champions made it past the quarterfinals. This sad statistic leads one to believe in a curse and karma. In reality, it is much simpler than that. You have to remember that four years is a long time, and there are a lot of changes in the squads of national teams, including the world champions.

And the problems of the title-winning defenders start from the very first match. In the 12 tournaments since England beat Romania in 1970, only three reigning champions have started a new championship with victories. And four of the last five reigning champions have not made it out of groups.

On average, only 50 per cent of the players who started the final of a winning World Cup qualify for the first game of the next World Cup. That’s as far as renewals go. Italy, for example, in the first game of the 2010 World Cup against Paraguay (1-1), released only three people in the starting line-up who were in it in the 2006 World Cup final. They are simply different teams. Although in the minds of fans, journalists and experts, the name remains the same. And there is a sense that there is a certain mystique about it.

How often do teams in the bottom places come up with surprises?

It is easy to predict that the two strongest teams from each group will emerge. But no. Usually the third or fourth ranked team will qualify for the playoffs. This happens 32 percent of the time. In the last six World Cups the lower ranked teams have won 34 per cent of their playoff games at different stages.

Of course, a significant contribution to the statistics came from the 2002 World Cup. South Korea beat the number six (Italy) and number eight (Spain) teams in the playoffs, ranking 40th. At the same tournament, Senegal, number 42, knocked out Sweden, number 19. 

So the upcoming tournament in Qatar will present us with many surprises, dramas and intriguing twists and turns.

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