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Spain's hopes take a huge hit

June 17, 2010
By Nate Silver
Special to

With all 32 sides now having played at least one match, we're due for a quick overview of the World Cup circuit. The results you see below are based on slightly more than 10,000 simulations using the SPI match predictor given the results of the tournament through the first round of group stage games (plus the Uruguay-South Africa match):

This group cheated by playing one additional match before anybody else. And it was a critical one, with Uruguay defeating South Africa 3-0. The victory all but assures that Uruguay will advance and that South Africa won't. It was really the second and third goals, which Uruguay scored late, that were the key, because in a tournament in which teams are having trouble winning by multiple-goal margins, Uruguay will almost certainly win any tiebreaker and South Africa will almost certainly lose it. For South Africa to advance, it will probably need the following three things to occur: France draws Mexico, Uruguay beats Mexico, South Africa beats France. None of those things are impossible, but it's quite a parlay, especially since South Africa will be without its keeper and striker Kagisho Dikgacoi for France.

As for France and Mexico, Thursday's match is a de facto play-in game. Do look for Mexico to play more aggressively, because its remaining match is against tough Uruguay, while France plays the more vulnerable hosts. By the way, nobody should be surprised that Uruguay sits atop this group; SPI had it rated eighth or ninth in the world heading into the tournament, whereas France was fortunate to qualify and seems as though it would rather be on the beach in Nice. Mexico, though a difficult side to get a handle on, did not endure as many tests in qualifying.

I didn't see anything wrong with Argentina in its 1-0 opening win against Nigeria. Yes, Nigeria failed to convert on a couple of good scoring chances, but the same was true of Argentina; this game could just as easily have been 2-0 or 3-1 as a draw. The story here, however, is South Korea, which played terrific soccer against Greece and was also very impressive in a series of friendly matches in the run-up to the tournament. Its fitness and technical style seem to be compatible with what's working in South Africa so far, and SPI has gone bonkers over them, moving them all the way up to 11th in the world (ELO agrees, now rating the South Koreans No. 16). With that said, South Korea's rating is extremely volatile because it just hasn't played that many matches against high-quality opponents, so if the Koreans are underwhelming against Nigeria or Argentina, their rating will fall nearly as quickly as it rose (Indeed: Argentina won 4-0, not reflected in the chart above). But whereas before it appeared as though Nigeria could somewhat afford an opening loss to Argentina, now things will be much trickier for it.

There's a pretty clear decision rule here: If the USA either beats Slovenia, or draws with Slovenia and beats Algeria, it's very likely to advance. Otherwise, the U.S. is very unlikely to, although there are wild-card scenarios that could come into play if England starts to lose some matches it shouldn't. Not that Slovenia should be anything in particular to fear. Algeria is one of the worst sides in the tournament, and Slovenia beat Algeria only after Abdelkader Ghezzal was dismissed and then only on a soft goal.

Pretty much the same decision rule applies for England, by the way, although there's been a bit too much consternation in the British tabloids over the draw to the Americans. Had Robert Green not allowed that goal to trickle in, I don't think anyone would be accusing England of having played a poor match.

Germany's 4-0 win against Australia was one of the few matches I didn't watch, but the scoreline somewhat speaks for itself. Again, it's the more physical teams, and the more technical teams, that seem to be thriving amid the altitude changes, the vuvuzelas and the Jabulani, while the prettier, more finesse sides seem to be somewhat disoriented. And German soccer is a lot of things, but it isn't pretty.

I thought the Serbia-Ghana match was one of the more attractive of the tournament so far, although it helps that both teams have such sharp-looking kits. Really, there's a lot of talent in this group -- obviously excluding Australia. But it's simply going to be very hard for Serbia to qualify with two teams already having accumulated three points ahead of it.

We have the Netherlands only narrowly behind Brazil with a 14 percent chance to win the entire tournament versus 15 percent for the Selecao (Holland was briefly ahead of Brazil, in fact, but the advantage reversed itself once we ran a few more simulations and increased the sample size). The Netherlands is almost certain to qualify, at least, out of a middling group, and its relatively versatile style could be advantageous under the somewhat varied playing conditions of the tournament. This has been a somewhat disappointing tournament for the African teams as a whole, but Cameroon was the only one to have lost a match that it was a distinct favorite in. Like Serbia, Cameroon is not without talent, but is simply going to find it very difficult to qualify in a group in which two teams already have three points -- and with its match against the Netherlands yet to come. Denmark, in fact, is better placed to take advantage should Japan's win against Cameroon prove to be a fluke.

This is a pretty terrible group; I say it should concede one of its qualifying positions to Group D or Group G, although I don't think FIFA will go for that. Everyone now seems to agree with what SPI thought going in, which is that the Italian side -- a mix of players who are too old or too young -- is in something of a rebuilding phase and not obviously stronger than the Paraguayans. Still, the Italians are perfectly well-positioned to advance in this marginal group, and it behooves them to work on their goal differential so they can top the group and avoid Holland in the round of 16.

Mixed feelings here about Brazil. I only saw the second half of its match against North Korea, and in the second half, Brazil still looked very much like Brazil, in spite of having conceded a late goal. And there's really no way to calibrate our estimate of how strong North Korea is since it's so isolated from the rest of the football world. Still, let's not make too many excuses for Brazil; this is a match that, by SPI's reckoning, it should have won 3-0 or 4-1. The consensus seems to be that Ivory Coast looked the stronger of the two sides in the draw against Portugal, and I wouldn't disagree. I thought Alexi Lalas made an excellent point too, which is that Ivory Coast was bigger and more physical than Portugal and that should create more of a mismatch against North Korea, which could be critical, since the second qualifying position could easily come down to goal differential. With that said, Brazil still has about a 15 percent chance of failing to qualify and could be vulnerable in a tiebreaker scenario after only having beat North Korea by one goal.

Chile was certainly impressive in a match that could easily have been 3-0 or even 4-0 if its finishing had been better. Still -- although SPI thought very highly of the Chileans heading into the tournament -- it's hard to tell how much of that is Chile being really good or Honduras being really awful. The interesting thing will be to see if Chile adopts a more conservative style now that draws against Switzerland or Spain would suit it just fine. I tend to think it shouldn't be -- first, because in a short tournament, you stick with what works; and second, because there's a big advantage to finishing first in this group and avoiding Brazil in the knockout stages.

But let's not bury the lead here, which was Spain's loss to Switzerland, easily the most compelling result of the tournament to date. Spain had so many near-misses it's hard to regard it as not having been a bit unlucky. At the same time Switzerland, as well as it played, was not exactly burning up the pitch qualifying out of a very weak UEFA group. But this is all academic, really: In a three-match group stage, any loss is devastating whether it's deserved or fluky, and Spain now has barely better than even odds of advancing.

Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.