How predictive are qualifying results?
The United States faces the Netherlands in an international friendly Wednesday in Amsterdam (2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN360). The Dutch are ranked No. 4 in ESPN's Soccer Power Index and are among the World Cup favorites after running the table in qualifying. The Netherlands and Spain were the first countries to win all of their qualifiers in the last four cycles, and both seem to be in fine form as the World Cup nears. Five other countries also qualified for the 2010 World Cup without suffering a loss: traditional powers Germany and Italy, African sides Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and 2002 semifinalist South Korea.
But what does an undefeated qualifying campaign mean for a country's chances at the World Cup? While no country has won all its qualifiers in the previous three campaigns, 24 countries did qualify undefeated from 1998 to 2006.
Looking at the results of those two dozen countries, it seems to matter very little. Exactly half of the 24 failed to advance past the group stage (see complete list at bottom of article). Only five of the remaining 12 countries reached the quarterfinals, with only Portugal (semifinals) and France (runner-up) in 2006 advancing from there. Based on this data, there seems to be no correlation between an undefeated qualifying cycle and a successful World Cup run.
One issue with looking solely at undefeated countries is that the list skews heavily toward Europe, which typically plays the fewest qualifiers. Of the 24 undefeated teams, 18 were from Europe, five were African and one was from Asia. The chances of a CONMEBOL or CONCACAF country going undefeated are severely undermined by the larger number of matches. More matches obviously mean more chances to lose, as well as an increase in the potential for meaningless games. For example, Uruguay played 20 matches this qualifying cycle, more than double the total of the Netherlands or New Zealand (eight each).
Let's take a look at the top qualifiers from those regions over the past three World Cups. Of the six teams to top qualifying in CONCACAF or CONMEBOL from 1998 to 2006, three reached the knockout stage, and none progressed past the quarterfinals. That's a small sample size, but again no correlation exists between recent qualifying success and World Cup success.
Having said all that, a different trend emerges when looking at the numbers from the other direction. Ten World Cup champions had to qualify for the tournament they eventually won (six received automatic berths as host or defending champion; Uruguay did not have to qualify for either championship tournament). Of those 10, five of them went undefeated in qualifying, and four more lost exactly one game. The only World Cup champion that suffered multiple qualifying defeats was 2002 Brazil, which lost six times and finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying before winning all seven games at the World Cup. Perhaps that is good news for this year's Brazil team, which lost twice in qualifying, and Argentina, which fell six times during a tumultuous campaign.
While the perfect qualifying campaigns of the Netherlands and Spain may not mean a World Cup title is on the horizon, the mere fact that both sides were successful indicates that they are legitimate contenders for the championship.
Excluding 1998 France, which qualified automatically as the host nation, the last country to go undefeated in qualifying and then win the World Cup was West Germany in 1990.
Paul Carr is a researcher for the ESPN Stats & Information group.