For a little over two weeks, the world awaited a first look at the groups for the 2018 World Cup. Finally, they are here. Matchups are set. Some nations are ecstatic with their draws. Others, not so much.
But nobody is dejected. There is no so-called Group of Death. There is one “Group of Life,” but overall, there isn’t too much separation between the various four-team pairings. So how do they stack up against each other in terms of difficulty?
First, it’s necessary to define difficulty. Difficulty is not top-heaviness – it’s not solely about the strength of the favorites. It’s also not parity – it’s not solely about the which group has the highest floor. It’s about both those things, and everything in between. The difficulty we’re assessing isn’t from the perspective of any one team; it’s from the collective perspective of the four. This is therefore about the collective strength of the four.
So, alongside each group, we’ve listed each individual team’s standing in our World Cup Power Rankings. We’ve also listed the average rank of the four teams in the group.
That average, as you’ll see, isn’t the sole determinant of these group rankings. That’s because, in the Power Rankings, the gap between, say, 3 and 7 isn’t equal to the gap between 16 and 20. (The former is much wider.) But the Power Ranks are a decent guideline for thinking about the overall difficulty of the groups.
Without further ado, let’s get to it:
1. Group D: Argentina (6), Croatia (12), Nigeria (17), Iceland (22)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 14.25
Group D has everything you could possible want from a World Cup group. It has star power, and a title contender (Argentina). It has a dark horse semifinal candidate (Croatia). It has a high-upside, low-floor enigma (Nigeria). It has a pesky, scrappy, lovable, actual-quite-good underdog (Iceland). It has stylistic contrasts, storylines aplenty, and much more. It’s not far and away the toughest. But it is the toughest, and it’s certainly the most intriguing.
2. Group F: Germany (2), Mexico (11), Sweden (18), South Korea (28)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 14.75
Group F has a similar structure to Group D’s. Germany conquered the world four years ago, and it is one of the favorites again in Russia. Mexico will give the Germans a real go in their opening match, though. And if Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes out of international retirement for Sweden, this group becomes even more intriguing.
3. Group E: Brazil (1), Switzerland (14), Serbia (16), Costa Rica (27)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 14.5
Group E has a very clear hierarchy. There’s Brazil at the top, who should win it. There’s Switzerland and Serbia (at least) two steps below. And then a (small) step below the two European foes is Costa Rica. However, that’s perhaps a bit harsh on the Central Americans, who reached the quarterfinals four years ago. If they can rise to the challenge again, the battle for second place could be a whole lot of fun.
4. Group B: Spain (3), Portugal (8), Iran (24), Morocco (26)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 15.25
Group B was really tough after two Pots had been emptied. After all four had been, it wasn’t notably more or less difficult than an average four-team pod. Instead, it’s stratified. Spain and Portugal should advance. But Iran and Morocco had two of the best defensive records during qualification, so there’s great Cristiano Ronaldo frustration potential here.
5. Group H: Colombia (10), Poland (13), Senegal (19), Japan (23)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 16.25
Group H followed the opposite trajectory of Group B. Colombia and Poland are a relatively weak Pot 1-Pot 2 pairing, but Senegal is a top-three team from Pot 3, and Japan is a top-three team from Pot 4. The result: All four nations could realistically win the group. All four could realistically finish second. All four could realistically finish last.
6. Group C: France (4), Peru (15), Denmark (20), Australia (29)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 17
Group C is Group E Lite. France is right up there with Brazil among the contenders. But the Peru-Denmark middle tier doesn’t possess much upside. It’s weak enough that Australia might even like its chances to reach the knockout rounds out of Pot 4.
7. Group F: Belgium (5), England (7), Tunisia (30), Panama (31)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 18.25
This is one of those groups whose difficulty depends on perspective. When Tunisia was drawn and saw Belgium and England staring it in the fast, the Eagles of Carthage (great nickname) had to be disappointed. But Belgium and England are ecstatic, and the English media are already giddy with their “this group couldn’t be easier” takes. (And they’re right. If either Belgium or England doesn’t advance, heads will roll.
8. Group A: Uruguay (9), Russia (21), Egypt (25), Saudi Arabia (32)
Average Power Ranking of teams: 21.75
The worst team from Pot 1, the worst in the entire tournament, and the third-worst from Pot 3. They’re partying in the streets of Montevideo.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.