As the world’s professional soccer seasons draw to a close, the countdown to the World Cup is well underway. Between June 12 and July 13, thirty-two teams representing thirty-two countries will descend upon pitches across Brazil, playing for the chance to enter the final and walk away the winners. Since December, when the draw was held, the placement of the teams who qualified has been known, but where does the road to the gold lead from here, and who is represented?
From the qualifying stage: thirteen European teams; five from Africa; four from the Caribbean, Central and North America; five Latin American teams; and four from Asia emerged victorious. As the host country, Brazil was automatically guaranteed a spot. The draw took these thirty-two teams and divided them into eight groups of four for the final part of the competition. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the governing body for soccer, and in its regulations for the World Cup explains how the tournament plays out. Essentially, following the progress in theory means keeping track of a lot of numbers and repetitive letters. But once you have it sorted out, everything clicks into place.
Over three days, all of the teams in each group play each other once in what is known as the Group Stage of competition. The groups are classified A through H, and have numeric classifications within the groups. For example, the U.S. is in Group G (along with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana), at the fourth slot, G4. The numbers assigned to the countries don’t matter too much at this point. It mattered more when filling the groups out after the qualifying rounds. The top ranked teams, based on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Cup Ranking, took the first seeds within each group. The remaining three seeds within each were filled at random. Teams from the same qualification zone could not be placed in the same group unless they were a European team. In that case, a maximum of two European teams could be placed in the same group.
Out of the Group Stage, two teams from each group will advance. For a win, a team is awarded three points, and one point for a draw. No points are given for losing. Who moves on from the first stage is determined by (1) the number of points a team has after the group matches have been played, (2) goal difference in the final scores of the matches, and (3) most goals scored by a team. If after that, two teams are tied, the same criteria go head-to-head to try and break the tie so one team will advance. If they remain deadlocked after all of that, who goes on falls to a “drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee,” in other words, a random drawing. In 1990, this is why Ireland advanced over the Netherlands during the Group Stage.
The winner and runner-up from the group stage proceed to the next round, cutting the number of teams involved in half — the first of three knockout stages. The winner from Group A takes on the runner-up from Group B, while Group B’s winner is playing Group A’s runner-up — a pattern that continues on down the line to determine who moves forward from the Round of 16. At this point, there can be no ties. If there is a draw after 90 minutes of play, an additional 15 minutes are played. Should that not result in one team taking the lead, penalty kicks are taken.
Starting with the A-B matchup, the victors become “1″ and whoever wins in B-A is “2,” resulting in the teams now being numbered from 1 to 8. But numbers aren’t the only value the teams have, they are now re-alphabetized too. In the quarterfinals, “A” features 1 versus 3; “B” pitches 2 against 4; “C” has 5 playing 7; and “D” is the realm of 6 versus 8. Again, there can be no ties, and the same process previously mentioned applies. In the semi-finals are the winners from the last stage: A plays C, and B plays D. The winners of the semi-final stage move on to the final, and the losers play for third place.
Paradoxically, the entire process is muddled but highly organized. Since teams are not assigned one number or letter throughout, there is constant rebranding. Understanding the backbones to the structure though will simplify following the World Cup once it begins, and nondescript As and Cs can be filled with nationalistic pride for your favorite team.