World Cup trophy
Which team will get their hands on the World Cup trophy on 18 December?

What can we learn from previous World Cup tournaments?

Is the World Cup more difficult? Is it a good idea to write off teams that qualified through the play-offs now? Is playing in Asia compatible with some countries?

We look at a number of factors to see which teams are well positioned for the World Cup.

There have been six previous tournaments with the same format of 32 teams divided into eight groups of four and it is these six tournaments that have provided the most games to look at.

We will be looking at the tournaments from 1998 to now.

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How much impact does location have on the performance of travelling teams?

Ten of the 16 knockout places have been filled by European nations in the past three tournaments. The figure goes down to an average of seven when the finals are outside Europe.

When the finals aren't in Europe, the number of Asian teams reaching the knock-out is twice as high.

Is there a link between qualifying and how far teams progress in the finals?

All but one of the past six World Cup winners were European, with the exception of 1998 champion France.

Italy, Spain, Germany, and France all won all of their games in the qualification rounds. The win percentage was 80% and above.

All but one of the European nations have made it to this year's event, with the exception of Croatia and the Netherlands.

How 'strong' is this year's line-up based on world rankings compared to earlier tournaments?

We can use the world ranking of teams at the start of a tournament to see how competitive a tournament could be. The 32 teams for each tournament are ranked.


There are teams not at the finals that are higher ranked than others.

Italy, sixth in the world, is the most obvious omission, but many other countries would have been involved if world rankings decided qualification.

The lowest number of teams during the 32-team era has been achieved by seven lower ranked teams. There have been as many as 11 teams from outside the top-32 in some finals.

It is a difficult tournament to win.

England and Wales are in the toughest group of all the teams in the world, according to the combined rankings.

A - Netherlands (8), Senegal (18), Ecuador (44), Qatar (50)
B - England (5), USA (16), Wales (19), Iran (20)
C - Argentina (3), Mexico (13), Poland (26), Saudi Arabia (51)
D - France (4), Denmark (10), Tunisia (30), Australia (38)
E - Spain (7), Germany (11), Japan (24), Costa Rica (31)
F - Belgium (2), Croatia (12), Morocco (22), Canada (41)
G - Brazil (1), Switzerland (15), Serbia (21), Cameroon (43)
H - Portugal (9), Uruguay (14), South Korea (28), Ghana (61)

How well do play-off winners usually do?

Poland and Portugal joined Wales in the European play-offs for the first time in 64 years.

It might seem like a back-door route, but recent history shows the teams who qualify that way can make a big difference.

Only a small percentage of teams that qualify directly make it to the knockout stages.

Germany and Croatia played in the World Cup finals in 2002 and 2018, respectively. Croatia and Turkey made it to the final four, as well as three other play-off sides.

France v Croatia
France won the 2018 World Cup, winning 4-2 in the final against a Croatia side who defeated Greece in a two-legged play-off to earn their place in Russia

Why do defending champions struggle?

Brazil won the World Cup in 2006 and have won a grand total of one knockout match since 1990. Since 1962, the cup hasn't been retained and only two holders have made it to the quarter-finals.

Match one starts the holders' troubles. Only three of the 12 tournaments have started with a win for the defending champion. Defending champion haven't gotten out of their group

What's the reason? It takes four years to play football. Only half of players who start a final for the winners will start the first game of the tournament.

Three members of the 2006 final line-up were in Italy's starting line-up when they started their defence with a draw.

Italy won the World Cup in 2006 but four years later drew 1-1 with Paraguay in their first match and failed to win a game at the 2010 event, finishing bottom of their group

How many times does a lower-ranked team cause an upset?

You will be surprised if you think the top two teams always emerge from each group.

Six of the 16 knockout places are taken by teams that were the third and fourth ranked teams in their group. 32% is an upsetting rate. The knockout games have been won by 34% of the lower ranked teams.

YearWinner (rank)Loser (rank)Difference
2002South Korea (40)Italy (6)34 places
2002Senegal (42)Sweden (19)23 places
2002South Korea (40)Spain (8)32 places
2018Russia (70)Spain (10)60 places

The hosts have caused three of the four biggest upsets.

There will be lots of drama and controversy over the next five weeks.