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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Does The World Cup Need An Upset To Stay Relevant?

There is plenty of justifiable excitement ahead of this year's World Cup. The Eagles are playing well, teams like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England are fun to watch, and of all years, this year has the potential for an upset. In Pool A two of Australia, England, Wales, and Fiji aren't going to make the Cup quarterfinals and one team is going to miss out on automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup. In Pool B, the Eagles pool, South Africa and Scotland are probably the favorites to make the Cup quarterfinals but every other team in the pool thinks they have a shot. Actually, the only pool that is straightforward is Pool C. 

However, merely having the potential of upsets only makes the tournament interesting in the lead-up. Unless upsets happen in the tournament then it will just become another tournament where the top teams from the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship fill the quarterfinals. One of the things that makes the FIFA World Cup so interesting is that there are favorites but throughout the tournament there are upsets and teams like Turkey and South Korea can end up in the semi-finals. That hasn't happened in rugby and unless it happens sometime soon the ability for interest to grow around the world could be gone.

Take the jump to read more.There have been teams that made the Cup quarterfinals in the past. Fiji made it in 1987, Samoa and Canada in 1991, Samoa again in 1995 and 1999 (along with Fiji in the later) but only Fiji has crashed the party in the last three editions. In total only 12 teams have every made the cup quarterfinals and a team like Italy has never made it. 

What the World Cup needs is for a non-traditional team to cause an upset in their pool and to make waves later on in the tournament. Argentina captured some of that excitement in 2007 with a trip to the semi-finals but it needs to go even further and have a team like the U.S., Japan, or Canada break through. Rugby needs to emerge in different markets and only if there is a reason for others around the world to pay attention--nothing does that better than a major upset--world rugby is going to grow. 

It's not as if World Rugby isn't pouring resources into developing Tier II nations. Millions of dollars are making their way into this nations and increasing the teams are made up of professional players. As mentioned, this year has more potential for upsets than any other year namely because funds have been invested into Fiji, Japan, and the United States. 

So maybe the answer lies in a change of format. The year that seemed to bring the biggest potential for teams to make waves was in 1999 when there was a playoff of six teams to see who would make the quarterfinals. That meant that Fiji, Wales, and Argentina all made it through. Maybe World Rugby should return to that format to give teams an incentive to finish third in their pool other than automatic qualification to the next World Cup? 

Maybe the answer lies in expanding the number of teams at the World Cup? Would there continue to be blowouts? Without question and they would probably get much worse. However, adding the likes of Portugal, Spain, Russia, Zimbabwe, Chile, or Kenya would mean that more teams would benefit from World Cup excitement at home and other teams, like the U.S. and Canada might be able to pick up more wins. It would also make the World Cup a more inclusive event. We all know that in the most evenly mismatched matches that teams rest players (there is no way that Wales, Fiji, England, or Australia will be playing their first side against Uruguay). Over time those nations, like the current Tier II nations, would improve and the discrepancies in scores would go down. 

By splitting 24 teams into six pools of four there is a bigger chance that a Tier II team might make the Cup quarterfinals. Or you could even expand the tournament a round so that there is a round of 16. Teams like the Eagles and Canada would have a good chance of making that tournament and it would give them a one off chance to beat a top nation. Would it happen? Probably not at first but it sets up the possibility of an upset, which only drives interest in the sport. 

There is no easy fix to this problem and maybe it's finding a problem when there isn't really one, but if the World Cup isn't able to become a less predictable event than it will be easy to predict that viewership will either be stagnant or fall. 


  1. Need to add 2 more Groups and decrease the size of the groups by a team, 6 groups of 4. Smaller groups with 24 total teams rather than 20 teams will allow better chance to get a lesser team through. Add a round of 12 instead of going straight to quarterfinals. Top 4 teams get a bye, which would get you your stud teams - NZ, ENG, SA, AUS (IMO) into the quarterfinals, and IRE (5), Wales (6) (IMO) getting Tonga (11) and Samoa (12) respectively with Argentina (7) v US (10) and Fiji (8) v Italy (9). Now you have a shot to get the US, Italy, Fiji, Samoa into the quarterfinals and a chance to play against a top 6 team.

    1. That would mean that half of the participation teams would get only three matches, not the guaranteed 4 they get now.

  2. Upsets, and competitive games, are great. 1999 is not the model to follow if that's what you want. Until the semifinal, it was one of the most predictable and least competitive World Cups ever. Having pools with only four teams only highlighted the mismatches, which is why the pool stage of that tournament was mostly unwatchable. (The pool with Argentina, Samoa, and Wales was good, but other than that there were hardly any competitive matches, and those mostly between bottom-feeders). The ridiculous second round did feature Argentina upsetting Ireland, but it also left the winners in a bad state for the quarterfinal. For the record, Fiji and Samoa did not reach the quarterfinal in 1999 - they lost to England and Scotland in the playoff - and Wales did not have to participate in the playoff in order to reach the quarterfinal.

    The current format is probably the best for promoting close games and upsets. Top teams have more reason to use their lesser players than they would if there were only three pool matches, and a pool with four teams will have fewer opportunities to match up teams with similar ability.

    Part of the problem is the sport itself. Soccer, like baseball, has quite a bit of variance (luck), and a weak team can frequently compete against their betters. A mismatch equivalent to last weekend's USA-Australia rugby match could very well produce an upset in soccer.

    Soccer is also safer. Six pools of four teams might give us a matchup like New Zealand - Korea, with the bookies setting the over/under on broken necks at 3 and the point spread at 200.

    We see this in RWC qualifying as well. We've gotten to a point where there is almost no suspense as to the identity of 19 of the teams, and only a handful of team legitimately contesting the last spot.

    But that's ok - I think this is something of a case of finding a problem where there isn't one. The tournament continues to grow in popularity (implausibility of claims to be the world's third most popular sporting event notwithstanding) and playing standards are rising quickly in many Tier 2 and 3 countries. As much as I would love to see a more competitive tournament, it's just something for which we'll have to be patient. We can't organize our way to a shortcut.

    It's important to remember how far we've come since 1987. This is a long game. The tournament is not yet what it could be, but by 2043 I expect it will quite a bit better than it is now.

  3. 24 teams would be insane. The game is far too physical and as it is there will be mismatches in this tournament. Even with that said this looks to be a pretty competitive tournament. Either Australia, Wales or England are going to go home after the 1st round. Possibly two of them if Fiji has a say. The Eagle pool has the potential to leave Scotland home should Samoa create a stir (I am not of the opinion that the Eagles will make the QF's). Italy could move forward should they find a way past Argentina and our friends to the north could create an upset against France if France shows up with one of their disinterested efforts. Some "sure thing" quarterfinalists from years past will be sitting at home after the pool round. Sounds pretty competitive to me.

  4. The powers that be won't allow upsets to happen. Just look at the schedules for the SANZAR and Six Nations teams. They routinely have favorable schedules, less travel, and more time between games. And can anyone tell me why every single referee, assistant referee, and TV official has to come from a Six Nations or SANZAR country? Can't they find even one referee how is up to the task from the tier 2 or 3 countries? The IRB or whatever they are calling themselves these days set this tournament up to give every advantage to the old guard nations.