Data | Morocco’s magical run is a historically rare occurrence

Only two lower-rated teams have made it to the semifinals of any World Cup before

December 14, 2022 12:07 am | Updated December 15, 2022 01:43 pm IST

Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.

Morocco’s Youssef En-Nesyri celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. | Photo Credit: MARTIN MEISSNER

The business end of the FIFA World Cup - the knockout stage - has now been narrowed down to four contenders for the coveted trophy - Argentina, Croatia, France and Morocco. The two European teams left in the fray were finalists in the 2018 edition and Argentina, with 2,143 Elo points, was ranked second at the start of the tournament, behind favourites Brazil (2,169) who flattered to deceive. But the surprise package of Qatar 2022 has been the team from Morocco, which ranked 24th in Elo ratings and 22nd in FIFA’s World Cup rankings prior to the start of the tournament.

Elo ratings are used to measure a team’s relative strength. The Elo system assigns a rating to each nation, using the results of previous international games. It adds weight based on the opponent’s strength and makes adjustments for the home team’s advantage and the goal difference. For this analysis, the Elo ratings at the start of each World Cup were considered.

Morocco’s surprising performance – it became the first African team to make the semifinals of the World Cup – is even more remarkable considering the fact that only two teams with lower Elo points ever made it this far. And that too, way back in 1938 and 1930. Chart 1 shows the Elo ratings of the semifinalists in each edition of the World Cup. Morocco’s 1,653 Elo points are just slightly ahead of Sweden’s 1651 points in 1938 and Yugoslavia’s 1,591 points in the inaugural edition. Coached by Walid Regragui, the Moroccan team has been stingy in defence, conceding a solitary goal (which was an own-goal).

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With scalps such as FIFA World No 2 Belgium in the first round, ex-World champions Spain in the pre-quarterfinals and Portugal in the quarterfinals, Morocco is primed to mount another upset but it faces a France side that is defending its trophy and has thrived in Qatar as well. France had 2,005 Elo points at the start of the tournament but has since gained 41 points to become the fourth-ranked team, two slots below Argentina’s rank (with 2,120 points as of Tuesday, down 23 points from its Elo rating at the start of Qatar 2022).

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Argentina’s starting Elo rating (2,143) is the second highest for any semifinalist, only behind Hungary (2,144) in the 1954 World Cup as Table 2 shows. The Magical Magyars of 1954 with Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti dominated both the lead-up to the 1954 World Cup and the tournament itself but lost in the finals to a resolute West Germany. The Magyars had dominated the early part of the 1950s - between 1950 and ‘56, they played 69 games, won 58, drew 10 and lost just one game to West Germany in the 1954 finals.

Argentina, coached by Lionel Scaloni and featuring the talismanic Lionel Messi, on the other hand, managed a high starting Elo rating due to a strong 36-game unbeaten run before they were upset by Saudi Arabia in the first round. 

As Table 3 shows, Brazil were favourites to win in eight editions based on Elo points at their start but went on to win only once after beginning with the highest Elo ratings – in 1962 – a feat matched by Spain in 2010 and Italy in 1938. Brazil of course has won the most tournaments - five, overall.

Table 4 shows the average Elo ratings of every edition’s semifinalists. The 2022 edition ranked 14th among the 22 tournaments - the average was dragged down by the surprising and inspiring performance of Morocco. The 2014 edition in Brazil was the highest rated while the 2002 edition featuring two Asian sides, Turkey and South Korea, had the lowest average.


Also read: Data | With three “upset” wins in 2022 FIFA World Cup, Asian and African teams have turned giant slayers

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