Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

Five things about the World Cup draw

Birmingham, June 2006

England will find out on Friday evening who and when they will be playing at next year's football World Cup in South Africa. And the ramifications go far beyond football. Here are five reasons why.

When a World Cup is about to start with England in it, something seems to change.

People who would only pay a passing interest to the fortunes of the national team suddenly become expert in the merits of 4-4-2 and the fitness of Wayne Rooney, upon whose young shoulders glory could depend.

As well as the excitement among fans - with an optimism that has been dashed at the quarter-final stage at the last two tournaments - there are huge commercial interests wrapped up in England's fortunes.

So when 32 little balls are plucked out of the draw in Cape Town, in a ceremony hosted by Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, the ramifications will be felt by fans, bookies, travel agents, off-licences, statisticians and... er, conspiracy theorists.


About 70,000 England fans travelled to Germany in 2006, many without tickets who just wanted to sample the atmosphere. Some built their summer holidays around the tournament.

As soon as England's name is drawn and the dates of their fixtures become known, it will prompt one almighty stampede for time off work, flights to South Africa and accommodation.

Where there will be a guaranteed demand prices will go up
Which? spokeswoman

The World Cup is one of those rare occasions when a large chunk of the nation's workforce wants the same days off, says Jonathan Mansfield, partner at the employment law specialists, ThomasMansfield LLP. Job contracts can vary, but on the whole it's first come first served, he says. So have applications at the ready.

Then there's the small matter of getting there and where you will stay. One thing is guaranteed, you'll pay through the nose for both flights and accommodation. Airlines, tour operators and hotels always hike prices - it's a simple case of supply and demand.

When Ireland's World Cup qualifier against France was announced in October, flights to Paris on the country's two major airlines cost around 24.99 euros minutes before the draw and 124.99 euros just 15 minutes after, says Ireland's opposition party's sports spokesman, John O'Mahony.

"We all expected there to be some increase in airline prices," he says. "But cashing-in to this extent is ridiculous."

But they are breaking no laws, says the consumer watchdog Which?

"Where there will be a guaranteed demand, prices will go up," says a spokeswoman. "It's unfair but no rules are being broken."


Off-licence owners will be watching the draw closely because the days that England play could be among their busiest of the year.

"According to market data, we estimate that England's participation will add an extra £15bn to take-home sales of lager," says Rosie Davenport, editor of Off-Licence News.

Pub in Manchester
Pubs will be a focal point for fans

"Because it's in South Africa, people in the UK will be able to enjoy the matches at a reasonable hour, often at home with their friends."

Sunshine would increase sales, as would the possibility that any of England's matches should fall on the weekend.

South African wines will probably be marketed strongly too, says Ms Davenport, as the host country tries to capitalise on the opportunity.

British pubs can expect to sell an extra 10 million pints on the days that England play, says Neil Smith of the British Beers and Pubs Association, which represents half the pubs in England, Scotland and Wales.

"The industry will definitely be watching the draw closely, because there are very difficult trading conditions at the moment, so those dates will be among the first to go in the diary for next year."


"The World Cup is the biggest betting event of them all," says Graham Sharpe of William Hill. "The Grand National as a one-off race is big but as an event the World Cup is bigger. It's unparalleled, a billion-pound plus will be be bet with British bookmakers."

Bookmakers are praying for a good draw for England, he says, so the team can get through its group. But if England captain John Terry was to lift the trophy, the bookies would be crippled.

"We want them to reach the final and lose on penalties. If they win, we would be bankrupt, although we've had 43 years to save up for it."

People who would never usually enter a bookies suddenly take an interest, which is why an England win - they are third favourites - would be a "mega-liability", he says.

Backing the winning team is the most popular bet, followed by the outcome of individual matches, tournament top scorer and group winners.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may not have teams there but they still like a gamble, says Mr Sharp, and betting on matches in which your team does not feature is very popular.

"The only reason to watch Mexico and Greece could be because you've got a fiver on it. Some teams are adopted because of particular players. Chelsea fans may support Ivory Coast, for instance."


England are among the top seeds in the draw, which means they avoid being drawn against the very best sides in the group stage, but they could still face some very strong sides from the other three "pots".

So what are the chances of England being drawn against, say, Portugal, USA and Ivory Coast - what has been called a "Group of Death"?

Professor Ian Stewart, author of Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, has worked it out.

The teams are divided into four pots, with eight in each pot, he explains. Pot 1 contains the seeded teams: South Africa, England, Argentina, Brazil, and four others. South Africa automatically goes into group A and the other teams are randomly assigned to groups B-H.

Pot 2 contains the USA, and the probability that it goes into England's group is easy: 1/8. The same goes for Portugal in Pot 4.

Pot 3 is more complicated. It contains three South American teams and five African ones including Ivory Coast.

South Africa gets the first South American team drawn, because teams from the same continent are kept apart, while Argentina and Brazil get the first two African teams.

"For England to get Ivory Coast, this must be the third, fourth, or fifth African team drawn, probability 3/5, and then be assigned to England, probability 1/5.

"So the overall probability of the group of death is 1/8 x 1/8 x 3/5 x 1/5 = 3/1600: about 1 chance in 530."


Football fans love a conspiracy theory. And the febrile atmosphere of the draw is a perfect breeding ground for them.

One idea is that the organisers want the hosts to progress to the knockout stages to maintain interest.

Questions are always swirling through the mind of the football fan. Why did France have such an easy ride to the final at the 1998 World Cup final? How did South Korea suddenly manage to get all the way to the semis when they were co-hosting in 2002?

Heidi Klum
Heidi Klum did the honours in 2005

The same sort of questions will pop up if South Africa get an easy draw. Their fans might be hoping for North Korea, Slovenia and Paraguay.

In the run-up to the recent European play-offs for World Cup qualification there was much talk of what a disaster it would be if Portugal and France - with bankable stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry - were not to make it to the finals.

Lo and behold, they avoided each other in the draw, albeit with France needing a hand to get past the Republic of Ireland, while Portugal took on the might of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

But the conspiracy theorists miss two things. The first is that these "easy" routes for hosts are rarely that easy if examined.

In 1998 France faced some less vaunted opponents but they had to knock out Italy in the quarters. South Korea in 2002 may have benefited from some bizarre refereeing, but they still had to face the might of Portugal, Italy and Spain. Germany in 2006 had an easy group but then had to face Sweden, Argentina and Italy.

When they weren't the hosts, in 2002, they really did have an easy route, only having to beat Paraguay, the US and South Korea to get to the final.

The second objection to the conspiracy theorists is the technical difficulty of fixing a draw conducted in the full glare of the cameras using identical balls containing markers with the names of the teams.

Many of the more exotic ruminations centre on the idea of "hot balls". In this theory, the team that Fifa (Federation of International Football Associations) needs to get to the latter stages of the competition is inside a plastic ball that has been heated enough to be recognisable to the hand of the presumably co-operating draw celebrity.

This, of course, seems rather far-fetched. There is such a drawn-out ritual at the beginning of the draw that the balls would surely go cold.

But while there are convenient draws for Fifa there will always be conspiracy theorists in dark corners of message boards.

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