One of the difficulties in evaluating World Cup rosters lies in comparing players from different leagues. How do we compare the goal-scoring rate of an MLS player with one in La Liga? What about the Chilean Primera División? Don't even get me started about considering Iran's top league. The problem is arguably even more complex for non-goal scorers. Performance statistics can only get us so far.
Luckily, there is a tool that allows us to compare the value of different goods and services: money. Soccer's transfer system keeps a player's worth in focus at all times, which makes a player's market value a much better indicator of quality than performance statistics.
Using the database put together by Transfermarkt, the most respected player value aggregation database out there, I've broken down the World Cup field by player value. This gives us an approximation of how much the team is worth as a whole.
First, a word on the source: although Transfermarkt is a bit of a black box in terms of precisely how the valuations are calculated, they're based on performance statistics, expert analysis, and moderated forum comments, while factoring in the level of competition a player faces, age and experience. Most of this matters when it comes to the World Cup, but some doesn't: for a month-long tournament, there are much better things to worry about than a player's age, for example.
Also, while I believe this is an improvement on raw statistics, it still incorporates some Big Five biases, valuing players from top European leagues higher than smaller ones across the globe. We can debate the merits of this until the universe contracts to the size of an electron. Point being: Transfermarkt is comprehensive, but not perfect. Grains of salt, etc.
Let's get started with the overall team-by-team numbers:
The surprises here aren't so much with any single country, but the disparity between them. 13 Spaniards have a higher market valuation than the Australian team…all of it. The bottom four (Australia, Honduras, Iran and Costa Rica: £84.16 million total) are less than one Cristiano Ronaldo (£88 million). Lionel Messi's market valuation of £105.6 million is higher than Bosnia-Herzegovina or Ghana, two very decent sides that may well advance to the knockout rounds.
These vast inequalities shed some light on another important caveat: this is not to be taken synonymously with team quality. It almost goes without saying that teams are more than the sum of their parts, so simply totaling up individual player values to come up with a composite metric -- which is exactly what this is -- misses the critical elements of coaching, system fits and all that jazz. Those elements are of utmost importance but incredibly difficult to quantify. At some point, basic common sense has to kick in, in that you would rather have the entire Ghanian national team than Lionel Messi (probably).
Essentially, this is a measure of expectations. It shows who we think the best players in the world are right now and who they play for. This is just a way to see where we stand before the whole shebang kicks off.
Now that we've got the field covered, let's take a look at each group.
Nothing much to say about Brazil at the top by a few orders of magnitude. Croatia should come out of the group as well, with Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich and Luka Modric from Champions League victors Real Madrid leading the way. Mexico, with its heavy emphasis on Liga MX players, have the lowest valuation in the group.
In case you're a hard numbers kind of person, Spain's valuation is 30 times greater than Australia's. In fact, Australia is six times less valuable than the next cheapest team in the group, Chile. It's nearly impossible to overstate how big of an underdog Australia is in this group. If Australia takes a single point from anyone, it could be the greatest accomplishment in the country's history, soccer or otherwise.
Speaking of Chile, while it would be a slight upset for them to advance out of the group stage over Netherlands, it wouldn't be a total shock. If there was such a thing as a five-tool player in soccer, it might be Arturo Vidal, because he has to play and the world would simply fold onto itself like a child in the throes of a tantrum if the World Cup goes on without him. Between Vidal and Barcelona attacker Alexis Sanchez, there's plenty of value on the Chilean roster.
The World Cup draw is not fair. Let's get that out of the way right now. Group B's total valuation is £871 million, whereas Group C's is roughly half that at £437.6 million. In fact, let's take a quick interlude and look at valuations by group:
Even the quickest of glances shows how imbalanced the World Cup groups turned out. Most observers have labeled Group G, with Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the U.S. as the 2014 Group of Death, but Group B isn't far behind. The fact that either Chile, Netherlands or Spain will miss out on the knockout rounds while two teams from Group E advance is a crime against soccer.
OK, back to Group C. Colombia is without its best player, Radamel Falcao, who bowed out due to injury. This doesn't mean Colombia is toast -- they still have an excellent defense in a continent that is generally defined by its goal scorers -- and they should still make it out of the group, but any hopes of disrupting the balance of power are largely gone.
Ivory Coast is easily the best African squad. Yaya Toure is on the short list for most complete midfielder on the planet with Arturo Vidal (it's a very short list). Gervinho regained his confidence -- that all-encompassing term for "remembered how to play soccer" -- at Roma. Wilfried Bony, Swansea's talented forward, is better than most people think. Didier Drogba is still alive, and therefore scoring goals. Ivory Coast could surprise some people, especially in such a weak group.
A lot of other metrics will consider this group tougher than the market valuation method we have employed. It's one of the most even groups at the top three with Uruguay, Italy and England within £100 million of each other. It would certainly be a disappointment for Uruguay to get knocked out in the group stage on their home continent, but that's how the cards are stacked. The English roster is remarkably deep, which makes them both potentially dangerous and also a bit confounding, since they have a range of options for how best to utilize their talent. They're very much a team that could exceed expectations or totally collapse based on how well the various pieces fit together.
This data includes France's Franck Ribery, who was injured after the roster announcement and will miss the tournament. He's their second most valuable player at £37 million (Paul Pogba from Juventus is first at £39.6 million), so this is definitely a huge blow.
Even without Ribery, France is one of the most interesting teams in Brazil. Manager Didier Deschamps snubbed Manchester City attacking midfielder Samir Nasri, not even naming him to the preliminary roster. Now, their best player at that same position will miss the tournament. Still, the roster is more than capable at every phase of the game.
Honduras was definitely more than the sum of its parts during CONCACAF qualifying, but it was CONCACAF qualifying, which likely counts for very little in the World Cup.
When I think about Argentina's attacking prowess, my mind begins to release endorphins and I enter a blissful state typically reserved for drug addicts. What I'm getting at is: holy crap, you guys. Argentina will send Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain at the opposing defense, easily the best forwards any team has to offer. Behind them, Ángel di María -- who you may recognize as Atletico Madrid's tormentor during the Champions League final -- and Ricardo Alvarez will be more than capable to play their world-class forwards through. Argentina's back line is also talented, with Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano and Martin Demichelis available for duty.
Assuming Argentina will advance easily, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Nigeria are fairly similar entities on paper. Both are top-heavy sides dependent on a few standouts.
Nobody knows anything about Iran because most of their players play in Iran. But it's a safe bet to assume they are awful. I look forward to Argentina inventing new numbers in their goal tally against them.
Yes, by this measure, Group G is, indeed, the Group of Death, narrowly beating out Group B for the portentous title. Germany is far and away the best side in the group, and perhaps the best in the entire tournament. (Your opinion on the matter will greatly hinge on how much you believe Brazil's domination over Spain in the Confederations Cup final was indicative of future performances.) But this is not news: even a cursory glance of Germany's roster sends chills down the rest of Group G's respective spines. The median player value on Germany's roster: £22.88 million, or just shy of half of the entire US roster combined.
The real takeaway here, especially for Americans, is just how cheap our team would be on the open market. Anecdotally, it seems a lot of World Cup fans spend an inordinate amount of time talking themselves into a successful World Cup. For America, the thing that's lost in those discussions is that we are pretty clearly the worst team in the group, which this measure only serves to highlight. Ghana shares similar strengths and weaknesses -- some ability in the midfield, solid attack, suspect back line -- but their wingers are far superior.
Portugal's value is certainly buoyed by Cristiano Ronaldo at £88 million, but even without him, they would still be roughly double Ghana's market value.
Another seriously weak group. Russia might advance by pure luck of the draw, even though all but five of their squad members spend their club time in Moscow or St. Petersburg. South Korea and Algeria are both subpar sides that would be crushed in most other groups, but who the hell knows with Group H.
And then there's Belgium, which could win the group with their eyes closed. Belgium is at the cusp of a golden generation, with a young and insanely talented side led by 23 year old midfielder Eden Hazard. Of the stars on this roster, only Vincent Kompany at 28 years old and perhaps Marouane Fellaini at 26 may be too old for the 2018 side. Romelu Lukaku, who had a breakout year at Everton, is only 21. Adnan Januzaj looks like the next big Manchester United thing and, at 19, he can't legally drink in the U.S. It's a big year for the Red Devils and lots of reasons to be excited.
But, it's gotten to the point where it's a cliché to point out that hopping on the Belgium bandwagon is a cliché. This team has gone from dark horse to overhyped back to dark horse in the span of a few weeks. It will be fascinating to see which end of the hype spectrum they live up to.