The major story lines leading up to this World Cup were all about things that had little or nothing to do with football. Faulty or incomplete stadiums, paltry labour conditions, a populace acting as unhappy hosts, the ever-present whispers of bribes and corruption… this is how we talked about Brazil.
Two weeks into the tournament, however, and the story is very much about the game itself. Wide-open play has meant a treasure chest of goals, the most ever for the group stage. Out of the 48 matches so far, only eight of them have been draws, and only five of those have been nil-nil. Meanwhile, there have been a lot of shutouts (almost half of the matches) but only 13 games have been either 0-0 or 1-0 finals. For this writer anyway, this has been the best World Cup since France ’98.
However, several European nations might disagree with me. Out of the 13 UEFA teams in the tournament, only the Netherlands, Greece (a first for Ethniki), Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland are going to the Group of 16. For the second World Cup in a row, less than half of the European teams are progressing. Is this because the former colonial powers can’t play away from their home continent? Maybe… but the European influence has been declining for some time.
If you take the percentage of total participants in each tournament* allocated to UEFA (in 2010, that was 13/32 or 40.625%) and multiply it by the percentage of European teams that make the knockout round (again in 2010, it was 6/16 or 37.5%), you can — imperfectly — see well how the confederation performs.
There are a couple of trends that emerge. First of all, the number of UEFA spots have pretty much stayed the same, with one or two additions or subtractions. But as the tournament has expanded, this has meant the Europeans’ share of World Cup berths has declined. Nothing shocking here.
What is changing is who are winning the knockout berths. At least three CONMEBOL teams have qualified for the next round in three out of the last five tournaments; they only got two spots in 1994 and 2002, and Brazil won both of those anyway (FYI the Brazilians have only missed the knockout round once, in 1966… between World Cup victories in 1962 and 1970). Last tournament, two CONCACAF teams reached the knockout stage; this year, there are three. For the first time ever, two African teams have reached the Group of 16 in 2014.
The reason for the European decline are fuzzy. Some blame the flood of foreign players — particularly South Americans — into the big European leagues, pushing home-grown players aside and making big clubs less likely to develop their own youngsters. Others say European players lack the desire to achieve greatness for country, because they are getting paid so much by their clubs.
However, it could all back to simple maths. The change starts to be noticeable in Mexico’s 1986 World Cup. João Havelange had won the FIFA presidency in 1974 on promises to let more developing nations into the tournament. Twelve years later, Morocco was the first African Nation to qualify for the knockout round along with hosts, Mexico. It was the first time two teams from one of the “other” confederations made it through with the big boys. Since then, both CAF and CONCACAF have had at least one team in the elimination rounds, and CONMEBOL get at least 50 percent of its teams into the knockouts.
What is more interesting is who is out. The platinum generation of Spanish footballers finally ran out of currency, dropping out at the group stage for the first time since 1998. Their Euro 2012 final opponents, Italy, missed two successive knockout rounds for the first time since the 1960’s. The “golden generations” of Portugal and England both finally sputtered out. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia still have far to go to match the prowess of their Yugoslavian predecessors. Russia may be rethinking Fabio Capello’s £6.7M annual salary… although the gaffer claims he did his job by getting the side into the tournament for the first time in 12 years. In fairness to Capello, he didn’t have his talisman, Roman Shirokov. Imagine if Óscar Tabárez’ Uruguay had to play with Luis Suarez… oh right.
– like Brazil in ’94 and ’02, Spain won in 2010 despite a record-low representation by European teams. However, the other three tournaments that had a low knockout representation by Europe went to South American sides: 1950, 1970, and 2002.
– a more likely determinate of World Cup success is tournament location. If it’s in Europe, a UEFA team will likely win the whole thing. If not, look to CONMEBOL. The only exceptions are South Africa 2010 for Europe and Sweden 1958 for South America (where UEFA had seven of eight playoff births but Brazil still won).
– the set up of this year’s tournament tree means that only one of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay will advance to the semi-finals, while the Europeans could still end up having six teams in the quarter-finals.
*Only post-war World Cups. The three tournaments before 1950 had no group stage, and were straight knockout competitions.