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Europe’s Poor Performance… and Other Useless Stats

Ronaldo_2956126bThe 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.

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

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.

Capello

Capello thinks about how to spend his millions

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.

Some caveats:

– 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.

Brent P. Lanthier

*Only post-war World Cups. The three tournaments before 1950 had no group stage, and were straight knockout competitions.

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When a Win Feels Like a Draw, and a Draw Feels Like a Loss

The first game in this group was set to feature a set of superstars versus a young upstart squad.  The second game was supposed to have a continental champion overwhelm an also-ran; fail on this one as well.

What a disappointing performance from Argentina.  Expecting a fearsome foursome at the top, Alejandro Sabella decided to drop Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María, plus he fielded essentially six defenders.  So it’s no shocker that they only led at the half because of an early own-goal from Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Higuain's introduction was critical

Higuain’s introduction was critical

Sabella changed it up at the half and brought on Higuaín and Fernando Gago.  More option meant more men for the Bosnians to defend against and that allowed Lionel Messi to score.  Check out the goal here… Messi makes his run, passes it to Higuaín, who gives it right back to Messi, who hadn’t stopped running until he’s ready to take his shot, and then it’s in.  Bosnia would get one back late but that was it.  Argentina 2-1 Bosnia & Hezegovina

As for today’s match, let’s just say Nigeria blew their best chance at three points in this group.  Iran was content to batter down the hatches, but as the game went on, so did the Persians’ sense of adventure.   Stephen Keshi’s frustration showed early when he subbed on Shola Ameobi for Victor Moses in the 52nd minute… and then Peter Odemwingie for Ramon Azeez in the 69th.  Neither Ameobi nor Odemwingie exactly lit up the Premier League this season… and their work rate was no better today.  Nigeria dominated possession… but as we so often see, possession means nothing.  This  World Cup gets its first draw after five days of play.  Iran 0-0 Nigeria

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups E & F

Argentina v Mexico: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of SixteenThese two groups offer one sure thing — Argentina will go through on top — and then a bunch of questions.  Are Switzerland really sixth in the world? Have France overcome their attitude problems*?  Can Ecuador/Honduras/Iran/Nigeria push away the perception biases against their continents and actually challenge the European/South American powers?

Albanian blood, Swiss heats

Albanian blood, Swiss hearts

GROUP E
Switzerland’s football team is a reflection of the country itself: a multicultural nation whose style is cold and boring. That is, of course, unkind (the bit about being cold and boring) but you can’t argue that Switzerland is a very defensive team. That’s because the Swiss play to their strengths.  Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and LB Ricardo Rodríguez both had decent seasons with Wolfsburg, likewise RB Stephan Lichtsteiner with Juventus.   Napoli midfielders Gökhan Inler, Velon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili join Bundesliga wunderkinds Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.  This is a team marshaled by the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man whose club pedigree is as great as any manager in the tournament.   This team made it into the World Cup because they won a weak group.  That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers.  ROUND OF 16

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot in the French team

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot

Over the last six years, France‘s national side has been the very opposite of disciplined.  The side revolted against its manager, Raymond Domenech in South Africa, and the team failed to get out of the group stage.  Then in Euro 2012, a dressing room bust-up after losing 2-0 to Sweden in the final group game resulted in the firing of French legend Laurent Blanc.  That era appears to be over.  Didier Deschamps has put together a very competent team that is short on star power, but no less flashy.  The biggest name here is Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, after Franck Ribery was ruled out through injury.   From that infamous Sweden match, only four players remain: captain Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Benzema, and Olivier Giroud.   This year’s World Cup Squad only features five other players who even travelled to Ukraine.   The problems are gone, the pedigree remains.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

Ecuador has Valencia... and not much else

Ecuador has Valencia… and not much else

When Ecuador played England, many outlets wrote about how the South Americans gave England a good run, and how the heat makes a difference, and blah blah blah blah.  Here are the facts: 1) Ecuador won seven of their eight home qualifying matches (plus they drew Argentina) because they play in Quito, a city sitting at almost 2900m.  But away from home, they managed only an 0-3-5 record.  That’s basically saying they advanced because their opponents couldn’t breathe.  2) They perpetuate old stereotypes about South American teams that don’t score, but kick the hell out of their opponents.  3) They only have one player who regularly started in a major European league, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. This side snuck in because they had a better defensive record than Uruguay. That won’t help them here. THREE AND OUT

This is his face when it's just a friendly...

This is his face when it’s just a friendly…

More of the same from Honduras.  Only Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have any big league experience (and let’s please not muddy the waters by countering that MLS or the Scottish Premier is big league).  They will be strong on the ball (why physicality is so prized in the Western Hemisphere, I’ll never know) but their fate will be the same as fellow CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP F

Could this be King Leo's year?

Could this be King Leo’s year?

Argentina will perform well at this World Cup for many of the same reasons as the hosts: a well-rounded squad (though not as good as Brazil), a tournament based in South America, and a fairly easy progression into the knockout stage.  One thing that Alejandro Sabella’s men won’t have to contend with is pressure… not on the scale of Brazil’s pressure anyway.  But Argentina haven’t won a trophy in almost 30 years, and they must think they can pull an Uruguay, circa 1950 against their old foes.  La Albiceleste boasts the scariest offence in this tournament: Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero… and of course, Lionel Messi.  The three share an understanding… and just behind them is Ángel Di María looping in and out from the right wing.   A dream final between Brazil and Argentina is possible in a tournament promising several tasty end-scenarios.  SEMI-FINALISTS

"Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?"

“Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?”

The  build-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina‘s maiden World Cup appearance was fun to watch, as Safet Sušić built a team to attack.  The Bosnians tore through a relatively weak group, scoring at least three goals in six of their 10 qualifiers.  But this is not qualifying and now it appears the coach has had a rethink in World Cup warm-ups, adding an extra defensive midfielder and playing with a solitary striker.  In fact, he’s only bringing two out-and-out strikers: Eden Džeko and Stuttgart’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibišević.   Roma’s Miralem Pjanic will likely play just behind Džeko, but what about the rest of the side? This is a team that should be proud of its accomplishments, 20 years after a devastating war.   But the party is over.  THREE AND OUT

Hey it's... that guy... and... yeah...

Hey it’s… that guy… and… yeah…

It’s not a good sign when the biggest name on the team is the manager.  Former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, Carlos Queiroz has taken Iran to Brazil.   This is a side that is reportedly ill-prepared for the tournament (the government is a police state and the team doesn’t have a lot of resources).  The assumption is that Queiroz will make them very defensive… and no one wants to see that.  They won’t make it to the 60-minute mark, let alone the knockout round.  THREE AND OUT

Moses, Emenike, Mikel... get used to hearing that combination.

Moses, Emenike, Mikel: get used to hearing that combination.

Pride has been restored to the one of Africa’s biggest footballing nations.  Nigeria took the 2013 African Cup of Nations, winning it for the first time since 1994.  That was the same year the Super Eagles won the group at USA ’94, where they took Italy to extra-time in the Round of 16.  In France ’98, the same thing: winning the group by beating Raúl’s Spain and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria.  Since then, they have qualified for two more World Cups and finished dead last in their groups.  This tournament’s squad features a quality mix of young forwards: Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are both only 21, while Emmanuel Eminike is the veteran at the ripe old age of 27.   Stephen Keshi is bringing six strikers to Brazil.  What does that tell you? They came to play.  ROUND OF 16

 Brent P. Lanthier

*The team, not the nation;  changes, not miracles.

Up Next: Groups G & H

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