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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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Colombia, Ivory Coast take Group C pole positions

Group C’s matches were spaced out on Saturday, with the two Group D games between them. Presumably, this was to air the Ivory Coast-Japan game during prime time for Brazil’s significant Japanese population.   Every team in this group played to form, and the results were expected, if not predictable.

GROUP C
Radamel who? Colombia‘s performance was punctuated by an international coming-out party for James Rodriguez.  The Monaco man ran his little heart out and scored a lovely left-footed poke at the end of the match.  This game was also an example of what can go wrong with the current trend of having high-playing fullbacks/wingbacks.  Greece‘s José Holebas was exposed on the left as he failed to track back, allowing Colombia to score early.   Juan Cuadrado was brought in to flood the right and he did just that, setting up the first and third goals.  Greece also missed some great chances, including a sitter by Theo Gekas who headed the ball off the crossbar.  Colombia 3-0 Greece

First of two goals in as many mintues

First of two goals in as many minutes

The Ivory Coast went down early after Keisuke Honda’s cracker in the 13th minute.  I watched this one in the pub, and the entire room gasped when he scored.    But then Japan sat back and let the Elephants come at them.   The key moment, though, was the entrance of Didier Drogba.  The Ivory Coast captain sat while Wilfried Bony got the start.  Playing Bony made sense, considering the two players’ respective league seasons.  But Drogba’s introduction came at the expense of the holding midfielder, and now there were two strikers.  Bony scored two minutes after Drogba came on; Gervinho scored two minutes after that.   Ivory Coast 2-1 Japan

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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French are toast, while Yakubu’s howler burns Nigerians

It was a contrast in dignity. One team — lowly-ranked before the World Cup even began — put up a desparate last-gasp effort to remain in its own tournament. The other team made a mockery of it.  In the end, both France and South Africa are out… with Bafana Bafana winning 2-1, sending last year’s finalists home to face the wrath of their countrymen. Of course, there was a sending-off, and “Le Fou” Domenech couldn’t leave without one last petty gesture. From the Guardian: Not Everybody Loves Raymond.

In the other game, Uruguay won the group, after it beat Mexico 1-0, who have backed into second place. Before the tournament, many pundits talked about the strike force of Forlan and Suarez (who have both scored), but the Uruguayan defence has yet to concede a goal.

In Group B, Diego Maradona made seven changes to his team, yet they still won comfortably against hapless Greece, 2-0. Maradona has started talking sense, as well. That’s no fun…

The other game was South Korea-Nigeria. (Here’s where I admit my few shortcomings: I wrote Nigeria needed to win by more than a goal. Not true; they just needed a win). Lots of back and forth, with a nice first goal by Nigeria. But the Africans got caught on two set pieces and ended up down 2-1. Yakubu missed a goal that I could have scored drunk.  The Nigerians ended converting a penalty kick, making it 2-2, but it wasn’t enough.

So now it’s Uruguay vs. South Korea, and Argentina-Mexico. Note that three of the five South American teams have now qualified, yet three of six African teams are going home.

Brent Lanthier

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Fiesta time in Mexico as France sings Les Bleus

You know they’re gonna party like it’s Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, with people marching through the streets and even the chihuahuas waving au revoir to France, after El Tri saw off Los Tricolores 2-0 at the World Cup today, a huge result in Group A that puts Mexico and Uruguay on the front foot to move on. Manchester United-bound striker Javier Hernandez was sent in clean alone to nab the first, while Aztec Emperor Cuauthemoc Blanco converted the second from the penalty spot. Raymond Domenech looked awfully calm for a guy whose team is still scoreless at this tournament…maybe he’s finally read in the stars that he’s out of a job when the tournament is over, which could come after the final group game against South Africa. Could Bafana Bafana still have a shot against this lifeless French team?

Earlier, my Sports Guapa (she grew up in Buenos Aires) shook off a cold and got out of bed early to watch Argentina have their way with South Korea in a 4-1 victory, with Gonzalo Higuain picking up a rare Albiceleste World Cup hat trick . Maradona’s men looked sharp in this one, and made the coach happy enough to say sorry to Michel Platini, but not Pele.

Finally, there was drama aplenty when the so-called boring Greeks took on Nigeria, with Sani Kaita’s reckless red card in the first half proving disastrous for the Super Eagles, who watched a 1-0 lead become a 2-1 defeat as Greece did some work to control its debt crisis by scoring the nation’s first two World Cup goals, a feat sure to get the crowd hopping on the Danforth in Toronto.

Sara Carbonero

Sara Carbonero, girlfriend of Iker Casillas

Nigeria might well have suffered an even worse defeat if not for the superb effort by goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, clearly the star of his position at the tournament so far. It took a deflection to beat him on the first goal, although he did have a bit of a Robert Green moment when he spilled the shot that led to the decider. Here’s hoping his girlfriend doesn’t get the blame, with Iker Casillas of Spain the latest to get that treatment.

Elsewhere, it seems Fabio Capello is coming under a bit of criticism for his team selections. There certainly are some options with Gareth Barry fit to start. But if Capello loses to Algeria, his decisions could prove as costly as they did to this fellow.

Ian Harrison

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group B

Dentist by day, football prognosticator by night, our own Dr. Hadi Zogheib is scouting out each group at World Cup 2010 and predicting first round scores and standings. Here’s what the good doctor says about Group B:

Argentina:  Clear favourites in one of the easier groups of the tournament.  Questions persist over Diego Maradona’s appointment as manager, but consider this;  Argentina had only one victory in its first seven matches in South American qualifying and was struggling badly under then-manager Alfio Basile.  Maradona’s record, while not great, was still better than Basile’s.  Besides, with little Lionel Messi in the lineup (not to mention Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, or Diego Milito) , even crazy Maradona could be made to look like a genius.

South Korea:  Strong on technique and speed, but short on organization and aerial strength, the Koreans are a bit of a question mark.  They definitely have the ability to spring an upset but could just as easily go home without a point.  They come into the tournament full of confidence, however, having just knocked off bitter rivals Japan in their home stadium.

Greece:  The Greeks have never been the prettiest team in the world to watch, but they will definitely be tough to break down.  Ask any of their Euro 2004 opponents.  Completely opposite to the South Koreans, the Greeks use organization and strength to compensate for their lack of flair.  They will also rely heavily on striker Theofanis Gekas, who led all of Europe with ten goals in qualifying.

Nigeria:  Historically the most successful African team at the World Cup, and traditionally the most-feared team from the continent.  But make no mistake, this is not the same Nigeria people are used to.  They barely qualified for the tournament by leapfrogging Tunisia on the final day, as the Tunisians were upset in Mozambique and an 81st minute strike by Obafemi Martins sent the Nigerians through.  Nevertheless, under Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, the men in green should have the talent and support to do well in South Africa.

Results:

Argentina 1-0 Nigeria

South Korea 0- 1 Greece

South Korea 1- 3 Argentina

Greece 0 – 0 Nigeria

Argentina 1- 1 Greece

Nigeria 2-1 South Korea

Group Standings:

Argentina 7 pts

Greece 5 pts

Nigeria 4 pts

South Korea 0 pts

Also: Find out who Hadi picks to emerge from Group A.

Alpha Inventions Ranking

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