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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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Brazilian Relief, Mexican Rain Dance

world cup opener

And so it begins… the hype, the glory, the parade of flags tied to foot-long plastic flag posts, perched on the partially-open windows of cars going by.

Brazil vs. Croatia

Neymar's team mates help him find his contact lens...

Neymar’s team mates help him find his contact lens…

After the requisite interpretative dance numbers, and some C-list celebrities singing their iTunes best-seller, the actual football got under way.  Brazil’s debut was testy-testy.  Marcelo looked liked he’d come home to find his flat ransacked after his own goal allowed Croatia to go up 1-0.  The Valtreni played very un-Croatia-like, sending the ball hither and thither, instead of trying to hold onto the ball in the middle of the pitch.  That barrage is what caused confusion in front of the Brazilian net, and now Croatia is on top.

But hang on, that’s not how the narrative’s supposed to go.  Enter Brazil’s front four, who pulled the Croatians onto the edges, allowing Neymar to find the space in the middle.  That lead-up to his first goal was a good piece of effort with each Brazilian player seeming to lose the ball before retaking it from their defender and eventually getting it to the young Barcelona man.  It was a nice string of play but frankly, Croatia’s keeper Pletikosa should have stopped it.  He might have saved the penalty as well, had Neymar’s blast not been so powerful, and he was definitely in position to save Oscar’s nice little poke… he was just too slow. 3-1 Brazil.

Mexico vs. Cameroon

Las gotas de lluvia caen sobre mi cabeza mucho

Las gotas de lluvia caen sobre mi cabeza mucho

The city of Natal gave us a nice look at the weather patterns of an equatorial country.  The rain fell in sheets as Mexico took on Cameroon.  Apparently, the players aren’t the only one with a case of nerves as the officials wrongly took three goals away from the Mexicans.  Giovani dos Santos was excellent in the number 10 role, outshining the central striker until the second half (Spurs fans thinking, “Where was that guy when he played for us?”).  GDS and Porto’s Hector Herrera linked up well; they were all over a disorganized Cameroonian side who looked like they didn’t even want to be there.  When the Africans did challenge, it was up the left (against Rodriguez and Aguilar, who are not the speediest of defenders) but the efforts tended to come to naught.   So it was left to the man left up front, Oribe Peralta, to finally break the deadlock.  Peralta started in place of Javier Hernandez, probably because he has now scored nine goals in his last seven games for Mexico, while Chicharito has had a season to forget.

Now Mexico faces Brazil in Fortaleza on Tuesday, while Cameroon takes on Croatia in the sticky air of Manaus the next day.   If Brazil still have the jitters, and Mexico can grab even a point, then El Tri are suddenly in the mix.  Meanwhile, the Cameroonians look disinterested right now, but the Croats may struggle in the rain forest’s oppressive heat.

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups A & B

brazuca

It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself.  The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching.  You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year.  Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12.  Here’s At The Rail’s predictions.  I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.

GROUP A

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing.  After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation).  But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots.   Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs).  Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari.  Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure.  CHAMPIONS

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain.  Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days.  But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs.   They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again.  ROUND OF 16

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever.  Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day.  Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama.   The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch.  Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it.  THREE AND OUT

Wham, bam, thank you Sam...

Wham, bam, thank you Sam…

Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football.  At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions  had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute.  This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be.   No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago.   While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England.  Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues.  Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century.  That streak should remain intact.  THREE AND OUT.

 

GROUP B

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won.  But Spain are no ordinary side.  This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008.   Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down.  Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España.   Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever.  Period.  Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything.  They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil.  FINALIST.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores.  'Nuff said.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores. ‘Nuff said.

Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years.   Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.   Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts.  Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up.  This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round.   ROUND OF 16.

Oh sure, they're all friends NOW...

Oh sure, they’re all friends NOW…

A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves.  While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns.   Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke.  But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side.  Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig.  Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United.   But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other?  THREE AND OUT

Don't get too comfy, lads.

Don’t get too comfy, lads.

Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya.  But you are not going to make major inroads in this group.   FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you).  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five.  Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos.  Australia 2022!  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Groups C & D  (Shocking, I know)

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World Cup Payday

The best way I’ve heard the World Cup described is that it’s a sprint, not a marathon. In a sport where the best players on the biggest club teams often have to play a 50+ match season, seven games over a month isn’t a lot — and it may not be the best way to judge a player’s ability.

Scouting for the big clubs is a now a world-wide affair and it’s rare that a player is unknown.  But a great tournament performance can be too irresistible for some teams to pass up. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. Witness then-Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier’s ill-chosen signings from the 2002 Senegal team.

Still… if you base it on their World Cup performances, here’s 10 players who have earned a change of scenery.

Forlan's Golden Ball may earn him a golden handshake

Diego Forlan (URU)
Current Club: Atletico Madrid
This tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Forlan is coming off a Europa League win as well. He has excelled since leaving the Premier League and says he won’t go back. Look for Juventus to make an offer as Atletico tries to raise funds for defensive players.

Luis Suarez (URU)
Current Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Suarez played well off of Forlan, and scored some lovely goals before the hand-ball “incident”. He is rumoured to be a part of Ajax’s restructuring i.e. massive sell-off that already has Martin Jol seeing red.

Maxi Pereira (URU)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
This writer’s pick for right-back of the tournament, Pereira ran rampant on the flank. He scored against the Dutch, while clocking up 66 kilometres in six games. With natural fullbacks at a premium in the Prem, perhaps Senor Pereira might head north for the winter…

Carlos Salcido (MEX)
Current Club: PSV Eindhoven
The left-back led his national team in shots at this World Cup, including a close one off the crossbar against Argentina. A highly-rated player, even ‘Arry tried to sign him.  Rumours are that Roberto Martinez will try to bring him to Wigan.

Fabio Coentrao (POR)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
Only 22 years old, Coentrao was amazing on the left flank, slotted in as a fullback but playing like a winger. There is already talk that fellow countryman Jose Mourinho will pluck him from Lisbon and drop him into Madrid. Rumours are also swirling that Chelsea buying him as a replacement for Ashley Cole.

Justo Villar (PAR)
Current Club: Real Valladolid (Spanish 2nd Division)
Villar allowed only two goals all tournament — and one of them was David Villa’s weird-ass goal that went off the post three times. Villar also blocked a re-taken penalty kick and, in the match against Japan, denied the swarming Keisuke Honda a goal. Plus, he’s wanted out of his newly-relegated club since last season.

John Mensah (GHA)
Current Club: Olympique Lyonnais
What are the odds? Ghana’s central defence consisted of Johnathan Mensah —  who plays for Udinese — and Lyon’s John Mensah. Confusing, non? What’s not confusing is John’s next probable destination. He played 15 games for Sunderland on-loan last season — even scoring a goal and Steve Bruce would like to bring him back.  But it would likely have to be on loan again because of Mensah’s injury problems.

Robinho (BRA)
Current Club: Manchester City
Robinho spent last season on loan back in his native Brazil, due to a falling out with Citeh manager, Roberto Mancini. After a very decent performance alongside Luis Fabiano, it’s likely that Robinho will never return to Manchester. There are rumours he could be used as trade bait for Inter Milan’s Balotelli, or to pry young Brazilian star Neymar from Santos.

Mesut Ozil (GER)
Current Team: Werder Bremen
Everyone and their mother seem to be keen on Germany’s playmaker. The 21-year-old Ozil has been valued at 15 million pounds by Bremen. After scoring a goal — and helping on three others — he may be worth it.

Klose may still have wind in his wings...

Miroslav Klose (GER)
Current Club: Bayern Munich
This old warhorse had a great World Cup, scoring some unattractive but not unappreciated goals. He has vowed to remain in Munich for the last year of his contract, but after only starting 12 times last season due to injury, Klose has a tough fight on his hands. A stellar domestic season by first-choice Ivica Olic — and an astounding international debut by Thomas Muller — means it may be in Klose’s best interests to find another team.

Brent Lanthier

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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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Our correspondent checks in

NBA player Steve Nash shares a pint with his old school chum Eric, and our correspondent, on the right.

Steve Nash shares a pint with his old school chum Eric, and our correspondent, right.

Simon ‘The Happy Hoofer’ Hagens is in South Africa for two weeks of World Cup football and boozing. He’ll be providing irregular (and we mean highly irregular) updates for At The Rails, and through Twitter. Enjoy!

Touching down in Cape Town Thursday morning, the night after South Africa’s 3-0 loss to Uruguay, was a little like attending a New Year’s Eve party on the morning of January 1st. Clearing customs took a while, as the agent complained about Bafana Bafana’s performance and South Africa’s chances, paying little attention to the credentials of me and my disreputable companions. Long faces drooped on the streets and in the bars. A lone vuvuzela would sound out only occasionally. But as the day progressed and England fans continued to pour into the city, the mood became merrier, louder and drunker. As France took the field against Mexico in Polokwane, the French anthem was drowned out in our Cape Town pub by English supporters singing ‘God Save The Queen.’ The Mexican death-blow to the French generated a sense of jubilation, which spilled over into the next day for England-Algeria. The Algerian fans were great in the run-up and after the match, totally full of energy.

Our correspondent and his England mates share a cheer with some Algerians on the Cape Town waterfront.

Our correspondent and his England mates share a cheer with some Algerians on the Cape Town waterfront.

Green Point Stadium in Cape Town is beautiful and pristine, perched between the mountains and the ocean and equipped with a football field’s worth of urinal. Near perfection in design. The lone flaw? There’s only one entrance for all 64,000 fans, a few short of what’s needed, and the only time I felt the England fans might actually lose their temper.

As England entered the pitch, they’d have been hard pressed to think they weren’t on home soil. The St. James cross outnumbered Algerian flags at least 20-1, and the stands were a sea of red and white. God Save the Queen boomed as the anthems were sing. Inspiration, one would think. Despite the scoreline, it was not a boring match to watch live. Algeria were quite competent, although many in the crowd gave more credit to lack of competence for the ‘home’ side. Frank Lampard received plenty of ill will for his uninspiring play, while much more was expected of Wayne Rooney. The most enthusiasm came following Peter Crouch’s entry late in the second half. As the minutes ticked down, despite some limited excitement near the end, it felt like a foregone conclusion. And while the draw was a bit of a letdown, our blues were erased when Fatboy Slim took the stage in the convention centre a few hours later to put on a stunning show (including, with a favourable exchange rate, $3 Cdn. pints).

For England, it all rests on a victory over Slovenia on Wednesday in Port Elizabeth, which is our next game. It looks to be a challenge for the Three Lions, and should be greatly entertaining. We’ll update again then.

Simon Hagens

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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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