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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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Spain’s Pain, Dutch Dreams and Chile’s Voodoo on the Socceroos

THAT goal...

THAT goal…

After seven blindingly-good matches over two days, I’m already a bit knackered (several pints of cider having nothing to do with it).   There have been some shockers and lots of goals… good thing I’ve cleared my calendar.

After almost 48 hours, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the Dutch win over Spain.  Five goals against the defending World champions would be unheard of two years ago.  Both teams played high and aggressive, but it was power that won over possession, as the Netherlands seemed to find space for their runs.  Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were as good as they’ve ever been, with RvP scoring his Superman header, imitating Bobby Orr in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals.  Nigel de Jong dominated the midfield… but strangely, Wesley Sneijder was not as involved as he may have been in the past.  Meanwhile Spain’s spine seemed to shut down: Iker Casillas were horrible, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué were caught with their pants down, and Xavi seemed to falter.

The Dutch had Spain on her knees...

The Dutch had Spain on her knees…

Some pundits say the warning signs were there that this is a team in its autumn years… although you could also argue these are players that have come off punishing domestic and Champions league campaigns.   Also noteworthy is that Spain had most of the possession, but as Bobby McMahon wrote for Forbes magazine, possession means nothing.  Is this the end of Spanish dominance and tika-taka?  Netherlands 3-1 Spain

Bad officiating reared its ugly head in this match as well.  The second Dutch goal went in as RVP bonked Casillas in the noggin.  It should have been foul; instead it was 2-1 and changed the tone of the game.

Nothing dirty about Sanchez' goal

Nothing dirty about Sanchez’ goal

Meanwhile, Australia performed admirably against a lightning-quick Chile on Friday.   Both teams stuck to form, with the Chileans scoring early and dominating the first third of the game.  However, the Socceroos gathered the wits and Tim Cahill scored a trademark header.   Note: the Chileans are tiny.  Who knew?  However, they gave as good as they got, with almost as many tackles as the Aussies… but the South Americans had far fewer fouls.  The Chileans will get through (especially now that Spain is there for the taking), the Aussies won’t… but neither will be taken lightly from here on in.  Chile 3-1 Australia.

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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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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It’s grim up north

sam allardyce

Sam Allardyce recently claimed he could coach the likes of Inter Milan and Real Madrid successfully, and that in essence the jobs there are much easier than his present one at Blackburn Rovers. He even went as far to declare himself the perfect candidate as the next England boss. Well Sam, you’ve got one thing right, you’re perfect for England. That’s because they’re woeful.

Week in, week out, we football fans are subjected to the brute force and “get up ‘em” attitude that certain clubs in the North of England hand out to free-flowing teams. You know what I mean here; think Arsenal’s troubles almost every time they play Bolton and Blackburn.

And herein lies the problem. The Northwest is typical of what the game once was. Brash, unashamed, fiercely proud, and accepting only of the highest commitment. Teams such as Leeds in the 70’s would kick if it moved, or kick until it did. The strategy worked for decades.

But then came the 1990’s and the influx of foreigners and their attractive new style of play. They were quicker, smarter and an awful lot more talented.

The likes of Allardyce are perfect for England. Let’s face it, England were awful at the World Cup because they clung to the belief that if you try hard enough, you will always succeed. Sorry kids, but here’s a sobering lesson. Talent always prevails. No matter how hard you try, if you’re not good enough you’ll lore far more often than you win.

Teams such as Bolton and Blackburn (them again) have supporters who fall in line with the English mentality of football. I’ve been to games at Ewood Park and heard them chant “Get into them!” In short they mean, “Yes, we might not win, but at least we can give them a damn good hiding.” Well I’m sorry, but that really only applies to war.

So while Chelsea prevail with foreigners in the Premier League, and the Spanish win the World Cup by not retaliating to Dutch brutality, the likes of Rovers and England will never grasp what it means to win with satisfaction.

Aaron Ramsey injury

It’s no coincidence that all of Arsenal’s major injuries in recent years have occurred north of the Watford Gap: Eduardo (Birmingham), Diaby (Sunderland) and Ramsey (Stoke). It happens because of the continued aggression faced and, dare I say it, the violence dished out. Every one one of those injuries was avoidable. Sadly, each guilty culprit was an Englishman.

So while Allardyce may think he’s a great candidate for any top-flight job, the footballing elite will just smirk and overlook him. He’s stuck in a time warp. Go back to the 1970’s Sam, and take your boxing gloves with you.

Sam Saunders

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Batista stakes his claim in Argentina

When Sergio Batista was given the reins of Argentina’s national team on an interim basis, reactions in his home nation were mixed.  Some were still mourning the resignation of national icon Diego Maradona, while others were hoping for a different gaffer, one with some managerial experience in Europe or  Argentina’s domestic league.  After all, Batista was coming off a horrendous experience with the youth squad, having failed to guide Argentina to the World Youth Cup for the first time in recent memory.

Some, however, remember Batista as the brilliant tactical manager who ledArgentina to Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008.  In the process, he found a way to get the most out of his best players, namely Leo Messi, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano. So how would he perform at the senior level?  The answer, thus far, is magnificently.

Unlike Maradona, Batista has stacked his midfield and defence with more  possession based players, and the results have been astonishing.  Nicolas Ottamendi, Di Maria, and Maxi Rodriguez were replaced by Ever Banega, Esteban Cambiasso, and Javier Zanetti and Argentina has looked unstoppable since.  In fact, following Tuesday’s 4-1 demolition of world champions Spain, supporters of the Albicelestes are no doubt be wondering what could have been had Batista been in charge in South Africa instead of Maradona.

Batista still has a number of upcoming friendlies to justify his appointment as permanent manager, including a match against hated-rivals Brazil. But if the big win over Spain is any indication,  he looks certain to be around for some time.

Hadi Zogheib

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Painful day for Europe’s giants

Less than two months after the World Cup final in Johannesburg — and with their club seasons in their infancy — Europe’s finest met up again for the first qualifying games for Euro 2012.  But it seems many national sides have just picked up from where they left off in June/July.

Witness England’s 4-0 demolition of lowly Bulgaria.  Even though the Three Lions impressed in front of a packed Wembley… storm clouds will continue to linger over the head of Don Fabio Capello.  The British press have been incredibly derisory towards the Italian, unwilling to forgive him for England’s performance in South Africa. Despite success against Hungary in last month’s friendly — and despite Wayne Rooney’s impressive partnership today with hat-trick scorer Jermain Defoe — it will never be good enough for several sections of St. George’s Army.

On the positive side, outstanding shot-stopping for both England and Man City — including a life rope to salvage an almost-own-goal by Glen Johnson — means 23-year-old Joe Hart may stay in net for a entire generation.  But there continues to be fitness problems… including Defoe limping off with a knock to his ankle. As well, a horrible knee injury to Michael Dawson adds to Capello’s centre-back crisis… and the rubbish play of the aformentioned Johnson means more of the same defensive headaches.  It will be interesting to see whether the stingy Swiss will allow England to run roughshod in Basel.

Those injuries mean the club vs. country debate will also continue.  The loss of Spurs starters Dawson and Defoe will likely have ‘Arry Redknapp sputtering, since he’s not allowed to wheel and deal buy replacement players after the trade deadline.  Yikes!

Les Trois Stooges

It was more humiliation for France as they lost 1-0 at home to lowly Belarus.  Midfielder Florent Malouda chided the French fans for booing… because apparently, it is the fans’ fault that Les Bleus are 1) awful, and 2) spoiled millionaires who have to be goaded into singing their own national anthem.

The World Cup hangover continues for the Italians as well.  They had to come from behind to scrape past Estonia 2-1. And the Portuguese had to battle in a tit-for-tat scrap with Cyprus. A Seleccao had to settle for a 4-4 draw after the Cypriots scored in the 89th minute.

In the “Hyperbole is the Best Thing Ever!” category: World Cup champions Spain posted a massive victory over Liechtenstein, 4-0.  That’s about as impressive as me remembering to unzip before going to the loo…

In the “Why Won’t He Just P!ss Off?” category: Former Liverpool gaffer Gerrard Houllier is interviewing for the Aston Villa job.  Expect whiny washed-up French players to descend en masse on Birmingham.

More Euro news on Tuesday. Happy Labour Day weekend!

Brent Lanthier

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