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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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Those Who Can’t… Kick

wils

Goals are coming fast and furious in this World Cup, which is a refreshing change from the cautious approach of the last couple of tournaments.  However, some teams can’t defend so they resort to grimier tactics.

Seferovic scores in WC debut

Seferovic scores in WC debut

Switzerland‘s reputation as a tournament dark horse was tested right away, as Ecuador pushed them high up and got the first goal (off a free kick, mind you).   However, the Swiss substitutions made the difference.  Admir Mehmedi came on for Valentin Stocker after the break, and three minutes later, he headed in the first Swiss goal off a Ricardo Rodríguez corner.  Rodríguez had a super game, especially during the free-for-all at the end when he sent the cross across the net for substitute Haris Seferovic to send the ball into the net, breaking the deadlock in extra-time and sending Swiss supporters into delirium.  Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador

Benzema was involved with all three goals

Benzema was involved with all three goals

Honduras didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory yesterday.  Besides sitting back while France came at them, they forgot to aim for the ball.  Consequently many of their kicks finished on the shins and hamstrings of French players.   The height of stupidity was achieved by Stoke City’s Wilson Palacios, who drove Paul Pogba in the back while the French player went for the ball.  A second yellow for the Honduran meant his team was down to 10 men for the entire second half.   Karim Benzema easily put home the penalty and France were on the board.   Benzema actually had a hand in all three goals: the second was a shot off the post that the goalkeeper bobbled into the net (requiring the use of goal-line technology), and the third was a cracker.   France 3-0 Honduras

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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Sweet 16 set in South Africa

Here’s the problem boys: You can’t score with your eyes closed

It was South American Colonies vs Former European Colonial Masters on the final day of group stage play at World Cup 2010, with Brazil facing Portugal to decide the top spot in Group G in one of the early games and Chile taking on Spain for first place in Group H in the late games.

As captivating as it looked on paper, the Brazil-Portugal clash didn’t really live up to the hype, finishing in a 0-0 draw that saw both teams go through, with Brazil securing first place. A shame, really, that this game didn’t come up earlier when both sides had more to play for…a draw was always on the cards given that it was enough to put the two teams into the knockout round.

Portugal have yet to concede at this tournament, but just as tellingly they haven’t put a goal past anyone other than North Korea. Good for them that they put seven past Kim Jong-Il’s boys, who may never be seen again after they bowed out with a 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast. Afterwards, Sven said goodbye to the Elephants, who were always going to need a big scoreline to keep going, but couldn’t pull it off . Sadly, the team many felt was Africa’s best but one that was consigned to a Group of Death for the second straight World Cup, finished one point behind Portugal, leaving Ghana as Africa’s lone representative in the second round.

David Villa’s cheeky goal pointed Spain into the second round

Later, while I was out covering a G20 protest march through downtown Toronto, Chile became the first South American team to taste defeat at this tournament, falling to Spain 2-1 thanks to an audacious first-half strike by David Villa and a well-struck shot by Andres Iniesta, and aided by an harsh sending off by Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez (the same guy who chased Australia’s Tim Cahill) after Marco Estrada clipped the heel of Fernando Torres, who disappointed again and was substituted early in the second half. Despite La Roja’s defeat, all five South American teams have reached the next stage, with a combined record to date of nine wins, one loss and five draws.

Finally, Switzerland’s bank-vault defence didn’t concede against Honduras in a 0-0 draw that gave the Central Americans their first and only point of the tournament, but did nothing to send the Swiss through.

So, it’s Brazil vs. Chile in an all-South American clash at Ellis Park Stadium in Jo’burg on the 28th, and Spain vs. Portugal in Cape Town on the 29th, our correspondent’s final match of his World Cup tour.

Ian Harrison

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Another European exit?

We’re down to the last two groups before the Round of 16. Top-ranked Brazil are finally meeting their colonial masters, while Ivory Coast look to salvage some African pride, a la Ghana. Meanwhile, early favourites Spain are struggling against one more South American juggernaut.

Group G
Brazil: 6 pts., +3 GD, 5 GS
Portugal: 4 pts., +7 GD, 7 GS
Ivory Coast: 1 pt., -2 GD, 1 GS
North Korea: 0 pts., -8 GD, 1 GS

Brazil is already in. But they’ll need a win or a draw to secure top spot in the group.

Portugal is almost guaranteed to qualify, needing either a win or a draw. But if they lose, they can still get in, as long as they don’t lose their shirts to Brazil. That — or Ivory Coast runs up the goals on North Korea like Das Quinas did in their game against the Asian team.

Ivory Coast needs to win and they need to win big. There is a nine-goal difference between The Elephants and Portugal, which they would need to make up. Of course, that’s assuming Portugal loses.

North Korea are out.

Prediction: Brazil will beat Portugal in a close match. Ivory Coast will beat North Korea, but it won’t be enough. Brazil wins the group, Portugal follows.

Group H:
Chile: 6 pts., +2 GD, 2 GS
Spain: 3 pts., +1 GD, 2 GS
Switzerland: 3 pts., 0 GD, 1 GS
Honduras: 0 pts., -3 GD, 0 GS

Chile gets through with a win or a draw. If they lose, they need Switzerland to draw or tie. If Switzerland wins (and Chile loses), then the Chileans have to hope the Swiss don’t make up the two-goal difference.

Spain’s situation is a bit more complicated. A win is almost necessary for the European champions. But even with a win, they have to hope the Swiss don’t come out on top is well. The Spaniards’ only hope is a single goal: they lead the Swiss by one in goal difference and goals scored.

Spain can also go through on a draw, or even a loss, but they have to hope the Swiss do the same.

Not to dismiss Honduras either. They could sneak in with a massive win against the Swiss, and a Spanish loss.  But the Swiss defence is like a Zurich bank account: no names and tough to crack.

Predictions: Spain are reliving their old ways as chokers. They may have a tough time against an aggressive Chilean team. Meanwhile, the Swiss will likely stick to their conservative game plan against Honduras.  Spain draws Chile. Switzerland beats Honduras by a goal. Chile wins the group, Switzerland advances, leaving early favourites Spain to join France and Italy.

Tuesday Games: Brazil vs. Switzerland, Chile vs. Portugal

Brent Lanthier

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Portugal win laugher, Spain & Chile also victorious

There were goals aplenty for Portugal in its match against North Korea, a 7-0 whitewash that eliminated Kim Jong-Il’s crew (probably only the second-biggest story in that country today) and all-but guaranteed that Ronaldo and company will be joining Brazil in the next round.  Even Didier Drogba’s firepower isn’t likely to be enough for Ivory Coast to overcome its goal difference woes and escape this Group of Death, another African casualty ready to be wheeled in to the World Cup morgue.

Wacky refereeing was the story in Chile’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Switzerland in the second match of the day as South American teams remained unbeaten. You might have thought, given the history of this Chile team and it’s appearance at the U-20 World Cup in Canada a few years back, that it would have been them who lost their cool when the cards started flying thick and fast, but it was Switzerland’s Volan Behrami who was sent packing, and Steve Von Bergen resorting to handbag tactics in the second half. The Swiss held their ground long enough to establish a World Cup record for minutes played without conceding, but couldn’t keep the hard-charging Chileans at bay. Even with six points, Marcelo Bielsa’s team is not guaranteed a berth in the knockout round, and will have to be more clinical in its finishing to survive Spain and, should it advance, the cream of Group G.

Finally, the aforementioned Spaniards turned on the style against Honduras in the late game, posting a 2-0 victory thanks to a brace from David Villa, who also missed a penalty. Fernando Torres failed to impress but this was more like it from the reigning European champions, who can still top their group by beating Chile in Pretoria on Friday, a game that could be an cracker. Coach Vincente Del Bosque sees room for improvement, with Villa’s behaviour one area that could be brushed up, but this should keep the critics at bay, which is more than can be said for Nigeria’s Sani Kaita. Really people, it’s only football.

Ian Harrison

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Swiss bliss is Spain’s pain as hosts look like toast

Spanish fans in Madrid can’t believe the score against Switzerland.

The upset of the tournament so far, and one of the biggest upsets in decades, has turned Group H into a dogfight for reigning European champions Spain, who went down to Switzerland 1-0. The deciding score came early in the second half, a scrappy goal by Gelson Fernandes, who bundled the ball in after a collision between Spanish keeper Iker Casillas and Swiss forward Eren Derdiyok. Spain’s Xabi Alonso hit the bar late on, but the Swiss held on for a famous win, and will vie with Chile (who broke a 48-year winless streak at the World Cup by beating Honduras 1-0) for control of the group, while Spain will have its work cut out to avoid second place and a possible match-up with Brazil in the round of 16.

The late game saw the hosts lose keeper Itumeleng Khune to a somewhat dubious red card while Diego Forlan scored twice, including once from the spot after Khune was dismissed, in a 3-0 victory for Uruguay, which was hardly the way anyone in South Africa wanted to mark the 34th anniversary of the Soweto student uprising, and did little to make anyone feel better about the disturbing news of strikes by poorly-paid security guards and protest marches against the FIFA fatcats, who won’t even let a bunch of women in orange miniskirts get their party on. It’s no surprise, but a bit of a shame, that Bafana Bafana are likely to bow out after their final Group A game against France, making them the first host team ever not to reach the knockout round.

It seems the World Cup may also be over for Italian netminder Gianluigi Buffon, whose back is a bit wonky. Maybe the long flight down didn’t do him any favours. At least he probably travelled in more style than CBS correspondent Steve Nash. As for our correspondent, the Happy Hoofer was posing for pictures in Abu Dhabi this morning, killing time while waiting for a connecting flight (he’s the one on the right).

While Portugal were busy trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo’s yellow card rescinded, there was more fun elsewhere. With his team set to face the Red Devils of South Korea tomorrow, Argentina boss Diego Maradona was made available to a hungry pack of media wolves today, and didn’t disappoint, firing off shots at Pele and Michel Platini (damn French and their lack of social skills), revealing that Juan Sebastian Veron would not start because of a calf injury, and producing several other Maradona musings. Can’t wait to see his antics on the touchline tomorrow, and what suit his daughters dress him in.

Ian Harrison

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