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The Not-So-Glorious Certainties of Football. May 31, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Football, guest.

Note: Arnold is guest writing on this blog. If you want him to join the Silly Point team on a full-time basis, please plead for him in the comments рЯШЙ

Football, any fan will be quick to assert, is a game of glorious uncertainties. I beg to differ.

Sure, there are upsets (like there are in every other sport), but if you look at the history of the World Cup, there have been far too many "certainties" for my liking. Let's take a look at just the finals for now, shall we? Here are some striking facts:

1. In 17 World Cups this far, we've had only 7 different countries lift the trophy. Even more surprisingly, the 34 teams that have competed in these 17 Finals have come from only 10 countries. I find this figure especially telling — not only are new teams not winning the Cup, they aren't even reaching the Final!

2. In the 9 Finals since 1970 (18 teams), there's been only one entry from outside the traditional powerhouses of Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands. (The exception of course was France in '98.)

3. The last time a team made the Final for the first time (again excluding the French exception) was the Netherlands way back in 1974. The last time we had both Finalists appearing for the first time was in the 2nd edition in 1934!

So all the "glorious uncertainties", it would appear to me, happen in the early stages of the World Cup. But once it comes down to the games that really matter, we only see regular faces! When will the Senegals and the South Koreas of this world have what it takes in them to actually win the damn thing?

Another interesting point that one realizes is that home advantage plays a crucial role as far as the Football World Cup is concerned. Here are some more facts:

1. The two countries that have one the Cup once each — England (1966) and France (1998) — accomplished this on home ground. The only other team to have played in the Final only a single time — Sweden (1958) — also did so on home turf.

2. Countries seem to do well either in their own country or not too far from it. 6 World Cups were won by the home country and only Brazil has actually managed to win the Cup on a continent other than their own (Sweden '58, Mexico '70, USA '94 and Japan '02). When one adds to this the fact that no team from either North America or Asia could realistically be given too much chance of taking the Cup, the only real 'away-continent' victory remains Brazil in Sweden '58.

3. South Korea put their home advantage to good use in the last tournament and wound up reaching the semi-finals. I don't think any home team has been knocked out of the World Cup in the Group stages.

So why do teams have such a problem traveling away from home in this sport? And when will we have some new teams winning the Cup? Any answers?



1. ramanand - May 31, 2006

Arnold, I don’t know if anyone’s used the phrase “game of glorious uncertainties” for football –
I certainly would not. Are you sure you haven’t got it mixed up with ODI cricket? рЯЩВ I see Samrat says results are unpredictable, but surely not over an entire Cup.

Looking at the large evidence of data, it is fair to say that genuine upsets have been quite rare
in football (like in Test cricket). I don’t know the exact causes, but looking at the roster of
winners, they clearly are teams with depth, temperament, history and sometimes even luck.
The only teams that should have been up there IMO are the likes of Holland, Eastern Europeans
like Czechoslovakia and Hungary in their heyday, and perhaps Spain. No African or Asian teams
or even other American teams apart from Arg, Brz or Uruguay come to mind. Once you win a World
Cup, it should be a tad easier to repeat the feat due to experience and as a generation of young footballers
gets motivated. I don’t know why home advantage or even continental advantage makes a difference,
but its psychological and other benefits cannot be denied seeing the empirical data. Now that Cups
are moving outside, we can observe what happens. For temperament, contrast Holland/England/Spain
to nations like Brazil/Argentina/Italy/Germany.

So my conclusion: the results are about 80% expected. Recently, we do see surprises like Croatia,
Turkey, South Korea and journeymen like Sweden and Denmark doing well – but the first time is the
hardest. France has finally made it through after 30 odd years of having decent players. I’m hoping
the golden generation of the Czechs can do this time what they failed to do at Euro 2004. But it’s
highly unlikely we’ll see all 4 semi-finalists outside the previous winners.

2. Samrat Sengupta - May 31, 2006

The World Cup has hardly ever been won by the team that were supposed to be the pre-tournament favourites, and in every World Cup there are some spectacular upsets. Though some teams have an enviable record like Brazil and Germany, but the fact is that these teams have done well, when most experts had written them off. Where Brazil has not done well are the cups in which they were hot favourites.
Giving examples: in 82 and 86 Brazilian team was a notch above all comers, yet they could not do well. Even in 90 they were sort of favourites.
German final appearances in 82,86 as well as 2002 was totally unexpected.

Italian win in 1982 was a surprise.
France and Arg were hot favorites in 2002, both ousted in the first round.
and ask the Hungarians and Dutch teams, who despite being the best teams of their era could not quite make it to the pinnacle.

So it is pretty easy to do the analysis and say post-facto that team standings are predictable, but when the cup is on, it is an open field , the “certainities” are not at all apparent and it has been so ever since the first edition.

So my advice is do not even dare to bet on the results and yes football is one of the most unpredictable sports.

3. Bharat Maheshwari - May 31, 2006

You see, the problem with the concept “glorious uncertainities” is that it does not mean that there is 50-50, or even 30-70 chance of a minnow like Jamaica winning against say Italy. I mean it cannot be possible that two nations with complete different skill levels can match on a football field. But what it does mean that when two teams with a decent set of players can always compete with each other.
For example Croatia of WC’98 or Turkey of 2002. They had good decent players, but they worked well as a team. Football is in essence a complete team game and even if you posess one shining talent, its not possible to win the game (unless your name ends with Maradona!). But if a few set of decent players come together well, you can possibly give another team posessing more skillful players a run for their money.
Regarding why only a few teams have been able to win the World Cup is very simple. There are them teams whose players play day-in-day-out in challenging football leagues where they develop understanding and teamwork. Isn’t that what you call “experience”? Now if you think of it, national teams hardly get anytime to gel together. The only come together for a few days and players have to adapt to each other. The players of the major nations are along with being more skillful, usually more at ease to adjust to each other. Hence they are more likely winners.
As for home-away advantage, you must remember that in the entire Brazil squad except a player or two, all play in european leagues. If you look at the trend, the idea of importing South Americans really started in late eighties-early nineties. Their players have become used to playing outside their continent. Hasn’t this been the time that the Brazilians/Argentinians have started winning more regularly? Playing at home nations must definitely help. Whats the reason for that, a sport phycologist might be able to answer that but it probably has to do with the passion and extra push that a team gets when playing in front of home crowd.

4. Abhishek - June 1, 2006

"journeymen like Sweden "

Now, JR I'm sure some of our Errikson friends will make exception to that. The swedes have finished second when they hosted the tournament in 1958, and have finished third twice, in 1950 and 1994. I'm sure even some of the more traditional 'powerhouses (England?) have a worse record. I would go and say the swedes are consistently the most under-rated team in the WC.

 And as for real real under-dogs winning, I'm surprised no-one has talked about Greece and the travails of Euro 94. Now even Arnold will accept that was a real outsider winning.

5. The Piker - June 1, 2006

The home advantage to me initially did not make sense, something such as in cricket where conditions such as the bounce and the weather make a difference to the visiting teams.
But in football, when evenly matched or even reasonably well matched teams play, the crowd plays a big part. Imagine a visiting player put under enormous pressure by a home fan right behind him when he takes a throw. They whistle and boo the moment a visiting player touches the ball and do just the opposite when the ball lands at the feet of a home player. It all adds up to their mental attributes which have a multiplying effect on their play as a whole;
something we realize when we watch the home and away legs of the champions league. Of course at the end of the day if the difference between the sides is such that twenty trucks can pass abreast, then more often than not you would expect the stronger team to beat the weaker one. The exception being this time when a conference team Burton and Hove Albion held Man U to a draw at home in the league cup(or rather Man U holding Burton to a draw according to a Football365 headline!).
And about South Korea, their success was controversial and much debated about but their work rate and determination was beyond question, thanks to home support.

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7. Shrik - June 2, 2006

The EPL winners over the years – classic case of not-so-glorious-uncertainties..

8. Aniket - June 5, 2006

Well, Abhishek, Greece in Euro 04 was not a total one-off. The Danes in Euro ’92 hadn’t even qualified to begin with(they came in as replacements for Yugoslavia I think) but went on to win. But the World Cup is much tougher than the European Championships. And I mostly agree with Ramanad, there will be upsets, but no new semi-finalists.

9. Gaurav - June 5, 2006

One thing that i would like to mention over here is that teams more often than not just become bunches of “stars”…an example in reality would definitely be Real Madrid.Florentino Perez finally realized the importance of a “balanced” team working as a unit rather than a team of individual star talents.Ditto with world cup footbal….consider this:England currently boasts of the strongest midfield in the world with messrs.Gerrard,Lampard,Beckham etc. running in the middle…this team is currently valued at pound 210 million(considering values of individual players only).money wise this team is way above Brazil and Italy but an English fan(myself being one of them) will probably want to forget the famous Eng-Bra matchup of 2002….star power or team power?In 2002 Turkey had an amazing run while others like Argentina had to bite the dust.One may argue about the difficulty of the groups but I don’t think that the traditional power houses now play as a “unit”,and therein i feel lies the reason for the upsets early in the competition..but as far as the rest of the field is concerned i agree with Ramanand…one question here…….has the growing commercial appeal of club Football diminished the fire to compete among players?

10. Sinfully Pinstripe - June 5, 2006

Sorry for nit-picking, but

only Brazil has actually managed to win the Cup on a continent other than their own (Sweden ’58, Mexico ’70, USA ’94 and Japan ’02).


Of course if you do not take Latin america as a whole. Mexico plays the Copa anyway.

11. Sinfully Pinstripe - June 5, 2006

And as for the post, IMHO the traditional powerhouses are also the ones where football is at its manic best, with a huge fan following and all that. A tectonic change, with new winners emerging, will not be something that can be achieved easily.
Even France and England, which have won the cup once each, have a massive fan following in their respective nations. And if the powerhouses are not slipping up, the young upstarts have to struggle that much more to make a niche.

Spain has never played as a team. Never had an united national team in fact. When have the Basques and Catalans ever considered themselves a part of Spain? And I heard that Oleguer Presas, the Barca defender refused to play for Spain because he considers himself a Catalan and not a Spaniard… is there any validity to that information?

Also had this prolonged discussion on Harish’s blog I think, where I mentioned that no country in the world can really ‘play as a team’ in the world cups, because playing as a team would involve regularly practising as a team, which is impossible in the current scenario, what with club matches and all (and however much we long for the team play of the Brazil of ’70 and that fabulous Carlos Alberto goal, we have to realise that the team almost entirely consisted of players plying their trade in Brazil, and they practiced for an extended period of time before the world cup, playing together). So what is left behind, what actually you get to see in International matches, are those individual flashes of brilliance….

So who will show the most of that individual brilliance? Brazil? Argentina? France? England? The Dutch? The Italians? The traditional powerhouses?

Who will win the world cup, then?

12. Anonymous - June 30, 2006
13. Silly Point » The usual suspects - a post mortem - July 12, 2006

[…] Now that drama has butted in and left, and also that it is just less than a week after, perhaps it is a good time to quickly revisit Arnold’s question on the not so glorious certainties of the WC i.e. why are most of the football WCs dominated by the same set of superpowers. […]

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