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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is there a power shift in the World Cup away from South America and Europe?

David James raised the possibility that World Cups might be shifting away from South America and Europe.

These are the great powers of football: Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland.
These are the former great powers: England, Uruguay and Hungary.
These are the former second tier powers: Sweden, Czechoslovakia, USSR, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Denmark, Austria, Denmark.
There are a lot of countries that are bubbling under.
Here are a lot of other countries that have played in a World Cup before, but not on a regular basis: Greece, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia, South Korea, China, New Zealand, Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Zaire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Angola, South Africa, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, USA.
Where would there be a shift of the World Cup to? The most plausible places are Africa or North America. Asia still seems to lag far behind. But Africa had a team from Cameroon reach the quarterfinals in 1990, and when they were knocked out by England, it was generally acknowledged that England could have a close shave and it could well easily have been Cameroon in the semifinals. Since then, their quarterfinal placing has not been bettered by any other African teams. Since then, they had gotten close to the semi-finals twice. Once was when Senagal reached the quarterfinals and suffered a close defeat to Turkey in 2002. Another was when Ghana was one Luis Suarez handball away from the semi-finals in 2010. But they have not made the breakthrough. People were surprised that Africa did not shine in South Africa. Well actually it’s not that surprising. South Africa has a European climate, and the African teams – other than South Africa were from the tropics or the desert. So it’s really a “European” world cup.

In 2014, they had a Ghana team which was unlucky to lose to the USA and managed to draw with Germany, but they imploded when two of their players – Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari were sent home after a physical confrontation with the coach. Ivory Coast was somewhat unlucky to not qualify when a last minute Greece penalty denied them a place in the second round, and a great team that had played 3 world cups in succession were about to be disbanded. Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, the Toure brothers, Gervinho, Didier Zokora and Wilfried Bony would play no further part in World Cup 2014, which is a shame. So it’s up to Nigeria and Algeria – two teams I hadn’t had much hope for – to carry Africa’s torch in 2014. I have a feeling they’ll be knocked out of the round of 16 by France or Germany respectively but I could be wrong.

The other rising region is Central and North America. At first it seemed that Mexico’s difficulties with qualifying for the World Cup was a signal that it was dropping off. The excellence of Costa Rica in this world cup suggests instead that this was due to Costa Rica’s unusually good form. Unfortunately for Mexico, they’ll soon meet up with Holland so unless they produce a big upset, it’s curtains for them. And I’d want to see Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and company continue to deliver great football for this World Cup.

Costa Rica, by contrast, only has Greece barring its way into the quarters, and I expect it to prevail. However, once there, they’ll be meeting Holland or Mexico. Probably the former.

The US, I think has a 50-50 chance of getting past Belgium, especially now that they’ve lost Vermaelen and Kompany. But after that they’ll have to face Argentina, unless the Swiss are more sneaky than we’ve suspected. And then they’ll have to hope that Argentina’s tactics are somehow not as great because they’ll be facing Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and the dreaded Lionel Messi. So in contrast to Africa, they have a good chance of putting two teams in the quarters.

Asia had a good World Cup in Korea and Japan, although that is most probably because host countries do well. And South Korea had a combination of incredibly good luck, bad refereeing and an unusually good team to reach the semifinals in 2002. Turkey (which is half Asian) also had the good fortune to be competing a semi-final berth with “only” Japan, Sweden and Senegal, so it was practically guaranteed that there would be a surprise team in the final. But since then, they haven’t really taken the next step and they aren’t going to reach the quarter finals for some time to come. Soccer really isn’t an Asian thing. America doesn’t have much interest in soccer per se but they are a great sporting nation, so inevitably they’ll be good at soccer. Same argument, to a lesser extent, applies to Australia. Japan and South Korea, by contrast, are a country where the nerds are more powerful than the jocks. The good kids don’t do sports. Maybe that’s why South Korea and Japan will not be great soccer powers.

Asia is actually a few continents. It is the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the former Soviet Union (which can be divided into Central Asia and Russia) and East Asia (which can be divided into Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia). For the third World Cup in a row, Asia has been represented by South Korea, Japan, Australia and one other club. As we have seen in this last world cup, South Korea and Japan have not made a great progress, and Australia’s performance merely hints at some improvement in the future – “promising” is too strong a word for a team that has lost all three games. New Zealand did not return – it was merely a flash in the pan.

I’m not that familiar with the football teams of the Arab world. But usually the best teams from the Arab world are North Africans. They are usually ranked second after Australia and East Asia. The Indian Subcontinent hardly merits a mention, although they have potential and 1 billion people who excel at a sport other than soccer.

This problem is even more pronounced in Southeast Asia. And it is in Southeast Asia that you will have a curious combination of people who are football fanatics and who also happen to be shit at football. I’m not sure where else in the world you will have a combination like this – maybe the lesser African states. The problem with this phenomenon in Japan and South Korea is that you will have players who are signed up for teams who covet them more for their ability to sell T-shirts than their playing ability. Then these players will spend too long on the bench. Park Chu Yong at Arsenal. Junaichi Inamoto at Arsenal. Shinji Kagawa at Man United. The problem is that a big name club will make them an offer they can’t resist – it’s not easy being an Asian and explaining to your friends and family why you didn’t sign for Man U when you had the chance – and being out of the first team at the bigger club actually turns out to be a step down from being a regular started at your smaller club. In Southeast Asia, you don’t actually have to play excellent football to have 40-50 thousand fans turn up at your stadium week in week out. So why bother? No wonder Asian football has not taken that big step forward.

In the end, we have four of the favourites in World Cup 2014 – Brazil, Argentina, Holland and Germany – competing for the 4 semi-final berths. Anybody who wants to take their place will have to knock them out, or knock out whoever knocked them out. Not an easy task.

Where David James might have a point is that the World Cup is becoming more level. It used to be a charge levelled against the World Cup that it expanded too quickly to other countries, and we had a few whipping boys in the past. I don't think that's the case. Even South Korea and Japan weren't that easy to beat. Pretty decent teams like Croatia, Portugal, Spain, England, Italy, Bosnia, Ghana and Ivory Coast were left behind.


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