Sometimes I wonder whether World Cups throw up the outcome that the team that you back eventually wins it.
In 1982, the first world cup that I was vaguely aware of (probably some Panini stickers floating around that time in Ovaltine tins) I didn’t follow it, but years later I read that Brazil had an extremely talented team which played football the way it was meant to be played. And they were the hot favourites going into a latter stage group. In an eerie parallel with the Maracanaza, they only had to draw against Italy, but Italy had to win. But Italy won, all the same, after sleepwalking through the group stages. In the end, Brazil were the team of the first half of the tournament, and Italy, the team of the second half of the tournament. That defeat probably inflicted a permanent psyche damage on Brazil because it was the last time a team tried to win playing like that. The Brazillian team reached a nadir in 1990 and then they rejuvenated in 1994 – but more about that later.
The Italians were not fancied to win that tournament but they did. And in a way it could have been worse – their opponents in the final, Germany, was one of the most reviled teams of all time. Verdict: no
In 1984, France won the Euros for the first time, and I’m told that that win was celebrated by most people, so I’ll take it on faith that Platini, Tigana and company were hot favourites. Verdict: yes
In 1986, Maradona and Argentina swept all before them. This was probably the one world cup which was so dominated by one player – even Pele had other great players to play with. I’m told that there were a few matches which were pretty exciting, like Brazil vs France.
Truth is, I’m not sure who I’d have preferred to win this one – the Germans, who apparently weren’t that great to watch, or the Argentines, who combined the sublime skills of Maradona, with a player who was a blatant and unrepentant cheat. Maradona always does something clownish and outrageous at the World Cup, but this was also the one and only time when his great abilities overshadowed his clownishness rather than the other way around. The French and Belgian teams, - the beaten semi-finallists would probably have been more favoured in this tournament. Verdict: sorda
In 1988, everybody willed Netherlands to win, and they won their one and only major tournament, and probably that made up for their 1974 final lost to W Germany. Their success coincided with the club level success of the great Rikjaard-Van Basten-Gullit axis that saw AC Milan sweep everything before it and win two consecutive European Cups. Verdict: yes
In 1990, the tournament was a disaster, in terms of the level of excitement, and the number of goals scored, and the fouling. Maradona somehow got Argentina into the final at the expense of Italy, and I think that even though people were unhappy that Germany won because of a Juergen Klinnsman dive, they weren’t that keen for Maradona to have another world cup either. The only bright spot was that England reached the semi-finals, and Camaroon was the romantic dark horse. Verdict: no
In 1992, just as the world got tired of Germany being extremely successful and always reaching the latter stages of tournaments, in came a dark horse, Denmark, who hadn’t even qualified for the tournament, and they won it. I suppose that was pretty OK result. Verdict: yes
In 1994, apparently that was a tournament where everybody was willing Brazil to finally win it, now that they had a great strike force in Bebeto and Romario. But elsewhere in the team, they won ugly. And if people were complaining that 1990 was the first tournament where the final was settled by a penalty, it got even worse this time, when the tournament was settled by a penalty shootout.
There were Cinderella teams everywhere, from the Irish who upset Italy to Sweden, Romania and Bulgaria, who got to the latter stages in spite of being unheralded. But the team that everybody wanted to be the Cinderella – Colombia – drastically underperformed. They were redeemed later when it turned out that they had been receiving death threats all through the group stage – no wonder it was difficult to concentrate on the football. Oh yes also there was the matter of Andres Escobar. Verdict: yes
In 1996, I will remember this as being the time when England had a golden opportunity to win on home soil. And in the early stages they played well enough to suggest they could do that. However, eventually they lost to Germany in the semi-finals. If they had gotten past Germany, there would only be the Czechs standing in their way of the European championship. So this was a great shame. Verdict: no
In 1998, I remember that the outcome of the final was a bit of a shock, because most people were backing the Brazillians to win. The best player was fat Ronaldo – the Ronaldo that everybody loves (as opposed to the Portuguese one that everybody hates). But somehow he had a psychological collapse in the final. We hadn’t heard that much about France and Zidane and company, but in retrospect, they were a great team. They were starting to come into their own as a great team. So 1998 was probably one of those nice finals where I would have backed either team to win. Verdict: yes
In 2000, almost the same France team won, so yay for them! Verdict: yes
In 2002, two of the favourites for the tournament – Argentina and France – were dumped out quickly. I wonder sometimes about an alternate reality where the favourites played deep into this tournament instead of getting kicked out early. Portugal might have gone far too. Instead the lunatics took over the asylum, with South Korea, Turkey, Senegal, Germany and the USA reaching far into a tournament many thought they didn’t have the capability to do so. Brazil might have been underestimated because their qualification was far from smooth. But any team with Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho in it had to win the whole thing. Verdict: yes
In 2004, it was a curious thing. Was it romantic that the Greeks won? Yes. But the manner in which they won was pretty ugly. It was a great triumph of ugly football. Somebody should have stopped them along the way. The Czechs? The French? I would have preferred Portugal and their golden generation to win. Instead they lost in the final, just like Brazil in 1950. Portugal’s golden generation would not ever win a trophy, although they did at least reach a final and a world cup semi-final. Compare that with England’s “golden generation” of Rooney, Lampard, Beckham and Gerrard. Verdict: no
In 2006, it was a curious final. France in their Indian summer, reaching the final in spite of being coached by Domenech. Italy had gotten this far in the match while having an extremely defensive match. As usual, the final was tight. Come to think of it, since 1990 all the finals were tight ugly affairs, except maybe France beating an out of sorts Brazil in 1998 and Brazil beating a Germany surprised to find itself in the final in 2002. I would on balance have preferred that the vintage France won this trophy and bowed out with a great triumph, although Zidane reaching the final with all the old timers is already quite a triumph. The Italy team probably had a lot of great players. They had Grosso, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Materazzi in defence. They had Gattuso and Pirlo in midfield, and Totti upfront and Del Piero coming on as a substitute. They look like a winning side. But I don’t like a team to win a World Cup based on a great defence. I would rather any of the other three semifinalists - Portugal or France or the young Germany side – to have won it. Verdict: no.
In 2008, 2010 and 2012, the all-conquering Spain side won three trophies in a row, a feat that’s unprecedented and should probably confirm them . Verdict: yes, yes and yes.
In 2014, we had a German side who had captured the hearts of a nation in 2006 but narrowly lost to Italy. They reached the semifinals in all the tournaments since, so I think this was their turn to win it, even though they had to endure a tight match against Argentina to do it.
So it's nice to have quite a few tournaments in a row where you feel that there is a moral victory for the side. I remember coming out of Euro 2008 feeling quite pleased that Spain had won their first major tournament in 44 years. And they topped it off by winning the World Cup for the first time ever - technically that was the first time in 80 years.
I’m here wondering which team is going to win it in 2018 when it occurred to me that the Germany side that just won had already existed in 2010. And barring a Spain-type disaster, they would very likely be contenders in the next Euros and the next World Cup.
In the last blog post I wondered about whether or not there was going to be a change of power in the next World Cup. Looks like other than Costa Rica, all the teams who reached the quarter finals are from Europe or South America. This year’s winner, like 2010’s winner had a team with quite a few great talents who were cultivated since young. There was a system. Many of them played in the same clubs together. The World Cup is a quite a unique competition. It’s a team game where the participants are nations. It’s not a club vs club thing, where the club which attracts the best talents will win. The only person who doesn’t have to be from that country is the coach, although the coach is part of the national system. Which means that power is often wielded by relatively few nations. We’ve had 8 different winners in 20 World Cups. Maybe that's not that bad, countries winning it an average of 2.5 times each.
European supremacy – there are 5 former European winners and 3 former South American winners. At the time when Brazil last won the World Cup the South Americans won 9 and the Europeans won 8. Now the Europeans have overtaken South America to win 11. And they show no sign of stopping. There are 4 European sides who are super powers (England lol), and 2 South American sides who are super powers. There’s Holland, the only main contender who still manages to contend on a regular basis.
Outside of these, what else is there? I can think of countries which drop out of being world powers - I'm thinking Uruguay, Hungary and Austria. But I can't think of countries moving in the opposite direction, becoming world powers. Maybe in the long run, China and the USA can get their shit together. Or maybe they never will.
Costa Rica have a good, decent team, and Colombia’s future is bright. Maybe those two will fly the flag for the Americas. If the US can progress from here, they might be contending for the semifinals in the future. Belgium are seeing the beginnings of a golden generation and they’ll be talked about for the next few tournaments. France have regained some of their lost pride.
England and Italy will be down for quite a while. Spain can still contend if they pick up the pieces, but where are their next great players going to come from? The big question marks here are Brazil. You can always talk about the great Brazillian players of every generation. They are the nation of Pele, Tostao, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Jairzinho, Gerson, Zico, Socrates, Eder, Falcao, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo. Now they only have Neymar and maybe Oscar. The most talented Brazillians of the last few years – Adriano, Robinho and Kaka have managed to squander their talents. The Brazil side of 1982 was the last major side to have most of their stars play in Brazil. From the 80s onwards, the big money of the European sides started to pull over the stars from Brazil. Romario, Bebeto and Ronaldo were playing for the big European sides. It would be difficult to co-ordinate players to balance between club duties and national duties.
How did the most impressive talent production system in the world run dry? I don’t know the answer to that. I can only hope that by the time the next World Cup comes around, the next generation of South Americans would have been born. It’s nice to see Colombia and Chile make progress but I can’t imagine them being major contenders for the World Cup. Colombia might still surpass their best ever team which had Valderrama, Rincon, Higuita and Asprilla.
But the last decade was something of a disappointment in terms of a new power being able to ascend to the world stage. The only new power was Spain, somewhat of an old power, since it already had, in Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most powerful sides in the world. It was hoped that Asia would play a greater role at the World Cups. After years of Australia + South Korea + Japan + AN Other, this stability did not help them. Australia have lost their golden generation but maybe they could still get another one. The golden generation of Ivory Coast, having played in three consecutive World Cup finals is about to retire. Ghana’s world cup was farcical. Nobody expected the Nigerians to be the only Africans still in the tournament. For whatever reason, it seems that Africa is on the wane. For me the high point was Chelsea winning the Champions League with a lot of west Africans in their ranks. After that, I’m beginning to suspect that the West African talent pool, like the Brazillian talent pool is about to dry up. But I’d be glad to be wrong. For an African team to reach the semi-final, or for a team from Central or North America to reach the semi-final, or for an Asian team to reach the semi-final without dubious refereeing, all that would be an achievement.
Then there are the Cinderella sides of the past who never managed to go on and establish themselves as a great power. Peru and Poland of the late 70s. Belgium and Denmark of the late 80s. Cameroon 1990, Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania of 1994, Croatia of 1998, Turkey of 2002, Portugal of 2006, Uruguay of 2010. Who knows what will happen to the 3Cs of 2014 – Costa Rica, Colombia and Chile?
I think that success in football requires that you have a structure, an organization, as well as a good coach. Whenever South Americans have succeeded in the past, it was due to superior talents: in their astonishing run from 1958 to 1970 when they won three out of four, in 1978, when they were on home soil, in 1986, when they had Maradona, in 1994 when they had Romario, and in 2002 when they had the 3 R’s. But it wasn’t about superior coaching, or superior organization, or superior facilities, or superior clubs. To some extent it was about the fact that the countries that were more populous than Brazil – Indonesia, USA, India and China – are not great footballing powers. Brazil will have to adapt with the times, and probably have to figure out how to nurture their best talents. Likewise Argentina, who does have great talents in Mascherano, Messi and Di Maria, will have to figure out how to set up a coaching system which harnesses the best. Messi was one match away from the World Cup. Maybe this is as good as it gets. The World Cup in 2010 was a missed opportunity for Argentina because Maradona was out of his depth as a coach. He had a squad as talented, if not more so than the 2014 edition.