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At World Cup, Only Two Continents Matter

June 28th, 2018 · No Comments · Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

This has been the case since the invention of the World Cup, in 1930:

Someone from Europe or South America is going to win … and their finals opponent also will hail from Europe or South America.

I became attuned to this quadrennial inevitability (to date) while working in the Persian Gulf for more than six years and watching Asia sides trying to catch up to the Euros and the South Americans.

And I wonder if — or let’s be kind and say “when” — someone from Asia, Africa or North America will reach a World Cup final.

Or even win it.

Let’s review the Russia 2018 field, now that the group stages are concluded.

Continental federations, and their representatives in the knockout rounds:

Africa: 0 (from five competing teams

Asia: 1 (from five competing teams)

North America: 1 (from three competing teams)

South America: 4 (from five competing teams)

Europe: 11 (from 14 competing teams)

Three observations:

–South American teams have had the best tournament so far, sending four of their five teams into the round of 16, and those five teams had a collective group-stage record of 9-2-4 (wins-draws-defeats.) Peru is the only team going home.

–Europe began with 14 teams; 11 are still alive. Their collective record is 21-10-11, and only Germany, Poland and Serbia are out. Keep in mind, too, that Europe had two teams in six of the eight groups and, thus, each of the four victories in the six Euro-on-Euro matches also came with a defeat.

–For the rest of the world? Russia 2018 has been a disaster.

Let’s consider the three “outsider” confederations one at a time.

North America: The collective record of the three Concacaf sides was 2-1-6 — seven points from a potential 27.

Mexico is carrying the flag for Concacaf, as El Tri can be counted on to do, in the group stage. But Mexico now gets Brazil as it grapples to end a disappointing pattern of going out in the round of 16 — which it has done at the past six World Cups. Regional heavyweights, global lightweights.

Panama’s first World Cup was a mess, pretty much as expected from a crude and slow side; that the U.S. could not qualify ahead of the Panamanians (the Yanks missed by one point) did not help. The Panamanians are left to celebrate the one goal they scored in Russia, while trailing England 5-0. (Not going to count the own goal by Tunisia.)

Costa Rica disappointed, which was a near-certainty considering the Ticos’s run to the final eight at Brazil 2014 represented a national high-water mark. They settled for a 2-2 draw with Switzerland and were non-threatening in defeats to Brazil and Serbia.

Asia: The collective record of the five Asian Football Confederation sides was 4-3-8 — 15 points from a potential 45. The AFC was not a complete disaster; four of its five teams won a game.

Japan is in the final 16, but enters via a less-than-flattering group finale — the time-killing, pass-around, 1-0 defeat to Poland while banking on Colombia to hold off Senegal and advance Japan — thanks to a better disciplinary record. Only a defeat of Belgium can wipe away that stain. Typically, though, Japan is steady and well-organized.

There is hope for Iran, and soon, if it abandons the deeply negative tactics coach Carlos Quieroz preaches. Iran defeated Morocco and drew with Portugal and has lots of players in European leagues. A coach with some confidence in their ability to come forward could make Iran a knockout-round side as soon as Qatar 2022.

South Korea and Saudi Arabia each won once, and Korea’s victory was over Germany, making the rest of the tournament easier to forget. Korea is technically primitive and the Saudi players are small and all play inside their own country, but the latter leave with their first World Cup victory since 1994 — 2-1 over Egypt. Australia left with one draw, and sometimes that will happen with the Aussies. They need players who can run at defenses and score; they do not have one, at present.

Africa: Soccer pundits look at Africa and expect a breakthrough, but it has not arrived, unless we count quarterfinal appearances by Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010. The continent seems to have taken a step backward, since. The federation’s five teams went 3-2-10 in Russia, winning only 11 points from a potential 45, and have no team in the final 16 since 1982.

Africa breaks into two halves, one north of the Sahara, the other south of it. The north was represented by Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, and the trio were not competitive, failing to win any of nine matches. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul suggested Arab countries (which would include Asia’s Saudi) need to hit a reset button. “I don’t think we have high-quality performance,” he said. “We need to change our lifestyle because it is not in line with high-level football; we need to change the way we train.”

Sub-Saharan Africa, which has dozens of players in Europe’s elite leagues, seems more likely to produce a team that can make a deep run, but both Senegal and Nigeria are going home. The former came within a whisper of surviving, before becoming the first victim of the “disciplinary” tiebreaker, and Nigeria had moments. Each won a match, Senegal over Poland and Nigeria over Iceland.

It is not entirely clear why sub-Saharan Africa has not had a semifinal-level breakthrough. Perhaps we need to look at the individual federations. Perhaps stronger domestic leagues is key.

At any rate, the global football dominance of Europe and South American continues unabated.

And at this moment it is hard, still, to imagine any side from the world’s other federations producing a champion, or even a runner-up, any time soon.



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