If you were to ask pundits with some semblance of knowledge about the beautiful game beforehand to predict a winner of the World Cup, it would be unthinkable if they would have tipped anything else but a European or a South American country. Every final of the previous 19 World Cup tournaments has featured countries exclusively from one or both of those continents. European nations have won the competition ten times, led by Italy and its four, and South American nations have triumphed in the other nine, with Brazil and its five titles on top of the global pack. They would have been hard-pressed to look past any South American team, on Brazilian soil in particular, as sides from South America have won the only four instances of the tournament held on that continent.
This year’s edition of the World Cup features 19 European and South American nations, well over half of the total involvement in the tournament, though Europe sent a whopping 13 representatives from the Old World to try and join Spain in becoming the only other European nation to win a World Cup outside of Europe. So far, though, the honor of Europe has largely been let down, particularly by some of its most traditional powers.
Spain, two-time defending European champions and winner of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, managed to save some face and beat Australia yesterday, but will be exiting the tournament early with a woeful defense and their tails tucked firmly between their legs, conceding seven goals and only scoring one in their first two games, both losses.
Italy’s rich history counted for nothing today in a 1-0 loss to Uruguay, sending them home early, too, and prompting the resignation of manager Cesare Prandelli. Luis Suarez and Bitegate, episode III, was despicable, yes, but did that incident have any impact on the eventual result of the game? I don’t think so. After winning their first game, then losing to Costa Rica and still only needing a draw today to advance, this was a choke job of the highest order.
England could only scrape a 0-0 draw against Costa Rica today in the potential swansong of captain Steven Gerrard, and the Three Lions also lost both of their first two matches. Don’t worry about the Queen; Roy Hodgson, Wayne Rooney, and Gerrard need God to save them.
Portugal needed a world class cross from a world class player, Cristiano Ronaldo, in the game’s dying seconds to save their skins against the United States, but that should prove to be only a temporary respite. You wouldn’t expect a combination of results to go their way on Thursday for them to advance to the knockout stage. No, it’ll be another big European nation getting a nice long summer break.
The Netherlands, France, Germany, and Belgium look to be Europe’s last remaining serious hopes. They’ve won eight of their nine combined games so far, with Germany getting a draw in the other match against Ghana, and looked nothing short of dominant, playing with style and flair and scoring a boatload of goals while doing so. Greece needed a penalty kick in the last minute of second-half extra time to beat Ivory Coast and advance, despite scoring only two goals (one from open play) in three group matches. Switzerland and Russia are the only other European teams to have a hope of progressing, and it looks pretty slim for Russia.
All told, that’s seven out of 13 (54%) of the European nations who either will advance, or still have a chance to advance. That’s not great, particularly with the amount of attention and focus Europe receives from the media as the hub of the global game.
South America, by contrast, has walked the walk. Five of the six nations (83%) representing that continent have already qualified for the next round. The sixth, Ecuador, will likely need to at least pick up a point against France tomorrow, and might even need to defeat Les Bleus as Switzerland have the advantage of playing already-eliminated Honduras and the two are level on three points.
The two continents have played eight games head-to-head up to this point, and it’s been a rout. South American countries have won six of those games, with Europe’s only wins coming from the Netherlands against Chile in a game when both nations had already qualified for the next round, and critically from Switzerland over Ecuador, with the winner in that affair coming in the third minute of extra time in the second half.
To me, weather shouldn’t be counted as a major factor in Europe’s lack of success as compared to its South American counterparts. It is only hot in a few of the cities in the north of Brazil, as it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere now, and most of the best South American players, like Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez, Neymar, Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez, and Luis Suarez ply their trades in Europe now anyway, spending the vast majority of their time there and losing the comfortability of constantly playing in heat.
It is cooler in most of Europe than in Brazil, to be sure, but temperatures in Spain are not exactly glacial, and the Spanish, most of whom play in Madrid or Barcelona year-round, looked terrible. There is plenty of sunshine and heat in Italy, especially outside of Milan and Turin, and though most of the Italian squad this summer play for clubs from those two cities, that still leaves a fair amount of away games played in warm conditions.
Geographical proximity for South American fans as compared to those from Europe has been a factor, but it’s not a picnic to travel around Brazil for anyone. South American teams have had incredible support from their home supporters, and probably pick up neutral Brazilian fans as well, but with over half a year of advance notice since the draw, plenty of European fans managed to save money and plan trips to watch their sides compete. With that said, I would definitely place this home-field (or home continent, at least) advantage far above weather in terms of explaining South American success thus far.
Quite simply, though, it may just be that South America boasts more world-class players than Europe. I’d challenge anyone to name six European players more talented than the six South Americans I mentioned above. There is no question that the best club teams in the world are in Europe, but South American or African players lead many of them. Squad for squad, the European nations may very well be better than the South American rosters on paper. At the very least, the perception is that the European players are better, because we see more of them on TV and hear more about them in the media. At the very, very top, though, I’ll argue that South America has more difference-makers, more players who can truly impact a game in one moment, than does Europe.
This is a topic I’d love to revisit as we move further into the tournament. It would be dangerous to draw definitive conclusions from a relatively small sample size, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, South American nations have been much, much better than European countries, and it hasn’t been close.