Lack of diversity in World Cup winners remains a huge mystery
In 18 World Cups, only seven different countries have emerged as winners
In contrast, the European Championship has nine different winners in 13 tourneys
The World Cup has had 'freak' winners, but it seems due for a big shocker
There is something very odd about the list of World Cup winners. For starters, at only seven teams long, it is very short for a competition that has run to 18 editions. Brazil has won it five times, Italy four, (West) Germany three, Uruguay and Argentina twice each and England and France once.
By comparison, the European Championship has had nine different winners from 13 competitions. Perhaps there is an argument that in the tournament's early days, when it was organized as a home-and-away knockout until the semifinals, sides tended to take it less seriously than the World Cup. But even in the past 20 years, the likes of Denmark and Greece have won the title.
A couple of surprise winners, though, are to be expected in a competition that lasts for a month every four years, a theme explored in some detail by Charles Reep, the pioneer of match analysis in Britain, in his unpublished 1973 work, League Championship Winning Soccer and the Random Effect.
"The mechanism of random chance in soccer is such that merit is entirely subordinated to the chance in the first three matches of any series, where the teams are not very widely different in class, and that merit cannot show itself reliably in less than 12 matches," he wrote. "The term 'merit' includes the individual performance standard of the players, also the degree of effectualness of the team's style of play."
You can quibble with his figure of 12 games -- in fact, the mathematician James Walmsley, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, estimated that a season would have to be five years long before there could be a reasonable expectation that luck would be balanced out -- but few would claim the seven-game span of the World Cup (while longer than the six of the Euros) is sufficient to determine the best side in the world. You only have to look at a league table seven games into a season to see that it isn't.
The World Cup isn't even about determining the best side in the world. If it were, qualifying would not be organized on a regional basis and the finals would take the form of a protracted league with no knockout element. With knockouts there is always an element of luck than can be highlighted, which is why England fans, for instance, have spent the past 44 years cycling through a series of vaguely plausible excuses -- the food poisoning that ruled Gordon Banks out in 1970, Kevin Keegan's missed header in 1982, Diego Maradona's hand of God in 1986, the agony of penalties in 1990, 1998 and 2006.
How many World Cup winners have been the definitive best team in the tournament? Certainly not Italy four years ago. Hungary of 1954, the Netherlands of 1974 and Brazil of 1982 are generally believed to have been the beautiful losers, and in the past 40 years only Brazil in 2002, West Germany in 1990 and Brazil in 1970 can really be said to have dominated the tournaments they won.
And yet for all that, the same seven winners keep coming up. Look at the bookmakers' odds this time around and six of the seven are among the eight most favored teams. Uruguay is the only unfancied winner, with the Netherlands, a two-time runner-up, and perennial underachiever Spain joining the list of favorites.
In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrate a correlation between a nation's footballing success and a combination of population, income per head and footballing experience. Uruguay has found that its greater experience can no longer compensate for its small population. The other six are all nations with significant populations, soccer experience and a relatively large income per capita (although the authors' figures suggest that Brazil significantly overperforms, presumably because it takes football so seriously). They argue that the likes of the U.S., Turkey and China will eventually join the world's elite, although of those three, only the U.S. has qualified this time.
Then there is the issue of home advantage. Of those seven winners, only Brazil has never won the tournament at home. In fact, take out host wins, and the list shrinks to five: Brazil (five wins), Italy (three), (West) Germany (two) and Uruguay and Argentina one each. If the Americas are regarded as one mass, only Brazil has ever won outside its own continent, in Sweden in 1958 and Japan in 2002.
"You have to understand when you talk about World Cups there are World Cups before satellite television and World Cups after satellite," said Antonio Rattin, Argentina's captain in 1966, when England won as the host nation. "Before satellite the host nation always did well, because the only way FIFA made money was from selling tickets to the games. I remember in '66 there was not a single ad in the stadium. So the host team had to do well. After satellites they could make money from TV, so it was not so important."
There is no evidence to back Rattin's claim of conspiracy in 1966, but it is true that up to 1978, host nations won five out of 11 World Cups; since 1982, that's been the case once in seven tournaments. That is partly indicative of FIFA's willingness to take the World Cup to developing football nations, but probably also that the increasing ease of travel is making it less of a disadvantage to be an away side.
Perhaps the greatest chance of an outsider breaking into the group of winners was as host (Uruguay, England, Argentina and France all won their first tournament at home), when home support could give it that extra boost, but that advantage is waning. Many have suggested an African World Cup could produce an African winner, but given the stagnation in African football over the past two decades and abject performances from most of the World Cup-qualified nations at the Cup of Nations in Angola in January, that seems unlikely.
But still, there have been 11 different World Cup finalists and 24 semifinalists (extrapolating groups to determine a top four where there were no semifinals). If Denmark or Greece can battle through a European Championship, would it really have been too much for one of those 17 sides that has reached the last four to keep going for an extra two games?
As the 2006 World Cup showed, it is not that the tournament does not produce freak winners; it is just that so far they have been drawn from the list of usual suspects. Perhaps having won the tournament before does give a side extra confidence, but frankly the World Cup feels due a fresh champion. It would not be a great surprise if Spain or the Netherlands joined the list of winners in South Africa, but there will be, at some stage, a shocking winner -- Ghana, perhaps, or Serbia, Portugal or Chile. World Cups are too short, and football too unpredictable, for this hegemony of the seven to endure much longer.
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