The FIFA World Cup started yesterday and will hold the attention of the world (or at least its football loving majority) for the next month. It is historic in at least one sense as the first to be held in Africa. But the question everyone is asking is who is going to win?
Well, I don’t know but I can give you a few pointers.
Since the first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 there have been 17 further contests. Ten have been held in Europe of which 9 were won by European nations. The tenth was won by Brazil in Sweden in 1958. Six have been held in Latin America of which all six were won by Latin American nations. One was held in the USA also won by Brazil. And one was held in Asia also won by Brazil. So Brazil is the only country to have won the World Cup outside its own continent and it has done it three times. It has won in four different continents and so must be the favourite to win the first one in Africa.
Host nations also traditionally perform well. 6 of the 18 tournaments have been won by the host nation. Uruguay winning the first , Italy the second in 1934, England in 1966, West Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998. Perversely West Germany won in 1990 when the competition was held in Italy who came third and Italy won in 2006 when Germany was the host and came third. Some weaker nations have performed well as host without going on to win so Sweden was runner-up to Brazil in 1958, Chile reached the semi finals in 1962 and South Korea and co-host with Japan also got to the semi finals in 2002. Based on this we might expect South Africa to have a good tournament but probably not win it.
African nations have never done particularly well although their best players are as good as anyone. I don’t think any one African nation has the resources, the tradition, the organisation etc to win but if you picked a team of African players it would give anyone a game. Some of the best players to have graced a World Cup include Eusebio who was born in Mozambique but played for Portugal in the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1966 and Zinedane Zidane who was born in Marseille of Algerian parents and helped France win the World Cup in 1998 but got sent off for a disgraceful head butt in the 2006 final against Italy.
What about England? The conventional wisdom is that England is a perennial underachiever but the evidence is more that England performs in line with realistic expectations. It did not deign to enter before World War II and so missed out on the first three competitions when it might arguably have been the best side in the world. Then when it did enter in 1950 it did not prepare properly and lost two of the opening games, one sensationally to the USA. England since that time has qualified for 12 competitions and failed to qualify 3 times. In the final stage it has only once won all three of the first round matches, and no, that wasn’t in 1966 when it went on to win but in 1982 when it went home from Spain without losing a match. In all the final stages it has qualified for since 1958 it has gone on to the later stages of the competition but only twice got beyond the quarter final stage, in 1990 when a good side lost on penalties to West Germany and in 1966 when a very good side beat West Germany in the final. Expectations then should be for England to reach the quarter final but then come up against a better side or its own demons.
Two other trends are worth noting: the decline of goal scoring and the increase in sendings off.
In the 1954 competition 140 goals were scored in the 26 matches in the final stages in Switzerland, still the highest number per game of any World Cup at 5.38. In 2006 64 matches were held in the final stages in Germany but only 147 goals were scored. This has been reflected in final matches as well. In the first nine finals 45 goals were scored at an average of 5 per game. In the last 9 finals only 24 goals were scored at less than 3 goals per game. The beautiful game has become much more defensive, despite many moves to somehow restrict defences and give some advantage to attackers. When I started playing and watching football in the 1950s typically teams had five forwards and five defenders. Each decade one of the forwards has been withdrawn from a typical playing formation. So 5-5 went to 4-2-4, then to 4-3-3, then to 4-4-2 and now 4-5-1 is more common. At this rate we can expect to see sides in the future with no strikers at all.
The concept of the red card was introduced in 1970 to help the public understand what was happening when a player was sent off. Following the Rattin incident in 1966 when the Argentinean captain was sent off against England by a German referee amidst great confusion, Ken Aston, the English referee who was in charge of refereeing at that World Cup and who himself refereed the infamous Battle of Santiago in 1962 when Italy and Chile kicked lumps out of each other, was driving home and stopped at a traffic light. The amber and red lights gave him his simple inspiration. In 1970, a wonderful competition won by the brilliant Brazilian team, no red cards were issued. That’s right. In none of the final stages of the 1970 World Cup was anyone sent off. But in 2006 28 were sent off in 64 matches, nearly one in every two games and still the goals tally was lower.
So who will win? Well, not necessarily the best team. The Dutch were outstanding in both 1974 and 1978 but lost both finals to the host nation, West Germany and Argentina respectively. In my opinion Brazil was the best in 1982 with Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Junior in midfield but did not even make the final.
The winning team is likely to have won it before. In the last 7 competitions only France has emerged as a new winner and it had already won the European Nations Cup and was host nation. Perhaps Spain might emerge having also won the last European Nations Cup and maintained an almost unbroken streak over the period since then. But there are two other factors to consider. The competition is normally held in the heat of a Northern Hemisphere summer. Only three times before has it been held in the Southern Hemisphere winter and two of those were won by the host nations Uruguay and Argentina. The second is that matches will be played at both sea level in places like Cape Town and also high altitude at Johannesburg. The winning team will certainly have to be well prepared, fit and with good reserves.
What is certain is that FIFA will be the big winners. While South Africa is the host nation and will hope for some economic benefit from 400,000 visitors actually this is much less than originally expected and not very different from normal rates of tourism at this time of year. But FIFA will earn over $3 billion from TV rights, licensing and other receipts. It is to be hoped that this will be put to good use.