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15 June 2018

World Cup Will’e? (3)

Tag(s): Sport
It’s World Cup time again and so as usual I will endeavour to throw some light on it. In 2010 I said ‘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.[i] Spain beat the Netherlands in the final, but I did not get everything right. I said the host nation usually does well but South Africa became the first host nation to fail to get beyond the first round. Does anyone remember which was the only unbeaten team in the competition? New Zealand who drew all three of its first round matches and then went home.

In 2014 I said ‘Germany has reached at least the semi-finals of the last four major international tournaments without winning any. It’s about time that changed. Some of their stars in 2010 were relatively unknown then – now Mehmet Ozil and company are established stars.’ [ii] In finals that featured all former winners of the Cup Germany beat three of them to take the title. They beat France 1-0 in the Quarter Final, thrashed host nation Brazil 7-1 in the Semi Final and beat Argentina for the second time in a Final 1-0 to finish as worthy winners. It meant that European nations had won the last three finals, Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014.

But this year there are some major absentees. Italy is one of the most successful national teams in the history of the World Cup having won four titles (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) and appeared in two other finals (1970, 1994), reaching a third place (1990) and a fourth place (1978). The Netherlands is arguably the best team to have never won the World Cup. They finished runners-up in the 1974, 1978 and 2010 World Cups, losing to West Germany, Argentina and Spain respectively. In 2014 they were third and fourth in 1998. Chile’s best ever was third place in 1962 when they were host nation. But they are the reigning Copa América champions; after winning 2015 Copa América on home soil, they successfully defended their title in the United States in the Copa América Centenario in 2016. Prior to this Chile had been runner-up on four occasions. As a result of winning the 2015 Copa América they qualified for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup where they finished second. The USA usually qualifies from a fairly simple CONCACAF group but this time lost out to Panama of all countries.  England will play Panama in their Group in Moscow.

So who will win this time? Well, I don’t know but I can give some pointers:

One thing is for sure, England won’t win. In my opinion you need at least five world class players to win and England only really have one in Harry Kane. But there are three other factors. The first is that all the England players play in the English Premier League which is arguably the most competitive and difficult League in World football.  Of those starting a World Cup final in the past 20 years, and going on to win only Emmanuel Petit, Frank Leboeuf and Mesut Ozil had come off the back of an arduous English season. The English season takes ten months without a break. Top English clubs are also likely to have long runs in two domestic and one European cup competition and may be asked to play in as many as 60 games.

The Premier League is dominated by foreign coaches such as Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho and Arsene Wenger who regularly point out the insanity of not taking a break in January as Leagues like the German Bundesliga do. Guardiola also points to the aggressive style of play in the much faster English game with career threatening tackles going unpunished. As the game gets faster the middle aged referees can’t keep up. The German international Leroy Sané was recently timed at a top speed of 22.05 mph, a Premier League record.[iii]

The decline in standards of English refereeing has been noticed by the authorities. The English used to set the standard and English referees have refereed several finals including as recently as 2010 when Howard Webb was referee. Nine Englishmen have officiated at World Cup Finals, four referees[iv]and five assistants. The next highest is Italy with six, Germany has only three. There won’t be a single English referee at this year’s World Cup in Moscow.

The second factor, at least according to Rio Ferdinand is the lack of real team work in the English dressing room. In a recent interview he said ‘There was a time with England when you thought, ‘Wow, it’s always going to be negative. It’s always negative, no matter what happens.’ [v] But his own actions didn’t help. Part of the reason there was so much expectation surrounding the England team during Ferdinand’s career was because of the so-called ‘golden generation’ that emerged around the start of the millennium. Ferdinand along with players such as Frank Lampard (Chelsea) and Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) were considered too good not to win something.  But they were also fierce rivals at club level. Ferdinand says ‘it killed that England team, that generation. One year we would have been fighting Liverpool to win the League; another year it would be Chelsea. I considered the Premier League to be my title. So I was never going to walk into the England dressing room or the canteen and open up to Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Joe Cole at Chelsea, or Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher at Liverpool. I wouldn’t open up because of the fear that they would then take something back to their club and use it against us, to make them better than us. I didn’t really want to engage with them in that sense.’

It was only after he retired that this realisation came to him. He had grown up with Frank Lampard at West Ham but once they both went to top clubs they stopped speaking to each other. Now they are both pundits on the same channel they are friends again but both regret that their attitude had hurt England. But if this is true why doesn’t it stop other nations from doing well. The last three World Cup winners Italy, Spain and Germany all drew the majority of their players from their domestic leagues. All eleven starting players in the Italian team were playing at the time in Serie A for top Italian teams mainly drawn from Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Roma, all fierce rivals. All eleven starting players in the Spanish team were playing in La Liga for top Spanish teams mainly drawn from Real Madrid and Barcelona, whose rivalry is one of the fiercest on the planet. Nine of the German team were playing at the time in the Bundesliga. Admittedly six were with Bayern Munich but the other three played for top German rivals. The two overseas players were Ozil in England at Arsenal and Klose in Italy at Lazio.

I think the bigger reason why England were unable to live up to expectations is the management. All three winning World Cup teams were coached by outstanding national managers, Marcello Lippi of Italy, Vicente del Bosque of Spain and Joachim Low of Germany. Meanwhile the 2006 England side was coached by the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson, while the 2010 team was managed by the Italian Fabio Capello. In 2014 the manager Roy Hodgson is English but has spent most of his career overseas working with sixteen teams in eight different countries including two stints as the national manager of Finland and Switzerland respectively.

A third factor which is likely to hamper the England team’s chances will be the match ball. I have blogged about this before in my blog World Cup Fever: the Last 16[vi] where I criticised the dreadful match ball in South Africa. But this year the English FA, in trouble over so many issues, has dug itself into a quite unnecessary hole. It is contracted to play with another manufacturer’s ball and has had only one match before the finals in which they experienced match conditions with the official ball. Adidas has again won the contract to supply the official ball despite the dreadful quality balls they have supplied in the past. England is contracted to use the Nike Ordem V.[vii]

So if it isn’t going to be England which of the other 31 countries, yes, 31, will win? I think it unlikely that the winner would come from outside the usual suspects. The betting at present is as follows:

Brazil and Germany joint favourites at 9/2
France and Spain 6/1
Argentina 9/1
Belgium 10/1
England 16/1
Portugal 25/1
Russia 40/1

Working backwards I have included Russia in this list because the host nation has a big advantage and they have wangled themselves an easy group.[viii] They have started surprisingly well but they will not win. And why is it being held in Russia anyway? Well, remember that in 2010 there were 22 members of FIFA’s executive committee who took part in the secret vote for Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. On hearing the news the immortal Eric Cantona said ‘It shows they just don’t care about football.’ No less than 16 members of that committee have since been banned for corruption, indicted or convicted of corruption by the FBI or other authorities, or remain under investigation.

Portugal at 25/1 looks amazing value. They have in Ronaldo one of the greatest players of all time who has proved for his club and his country that he can win a match on his own. Portugal won their group winning nine out of ten matches and losing one. Germany won all ten while Spain and Belgium were next best winning nine and drawing one. England and Poland won eight while France and Iceland won seven. It’s not clear to me why France is so highly rated. Belgium has its most talented group of individuals for many years but many of them play in England and may suffer from that excessively long season. Of its current starting XI seven play in England: Mignolet, Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Lukaku.

Of the two South American sides both seem heavily reliant as Portugal on one star player, Neymar for Brazil and Lionel Messi for Argentina. But both have several other outstanding players and with both sides it’s a question of which side turns up. It’s difficult to forget Germany’s demolition of Brazil at the last World Cup and they have not done much wrong since. Brazil and Argentina have not been able to win their own South American tournament for some time.  Brazil last won the Copa América in 2007 and Argentina hasn’t won it since 1993 despite reaching four of the last five finals. Brazil last won the World Cup in 2002 with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in the side. Argentina last won in 1986 with Maradona.

So overall I favour a European side again, probably Germany for their fifth title and possibly Spain or Portugal who tantalisingly are in the same group.

[i] World Cup Will’e? 12th June 2010
[ii] World Cup Will’e? (2) 12th June, 2014  
[iii] ‘English game is a World Cup hazard’ Henry Winter The Times January 30, 2018
[iv] 1950 George Reader, 1954 William Ling, 1974 Jack Taylor, 2010 Howard Webb.
[v] ‘Rio Ferdinand;’ My generation killed the England football team’’ The Times May 12 2018
[vi] World Cup Fever: the Last 16 26 June, 2010
[vii] ‘Diligent Southgate left powerless as FA takes its eye off the ball’ Giles Smith The Times March 31 2018
[viii] If you simply add up the latest rankings for each group you get the following rankings with hardest first:
Group E: Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23), Serbia (34) = 65
Group C: France (7), Peru (11), Denmark (12), Australia (36) = 66
Group D: Argentina (5), Croatia (20), Iceland (22), Nigeria (36) = 83
Group G: Belgium (3), England (12), Tunisia (21), Panama (55) = 91
Group B: Portugal (4), Spain (10), Iran (37), Morocco (41) = 92
Group F: Germany (1), Mexico (15), Sweden (24), South Korea (570 = 97
Group H: Poland (8), Colombia (16), Senegal (27), Japan (61) = 112
Group A: Russia (70), Uruguay (14), Egypt (45), Saudi Arabia (67) = 196
But then, even this is not much of a guide. In the 2014 World Cup Costa Rica, ranked 28th in the World before the competition, won a group against Uruguay, Italy and England who were all ranked in the top ten before the Finals. Italy and England went home after the first round.

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