2014 World Cup Feature: The geopolitics of soccer

Black Stars fans

Black Stars fans

Ever since the “Un’estate italiana” World Cup of 1990, this editor has been perhaps abusing his rank to analyze the tournament from a geopolitical perspective on the following Sunday and this year is no exception.

Back then in 1990 Argentina lost the final 1-0 to Germany and came away as self-styled “moral champions” — last Sunday saw the same result at the same level to the same rival but this year’s analysis would like to argue that they were not so much the moral as the logical champions (even if it earned the high ground more than then from its courageous re-invention as a genuine team from the “Fantastic Four”).

Hindsight is always easy but I can actually quote my final lines from four years ago to prove that I saw Argentina going all the way: “But my own hunch for 2014 is Argentina, if only because Messi starts the tournament at 26 — the ideal age for a soccer player and the same age as Maradona when he won Argentina’s World Cup in Mexico 1986 (unless, of course, Messi & Co continue to be mismanaged by Maradona or unless soccer is banned because it interferes with vuvuzela concerts).”

That magic 1986 combination of the world’s best player on Latin American turf had never been repeated until now — hence the unique chance for a cup which was Argentina’s to lose on the basis of strict World Cup logic. Because in the eight decades until South Africa, forecasting the continent (as opposed to the nationality) of the winner had never been rocket science. Every single World Cup in the Americas was won by a team from that hemisphere while Europe was almost as effective in the Old World (just dropping Sweden 1958 to Peles’s Brazil) — Asia’s only World Cup in 2002 went to Brazil. So the first 18 World Cups all obeyed the formula: the winner will always come from the same continent and when in doubt, Brazil.

South Africa was a different case, offering the host continent no home ground guarantees (but also no certainty of failure with all that potential talent and magnificent physical condition) — Europe had the biological advantages of longitude (the same time zone) and Latin America latitude (sharing the same Southern Hemisphere) and the former finally prevailed. But surely that could not suffice to defy soccer’s version of the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas and overcome history.

All this underlines the enormity of Germany’s achievement last Sunday in becoming the first Europeans to triumph in the Americas. In those terms both South Africa and Brazil were curiously parallel — shock first-round exits for several European sides including defending champions and ex-champs (2006 winners Italy and France in 2010; Spain, England and Italy last month) leading to lively talk of “Euro-trash” being displaced by the New World but ultimately claiming the cup.

Yet Brazil 2014 may well prove to be transformational beyond the seismic intercontinental shift with the tournament going down in history because of Germany’s 7-1 semi-final massacre of Brazil rather than the extremely tense final. For the first half of the 20th century England ruled supreme although too arrogant to participate in the first three World Cups organized by the then Paris-based FIFA (now, of course, it is a Swiss non-profit organization). But in the Coronation year of 1953, a 6-3 thrashing by the Magnificent Magyars at Wembley exposed England’s tactical and technical inferiority to the world and the soccer reign was over — this was not England’s only mid-century defeat (upset by the United States in the first Brazil World Cup of 1950 and even beaten at home by Ireland) but it was the most emblematic.

Brazilian supremacy

After a few years of limbo Brazil swept the 1958 and 1962 World Cups and mounted an imperious sway over world soccer ever since — until a dozen days ago in Belo Horizonte. Indeed a lifelong impression of Brazilian supremacy was so strong that when I first heard that the 2014 World Cup would be played in Brazil, my immediate reaction was: “Why don’t they just give the trophy to Brazil and save a lot of money?” We are thus entering a new era in soccer for the first time in six decades.

Returning to Argentina, there is a more specific reason than continental affinity to argue that logic was inexorably pointing in the direction of a third World Cup for this country. Right through to the last minutes Argentina was following in the footsteps of the previous champions Spain. Just like Spain in 2010, Argentina scored eight goals in the course of the tournament (this was actually the lowest total ever for a champion, well below the least productive goal haul of 11 netted by the 1934, 1966 and 1994 winners) — if Lionel Messi’s squad had managed a deserved win last Sunday, it would then have had to live with the reproach of being outscored by no less than five other sides. Like Spain in 2010, Argentina never won by more than the minimal one-goal margin. And like Spain they had a fairly easy path at least until the semi-finals (Germany and Holland respectively) — neither Bosnia nor Iran nor Nigeria nor Switzerland nor even Belgium could be considered heavyweights. The winning goal even came in almost the same minute of the two finals — but if it was Andrés Iniesta in 2010, it was Mario Götze (German, despite his very Argentine-sounding forename) last Sunday.

If Argentina was remarkably inventive in evolving from the star-studded strike force with the fragile defence to the rock-solid defence and wayward shooting of the final, Spain was also creative in South Africa — attacked upfield (by Chile and Paraguay), downfield (Portugal) and zonally (Germany), its stellar midfield saw them all off. Good teamwork prevails over good players — something which Argentina (or rather Maradona) never really understood in South Africa but did in Brazil via Alejandro Sabella.

Down to the geopolitics

Let us now look beyond this particular World Cup to its geopolitics as it has developed since 1930. Its title flatters to deceive — the World Cup is not nearly as universal as it sounds.

Thus no less than 207 countries sought to join Brazil for this year but after 20 such qualification rounds since 1930, only 77 have ever made it. Of these, the 68 who have managed to notch at least a point represent only around 35 percent of the world population.

Europe and South America are the two soccer continents par excellence with virtually universal participation (Finland and Venezuela are their only countries of any real size to have missed out so far). The three-nation North American continent actually boasts a 100 percent record but has never achieved much — even if the United States comes away from Brazil as one of the fastest-improving sides in the world while Mexico more than lived down a dismal disqualification campaign to cause headaches to both the semi-finalists playing the penultimate match, Brazil and Holland.

Afro-Asian World Cup participation is extremely patchy in regional terms. The axis of African soccer leans heavily West with the North playing an important supporting role. Of Africa’s 39 World Cup appearances, West Africa accounts for a majority 20 (including all three of its quarter-finalists so far: Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana) and the Maghreb countries 14. It is one of life’s little mysteries why West Africa seems to have all the best soccer players and East Africa all the marathon runners rather than the other way around or a more even mix but there you have it. Asian soccer is even patchier with the co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup (South Korea and Japan) and the countries clustering around the Persian Gulf virtually monopolizing the field.

This selective club becomes highly exclusive at the very top level of champions with decades often passing before a new member is admitted. Thus Spain in 2010 was the first new champion to win away in over half a century although England (1966), Argentina (1978) and France (1998) all made the most of home advantage. Nothing new this year with Germany winning its fourth title in the Diamond Jubilee of the “Miracle of Berne” — statistically satisfying because it clarifies second place in the all-time rankings since previously they had vastly superior figures to Italy (see table on page 4) but one less championship. Only eight countries with around half a billion of the world’s seven billion belong to this club.

More globalized, less lopsided

The big challenge for the World Cup is to become more globalized and less lopsided. Europe is massively overrepresented with almost half the field on the basis of little over 10 percent of world population — the Afro-Asian bloc accounts for some 70 percent but less than a third of the 32 slots, namely nine (and that includes a largely Caucasian Australia). Yet how can you displace the Old World after three straight World Cup triumphs?

Below the top level European domination is even more overwhelming. Of the top three places, 42 of the 60 since 1930 (and eight of the last nine) have been European as against 17 South Americans. Of the 160 quarter-finalists (or the first eight when the format was different), 110 have been European, 45 American (including 39 South American) and only five Afro-Asian (both Koreas plus the aforementioned West African trio).

While 26 of the 32 European countries competing have reached the quarter-finals at some point, only 14 of the 45 others can say the same.

The intensification of European domination in this century is a demographic mystery — occurring precisely in a period when working-class youth, surely the lifeblood of the game, is becoming a species in extinction. Increasingly resorting to immigrant stock does not seem a complete answer.

Impressive as Europe’s record is, the comparative tables for continents on page 2 show South America’s performance to be superior in every department throughout history. Yet South America is not a candidate to counterbalance European overrepresentation because with only 10 republics (of whom three — Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela — have yet to write any serious World Cup history), how many more places can the subcontinent have without turning its 18-match qualifying marathon into a joke? No other part of the world is in the same league — every other continent has a heavily negative goal balance. When this analysis first started with Italy 1990, everybody was talking about Africa as the future of the game after Cameroon beat Argentina and reached the quarter-finals — today finds Cameroon losing every match for two World Cups running and people are still talking about Africa in the future tense (almost like that old joke about Argentina: “land of the future, always has been, always will be”). Two African sides (Algeria and Nigeria) did reach the second round — but not the most gifted, the Ivory Coast, which never clicked as a team despite some incredibly talented individuals. Nor is Asia progressing — if Cameroon and Honduras occupied the foot of this year’s table, the four bottom places above them were all occupied by the four Asian teams.

Little has changed

Little has changed in the last quarter-century — recalling those rather hideous continental robots from the French World Cup inauguration of 1998, Romeo (Europe) and Pablo (America) continue to lord it over Moussa (Africa) and Ho (Asia). Perhaps the solution to the dilemma between the overrepresentation of the élite continents and substandard squads from the rest of the world is to multiply the intercontinental play-offs so that more countries arrive on true merit.

There is only one champ but nobody should feel a loser — all 32 teams scored (including the three teams without points: Cameroon, Honduras and Australia). Germany was not the only unbeaten team at the end — Holland and Costa Rica (who mastered the offside trap better than anybody) could say the same. Greece and Algeria graduated from their groups for the first time while teams in the bottom half of the historical table only needed modest success to move up several places (Colombia went up 12).

One statistical trend constantly on the rise is the number of players used ever since the tournament expanded to 32 teams or 736 registered players in 1998. Of the 736 registered players (actually 741 this year, including last-minute injury replacements), 570 entered the pitch in 1998, 582 in 2002, 595 in both 2006 and 2010 and 608 this year.

This time there will be no forecasts for the 2018 World Cup in Russia (unimpressively winless this year) other than to venture that Germany will defend its title rather better than Spain.

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  1. […] 2014 World Cup Feature: The geopolitics of soccer For the first half of the 20th century England ruled supreme although too arrogant to participate in the first three World Cups organized by the then Paris-based FIFA (now, of course, it is a Swiss non-profit organization). … Nothing new this year … Read more on Ghanasoccernet […]