The Cup Running Over

June 25, 2010 4:29 PM

Don't Fall For the Hype: The Results in This World Cup Haven't Been Unusual, Given the Locale

With all the "upsets" in the first round, it's commonplace to read that soccer has entered a new era of globalized equality where anyone can beat anyone else. "All Bets Are Off," read the headline of a Tony Karon piece in Time Magazine yesterday, which went on to remark how many outsiders had crashed the World Cup knockout competition party.

But let's wait and see who actually ends up in the finals. In truth, this Cup is conforming to the pattern of competition whenever the Cup hasn't been held in Europe and Latin America.

To be sure that's only been twice -- in the US in 1994 and South Korea and Japan in 2002. But in both those Cups, as here, there were far more unexpected results in the early rounds than usual. In 1994, defending champion Argentina unexpectedly lost in the round of 16 and the usually woeful Saudis actually got out of their group. In 2002, defending champion France finished last in its qualifying group (sound familiar?) and Argentina failed to advance as well, while Senegal and the U.S. got to the quarterfinals. In both those Cups, some unexpected teams even made the semis -- Sweden and Bulgaria in 1994 and South Korea and Turkey in 2002.

It's pretty easy to explain why. Many of the top-rated teams are from western Europe and teams from that region don't seem to travel as well as other teams do, at least to new locales. When the World Cup has been held in western Europe, a western European team has won every time but one (1958, Brazil in Sweden). Yet when it's been held elsewhere, a western European team has never won.

So far, that's what seems to be happening here. Add in the fatigue factor that seems to be plaguing European players after a long season and the effect may even be a bit more pronounced. To be sure, if a team such as Ghana, the US, or South Korea wins the Cup, we can revise our opinions about the powers in world soccer. But if Argentina, Brazil, or Germany end up in the title game and win it all, then this Cup will have turned out to have gone pretty much as expected for a Cup held in a brand new locale.

Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of the recently published World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, from which this post is adapted. They are analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.  

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