Sunday, 13 June 2010

Who would have thought ...

Tournament after tournament, it's as if pundits have no memory of previous World Cups. Today, we heard "who would have thought that Slovenia would be top of the group after one game". The answer: anyone who remembers England's habitual sluggish performance in the first group game; and anyone who knows that Slovenia only conceded four goals en route to the finals.
There is a remarkable degree of predictability from tournament to tournament. For instance, there hasn't been a new winner of the tournament that wasn't the host since 1958 (this should give pause to those falling into the trap of tipping Spain on the basis that they look like the best team). No European team has ever won outside Europe. There are usually a majority of European teams at the quarter final stage - expect five or six to make it through this time - even though the final is usually a European team versus a South American team.
But there are margins of unpredictability (even if these are, to some extent, predictable). In the group games, established teams being beaten by less fancied sides has been familiar for a long time: think Scotland's demolition of Holland, Algeria beating West Germany, Cameroon shocking Argentina, the USA upending Portugal. Note, though, that these defeats didn't tend to harm the 'bigger' teams in the long run: despite being victims of these shocks, Holland, Argentina and West Germany still made the final; only Portugal failed to make it out of the group*. You can guarantee that one or two major teams will not make it to the quarter finals, and that some lesser known teams will make it that far. But none of the 'smaller' sides has yet made it past the semi-final stage (Turkey reaching the semi-final in 2002 was the furthest that one of the less successful teams has gone in recent tournaments). The last time that the final was contested by a team that wasn't a previous winner or the hosts was 1978, when Holland lost to Argentina.

*Thanks to Graham Harman for correcting an error I originally made here.

And I forgot the Republic of Ireland's defeat of Italy in a group game in 1994; Italy fitted the pattern precisely, by eventually reaching the final. (The fact I forgot this match underscores Giovanni's point below that the 1994 tournament did not happen. It's the one tournament since 1978 of which I have almost no memory.)


  1. absolutely, the eschatological wailings in the media have been predictably malignant - it's like Loyola rampaging through Spain, and maybe for the same reasons - pure hyberbollocks, and unlikely to even sell newspapers; a misunderstanding of the grief process, I think but that's another issue... my only worry is that the sample you use (and we're all trying to use) is too small to make any significant generalisations ... that eventually the 'good teams fuck up and are then reborn' archetype is gonna come a cropper...

    maybe i shouldn't read the papers either....

  2. ok, so USA 1994 is my favourite and most memorable tournament up to date, maybe because:
    - it was 1st world cup i watched as a football fan
    - intense light in American summer (games were played during daytime due to timezone differences with Europe) made it all more vibrant and full of contrasts
    - there was this computer game Fifa '94 which - believe it or not - had some similar gimmicks to 1994's TV broadcast production - so in a way it was cutting edge technically and unreal
    - it was after great season in Champions League with strong Milan-Barcelona competition and 8-9 players from both teams playing for Italy, Brazil, Holland, Spain... and those teams playing their classic squads (think Holland w/de Boers, Rijkaard, Koeman, Gullit, Bergkamp...)

  3. Sorry to come on this one late, I'm only catching up with this wonderful blog now. I'd like to second the sentiments of the previous comment; after Italy '90, USA '94 lies the fondest in my mind (perhaps cos I'm Irish - unforgettable first game followed by a good natured romp around all the local Italian chippers). Despite the odd spectral frisson caused by the unpassable physical, temporal, televisual distance between there and home, I have to assert that, to paraphrase Badiou quoting Natascha Michel, 'USA 94 has taken place'.