Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Rant about the World Cup

England play Sweden tonight in the last game of their World Cup group. Unusually, the result of the match matters very little because England already have enough points to qualify for the next round of the competition, when it becomes a knock-out event.

But of course it’s more complicated than that!

In the next round, England will face Germany or Ecuador. Much of today’s newspaper speculation is on which team it would be better for England to face. I believe the answer is clear-cut, and here’s why:

1) England Can Win the Tournament

Contrary to the impression the media gives, few very teams have a chance of winning the world cup. Historically the trophy is passed around a very exclusive little club. Here are the members:

Brazil (5 wins)
Italy (3 wins)
Germany (3 wins)
Uruguay (2 wins)
Argentina (2 wins)
England (1 win)
France (1 win)

The club is even more exclusive than it appears, as Uruguay haven’t won for 56 years and are no longer a force in world football and England haven’t won for 40 years, although they have played several quarter finals and a semi-final since then.

And if we chuck out Uruguay and possibly England from the club, we've got to add Holland (finalists in 1974 and 1978) – the best team to never win.

Still, no matter how we much we muck about with it, the winner's club is amazingly small especially given that almost the whole world enters the tournament (198 nations in the 2006 tournament).

It's a fact that England are in that exclusive club, and it’s not entirely crazy to believe they can win the trophy again, perhaps even this year.

What's the best way of winning? The best way to win a high risk event like a knockout tournament, where even a single sub-standard performance can bring disaster, is to play weaker opponents. Victories also buy time to change tactics or personnel and improve.

2) Home advantage

Home advantage is very important in football, and the World Cup is no exception. No fewer than four of that exclusive club of seven have used home advantage to win the trophy (Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934, England, 1966 and France 1998).

Therefore England are better off avoiding Germany (since they are the team with home advantage).

3) Germany and Ecuador are not equally formidable

Let's look at previous form. There's general agreement that the current German team isn't as good as some of their previous teams. None the less a national team is less of a snapshot of current form, and more a reflection of the depth and quality of a nation's professional league.

This explains why the World Cup keeps getting won by the same countries. Germany have won the world cup three times and been the runner-up four times! Ecuador's best performance has been... well this one actually.

Who knows the future? - Germany might lose, or key players may get injured. It’s even possible that will England improve. But for now the priority is to avoid the host nation in the next round.


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