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Friday, 20 June 2014

Why A European Side Is Going To Win It This Year Or We'll Delete This Post

"Awww shit. Magic Spongers got it right again."

A lot is made about how European teams cannot win a World Cup on Latin American soil. Probably because they never have. So far, so fair enough. But as we’ve never let the problematic presence of ‘facts’ get in the way of our writing, we’re going to stick our necks out and say that this is the year it all changes and a European side will do just that. And this is a win-win situation for us because, if a European side does win it, we’ll just delete this very sentence, say "we told you so" and we’ll be the toast of the internet. And if a European side doesn’t win it, we just delete this entire piece. Or we keep it in and we look ‘meta’. There are plenty of ways to skin an onion.

The common logic dictating proceedings appears to be twofold. One, European sides face the additional opponent of Brazil’s tropical climate. Two, they face a more traditional 12th man — the partisan Latin American crowds. Oh and there is a three, actually: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay have won the thing nine times between them. And all are good at football.

Tackling that first issue, it must be remembered that now, more than ever, Latin American players are plying their trade abroad and are moving to Europe at ever-younger ages, which surely negate the beneficial effects of climate acclimatisation. And with Brazil, in particular, its physical geographical size is huge. Playing a tournament in a country so vast means players will be exposed to various different climates across Brazil — Manaus is very different to São Paulo, for instance.

A bigger factor, due to the strange (actually, its FIFA, nothing’s strange with those fuckers) decision to not cluster at least the group games around certain cities, will surely be jetlag/travel fatigue. And that can affect anyone, regardless of familiarisation with the Latin American climate.

Then there’s this, from Musa Okwonga’s article, ‘Could 2014 see Europe win its first Latin American World Cup?’ for Al Jazeera America:

“It’s also worth addressing the myth that all Latin American teams have always felt at home when playing on their own continent. In March, I spoke with Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s victorious 1970 team, at his home in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He pointed out that his country’s 1–0 win over England in the group stage of the tournament was vital, because the losers would have to leave Guadalajara and face West Germany up in the hills for the quarter-final — and nobody wanted to do that. England, of course, went on to lose that match, taking a two-goal lead before succumbing to fatigue and three late German goals.” 

In essence then, climate will affect them all, as will jetlag/travel fatigue.

Second — the crowds. Partisan crowds help, of that there is no doubt. On six occasions, the hosts have lifted the World Cup (Uruguay [1930], Italy [1934], England [1966], West Germany [1974], Argentina [1978] and France [1998]). By expanding this to an entire continent (and we’re going to be cheeky here and lump North America in with Central and South America), there have only ever been three campaigns won outside of the winner’s continent: 1958 (Brazil in Sweden), 2002 (Brazil in Asia) and 2010 (Spain in Africa).

So, surely, it matters then. Hence why Brazil remain favourites (at least with the bookies), despite having a Fred-shaped hole at the spear of their attack. This may not matter if Neymar continues to step up as he did in the Confederations Cup last year and in the first game against Croatia, but it seems a stretch to rest so much on one man, especially considering the parlous state of Brazil’s defence, Thiago Silva aside. The ‘home turf’ theory then is perhaps the best argument as to why Brazil could and should win but, then again, all the Latin American sides so far have been met with cacophonous noise inside the stadia, and a potentially mouth-watering last-16 tie pitting Brazil with Chile could be the early exit all Brazilians fear, as the so-far excellent Chileans are buoyed by a similar-sized and equally loud crowd as the Brazilians in Belo Horizonte. And should it be the Dutch that come second in Group B because, well, we all know what they can do against supposed favourites.

This year’s tournament may be only a week and a day in, but two of the most impressive performances have come from European sides — the 5–1 destruction by Netherlands of Spain, and Germany’s 4–0 spanking of Portugal. The perils of peaking too soon have been all to apparent over the years, so it was probably with a certain relief to the Dutch that they beat Australia with the odd goal in five, planting feet firmly back on the ground. Which is why the Italians once more look a very intriguing proposition. For the first time in, well ever, probably, the talk is not of catenaccio but of attacking talent: Mario Balotelli looks sharp, Antonio Candreva is impressing on the wing, and Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele di Rossi dovetail beautifully at times. In particular, Pirlo, at 35, is still a picture of serenity in the maelstrom. A 2–1 against England wasn’t entirely convincing but that they let the English get back into it with Daniel Sturridge’s equaliser, promptly didn’t panic, and Balotelli picked off England will provide encouragement.

The Italians also put down a decent marker at last year’s Confederations Cup, coming in third place. Although, having said that, so did Brazil — and they’ve looked disjointed and a little overwhelmed by the occasion thus far, saving their most passionate performances for the a cappella national anthems.

France, too, appear to have put the demons of four years ago behind them and there is an attacking zest about them that appeals. With an in-form Karim Benzema, the tireless Blaise Matuidi, classy Paul Pogba, underrated Mathieu Valbuena (why has he never secured a big move?), and rising star Antoine Griezmann, France could prove a surprise package. Their 3-0 win against dirty bastards Honduras certainly showed they can mix it when necessary.

As noted, only Spain (in South Africa four years ago) and Brazil (Sweden in 1958 and Japan in 2002) have ever lifted the World Cup outside of their home continents. But rather than point to the fact that only two sides have ever achieved this feat, maybe we should focus on the fact that, indeed, two sides have achieved it. It can and has been done.

South Africa may not be an apt barometer in that July constituted Johannesburg’s second-coolest month, with average highs of just 16.7°C at the time of 2010’s final; this year’s final will be played out in the stifling summer heat of Rio de Janeiro. Then again, the final in ’94 — the first World Cup final to go to penalties — took place in the Rose Bowl, Pasadena. Hardly a stroll in the park, California in mid-July.

And this is the kicker. A European side have not NOT been in a final since 1950. Or let us put that in a better grammatical form — at least one European side has reached a World Cup final every tournament since Brazil ’50, when Brazil choked against Uruguay in the Maracana in front of the largest crowd ever assembled for a live game. In chronological order: 1954 (Germany and Hungary), 1958 (Sweden), 1962 (Czechoslovakia), 1966 (England and Germany), 1970 (Italy), 1974 (Germany and Netherlands), 1978 (Netherlands), 1982 (Italy and Germany), 1986 (Germany), 1990 (Germany), 1994 (Italy), 1998 (France), 2002 (Germany), 2006 (Italy and France), 2010 (Spain and Netherlands).

Awful lot of Germany and Italy in brackets there, eh folks?

It’s fine margins then. As USA ’94 showed, a European team can come mightily close indeed in the Americas. With Spain breaking the non-Europe hoodoo in 2010, Brazil continuing to pick the footballer formerly known as Fred and Argentina placing an awful lot of pressure on Messi, which may or may not be making him physically sick during games; coupled with the fact that Italy, Germany and the Netherlands all look in pretty fine fettle and we might just might have another footballing cliché to finally put to bed this summer.

Or, at the very least, get an each-way bet on those three, sit back and enjoy.

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