World Cup – the decline of Europe?

England has struggled for 60-80 years now to come to terms with the fact that just because football originates there does not mean its national team is any good at it. Yet this World Cup raises an intriguing question – could the same now apply to the whole of Europe?

Clearly, Europe remains not just where the game came from but also home to its richest and best leagues. However, is it producing its best players and national teams?

The performances of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez (when he’s not hungry), James Rodriguez, the Valencias (when they’re on the pitch), Joel Campbell, Rafael Marquez and others from Latin America would very much suggest otherwise. Of course, anyone can produce players – Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba have excelled at club level but never played a World Cup knock-out game after all. What about national teams?

From 1986, when the modern World Cup introduced knock-out from the last 16, until 2006, consistently nine or ten of those 16 were European. However, in 2010 this fell dramatically to just six. At this World Cup, from a European perspective, things have not recovered.

What is further interesting is the assumption that European teams are the mighty ones. Group C, for example, was supposed to be a battle between Italy and England for top spot with Uruguay the main threat because of its Liverpool connection. In fact Costa Rica won the group easily and both European teams went home. Portugal was supposed to cruise through with Germany; Spain with the Netherlands; Russia with Belgium and so on. Even when European teams did get through, it was often a close thing (none closer than Greece).

For all that, all is not lost for Europe. Even with six out of 16 last time, coincidentally all playing each other, three still emerged to contest the semi-final and two the final. This is also an “away” World Cup – the last one in Europe saw four European semi-finalists (there have never been fewer than three at a European-hosted World Cup). Europe still produces excellent players (Ronaldo, Müller, now Pogba etc) and teams.

However, it is clear that we can no longer assume European dominance. A re-assessment of how we look at the game globally is needed.

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5 thoughts on “World Cup – the decline of Europe?

  1. boondock says:

    The heat is a major factor here and for that reason the Europeans have always struggled when the World Cup is in the Americas. We saw 3 minute cooling breaks the other night, funny how we can do that but not spent 30 secs to review a controversial decision with a video. Cant wait to see how the players cope in the Qatar desert. I stilll wasnt expecting so many big European teams to fail miserably but I wouldnt rule out Germany or the Dutch yet and I have hardly been blown away by Brazil or Argentina so there is still a chance for a European win. One other thing and I talked about this a bit over on Slugger. IN 1990 you had 14 European teams out of 24, this time you have 13 out of 32! The extra places have been used to make the game more global/make more money. Expect in a few years time the World cup to expand to 40 teams with most of the new spots being awarded to non-european teams. Even the South Americans have it easy considering 60% of their teams are in the world cup compared to just 25%of Europes. Even the dubious world rankings which favour the average teams in crap federations shows the lowest ranked European team at the finals to be Bosnia at 21st apart from USA thats higher than all the other teams (13) from AFC, CONCACAF, CAF. I think it is grossly unfair how the qualifying process works as teams like USA, Mexico, Australia, Japan, South Korea etc get a free pass into the finals. The African teams have been talked up for nearly 30 years now and apart from the odd QF showing have completely failed to make a mark.
    Time for world qualifying to address this imbalance.
    This is why the UEFA championship is better than the World Cup unfortunately by expanding it to 24 teams they are in danger of wrecking it too.

    • As you know, I agree entirely on the last point.

      16 for the UEFA tournament and 32 for the World Cup works perfectly – it’s easy to follow; it makes qualifying reasonable (challenging even for England, possible even for the rest of the British Isles); and it is about the right length.

      24 won’t work; nor will 40 (but you’re right, they’ll be greedy enough to try it!)

      I’ve long argued Europe should have half the World Cup spots, predominantly at the expense of Asia. I’m beginning to review the first of those…!

      • boondock says:

        Funny how when they expanded the competition to 24 teams they still managed to keep the money making play-off nonsense. Do you not think they could have had the top 2 from smaller groups qualify or the top 3 from larger groups? If they are so keen on play-offs they should just have some pre-qualifying between the minnows and then the top 48 teams have a 2 legged match to select the final 24 lol – certainly save a bit of time and effort

  2. MJF says:

    Does international soccer success reflect economic success and national confidence of the nations involved? South America seems more muscular in these considerations whereas Europe is in a period of self doubt except for Germany and Holland

    • There may be something in that. Certainly the rise of the RoI team coincided with the rise of the Celtic Tiger; Germany’s poorest spell coincided with its period in the economic doldrums at the turn of the century; and so on.

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