It’s fair to say that the expectation of another World Cup is often greater than the reality. In other words, the competition rarely delivers. Let’s face it, FIFA do their best to make it hard for the World Cup to live up to its promise. For starters, the competition is overblown, it has too many poor teams and it drags on far too long. And if you thought that the European qualifying stages have been predictable, you’d be absolutely right.
So far, the following European countries have booked their place for Rio: England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another four will come from the play-offs that will include: France, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, Iceland, Croatia, Sweden and Romania. Draw permitting, France and Portugal, you would expect, will make it through, and you just cannot see Iceland heading out to LatAm.
Germany, Spain and Italy are virtually shoe-ins for a qualification place in any competition. These countries are the only Europeans to have played in every one of the last five World Cup finals and every one of the last five European Championships. If you consider the “big four” in terms of leagues, only England have failed to qualify for a major competition in the post-Gazza era – 1994 World Cup and 2008 Euros.
England’s trials and tribulations are the source of extreme angst in the media and among the fans. But the fact is, England have long since dropped from their position at the forefront of the game. Why else would we be celebrating, with no small degree of relief, coming through a supposedly mediocre group of also-rans? On the other hand, England’s record is good – six wins and four draws and no defeats. And the goal difference of 31-4 has only been bettered once (2010 series) in the nation’s World Cup qualifying history. So why the wringing of hands, the uncomfortably shuffling in the seat and the navel-gazing?
It’s because it has been messy, unconvincing and caps have been given away with confetti. Suddenly, Andros Townsend is the answer. Given his career record, it was a little surprising that by the end of the Poland game he had not been sent out on loan to Scotland or Wales! Townsend’s elevation – largely due to a Europa League tie in Tbilisi with Tottenham – is symptomatic of the talent famine facing Roy Hodgson and his successors. England’s qualification has bought them time, but the deep-rooted problems in the national game will take a decade, cooperation from the top clubs and a Belgium-style reorganization to solve. Hodgson may have a rude awakening in Brazil.
Belgium are everyone’s darlings at the moment, and they could be Europe’s best hopes after the big three of Germany, Spain and Italy. The question is, how will they fare in Latin America, but they did pretty well in Mexico in 1986 and the Belgians, like the Dutch, are good travelers. Belgium’s resurgence is good to see, especially after a series of dismal European campaigns and their disappearance from recent World Cups.
Russia, too, will be relieved to be back in the spotlight. Their post-Glasnost record is abysmal and they have failed to qualify for the last two competitions. They did reach the last four of the Euros in 2008. I would wager that Moscow is keen for a good showing given that they will be hosts in 2018.
Being at their first World Cup will mean a lot to Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that is still struggling to shake off the effects of the Balkan wars. Having been to Bosnia recently, I was quite disturbed by the level of poverty that prevails in some parts of the country. But they are football mad, and their current hero, Edin Dzeko – his shirts hang from market stalls in Mostar where I visited – is idolized by the Bosnian fans. Dzeko scored the goal which sent Bosnia to Brazil, giving his country a 1-0 win against Lithuania. They’ve been close to qualifying for major competitions before, but fell at the play-off stage. I hope the World Cup brings some pleasure to what looked like a down-trodden nation.
Naturally, though, Spain and Germany will figure among the favourites and Italy will be not far behind. The Netherlands? They will probably have their usual internal issues to deal with. As for England, they will do well to stay out there beyond the groups. They’ve managed the last 16 in two of the last four World Cups (quarter-finals the others) and they are perpetual last eighters in Europe.
So here’s the top 10 European nations ranked by their performance in the last 10 majors – European Championships since 1996 and World Cup’s since 1994.
1: Germany (FIFA Ranking 3) 66 points
2: Spain (1) 58
Italy (4) 58
4: France (25) 52
5: Netherlands ( 9) 50
6: Portugal (11 ) 42
7: England (17) 36
8: Sweden ( 22) 26
9: Czech Republic (32) 24
10: Croatia (10) 24
12: Greece (12) 20
14: Romania (31) 18
15: Russia (15) 16
Switzerland (14) 16
18: Belgium (6) 12
20: Ukraine (26) 8
n/a Bosnia & Herzegovina (18)
n/a Iceland (54)
Points awarded as follows: World Cup – 12 for win, 10 for r-up, 8 for sf, 6 for qf, 4 for last 16 and 2 for group stage.
Points for Euros – 10 for win, 8 for r-up, 6 for sf, 4 for qf, 2 for group.