World Cup 2014: Jeux sans frontieres

Italian fans prepare to greet the azzurri at Rome airport...
Italian fans prepare to greet the azzurri at Rome airport…

And so, two weeks into the greatest show on earth, 16 teams have gone home and the rest go into the business end of the competition. It’s been a good World Cup so far, not a great one, despite the plethora of young hacks claiming it’s the best since 1970 and in their lifetime.

It’s partly been good because five of the last six have been [mostly] dire. It’s comparable to 1998, yes, but it is not a patch on 1970, 1978 and 1986, arguably the better tournaments since 1966.

There is a pattern emerging. Modern World Cups in Latin America have been good, perhaps because the region’s countries flourish in their own timezone. Despite this shrinking world, the European nations don’t travel too well, as demonstrated by the lack-lustre displays of England, Spain, Italy and Portugal, all of whom are either home or on their way back to the old world.

Fallacy and failure

What many recent World Cups have lacked is characters and star names are leading the way. This year we have seen the affirmation of Messi and the arrival of Neymar. Football has generally been attacking (thanks to some poor defending) and there’s been no shortage of goals. Let’s hope that the cut-throat phase doesn’t degenerate into a catalogue of penalty shoot-outs, which contrary to popular opinion, is not how the latter stages proceed. True, two finals – 1994 and 2006 – have ended with unsatisfactory spot-kick jousts, but since 1986, the average number of shoot-outs per competition has been three. In 2010 there were just two.

Another fallacy is that the World Cup lacks goals in the knockout stage. Not always the case. In the seven tournaments since 1986, four have seen the knockout stage outstrip the groups in terms of average goals. The average group stage goals ratio since 1986 is 2.4375 while the knockout stage in that period comes in at 2.49 per game.

Have we learned?

We will resist the temptation to sum up the competition so far with a “five things we have learned” cliché-cavalcade, but the World Cup has provided some clear lessons.

Firstly, that England have deep systemic problems, despite the post-apocalyptic kidology and “jam tomorrow” message coming from the squad and the avuncular Roy. Bastardise your domestic football and suffer the consequences. Expect Euro 2016 qualification to provide some more setbacks and plenty of drama around getting to Russia 2018.

But England are not alone in feeling the decline of their position in international football. Italy are probably still washing the tomato stains off their very expensive track suits as they arrive home. And Spain, they are going back to the drawing board to design tiki-taka 2.0. As for Portugal, well Cristiano Ronaldo is probably wishing he could do a Diego Costa and repatriate. His time has passed to become a World Cup icon.

The European nations that have impressed are few. Germany will always be a threat but after beating the Portuguese, they have not hit their stride, but they surely will. The Netherlands have been surprisingly good, and they could go another round or two, although Mexico could easily send them back to Schipol airport. France have also surprised us, refreshingly so. They should account for Nigeria. Belgium should have too much for the USA, who have also won friends with their approach. The Belgos have yet to play as well as their reputation suggested they would, but they are still 100% winners.

Latin tempo

But it is the Latinos that will surely dominate the knockout stage. Colombia and Chile have been irrestible at times and at least one of these two should make it to the last eight. I believe Chile could beat Brazil, who are improving but still lack the verve of old (if indeed they can ever truly recapture that). If Chile do pull off a shock, the competition will run the risk of going flat.

That would leave the way clear for someone like Argentina to win the World Cup, as they have on the last two occasions it has been held in Latin America. Lionel Messi is doing his best to “do a Maradona” in Brazil 2014 and he could carry them all the way.

Uruguay may now find that they have the weight of the world against them now, thanks to Mr Suarez’s dentures. They certainly have not been too impressive, although Suarez himself beat England. I expect them to go out to Colombia.

Costa Rica could also [accidentally] find themselves in the last eight, hopefully at the expense of the uninspiring Greeks. How times have changed – England were almost bigging-up their 0-0 draw with Costa Rica!

So here’s the Game of the People last eight: Chile (!) v Colombia; France v Germany; Netherlands v Costa Rica; Argentina v Belgium. Make what you will of that!

The competition is still generating a healthy goal-per-game rate at 2.83 , a massive improvement on the past few competitions. And the average crowd is 51,133. Messi, Neymar and Thomas Mueller lead the scorers’ chart with four apiece, a respectable haul for three games!

It’s all going to start to get a bit messy. Or is that Messi?….

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