Where is the world in the World Cup?

Ahead of the semi-finals this week, Professor Adrian Bell, Head of the ICMA Centre and football finance expert, reflects on the World Cup so far…

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved this World Cup, and perhaps for once this is a universal feeling, but there is something missing, and it isn’t the lack of an England World Cup Song (apparently nothing rhymes with 52 years of hurt and Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds rather modestly claim their football anthem can’t be improved).

The competition has had everything: the group stages were amazing, there have been goals, dodgy VAR (video assistant referee) decisions, underdog teams transcending and favourites crumbling, Messi and Ronaldo are out and new stars are grabbing the opportunity to lead the next generation, and then England actually won a Penalty shoot-out and are now in the Semi-Finals – it has been truly miraculous.

On a heart-warming note, it was also good to see Gareth Southgate being praised for his compassion for the Colombian team after the penalty shoot-out – having been through this situation himself in 1996, he immediately consoled them instead of celebrating England’s win. There has been a lot of talk this year about how important the capacity for compassion is for today’s leaders and for successful teamwork – perhaps this is the foundation that has scaffolded England’s current run.

The missing element

So, what is missing? The obvious omission is the ‘world’ element, where are all the non-European teams? Pele predicted an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 but it hasn’t happened. African teams have failed to progress and shine despite having talented players; it is a conundrum that needs some thought.

The round of 16 was more mixed, with South American teams progressing and Japan giving us one of the top performances of the whole event, subjecting the golden generation of Belgium to a massive shock and scoring the goals of the tournament before going out to an amazing Belgian fight back.

After the quarter-finals, what do we have? France, Belgium, England and Croatia. Three of these countries are separated by a border and 20 miles of the English Channel; it is hardly a representative sample of the competing nations.

History repeating itself

Historically is this year’s competition any different to the semis in 2014, 2010 or 2006?  Is this an anomaly or a trend?

  • 2006: All European semi-finals
  • 2010 in South Africa: Three European teams and one South American team contested the semis, with an all European final
  • 2014 in Brazil: Two South American teams v two European teams in the semi-finals with a final of Europe v South America

And so it seems, here we go again.

Until 2002, the last time a non-European team won the competition, the winners had been South American and European in turn, normally depending on whether the finals were in Europe or elsewhere: 1978 Argentina, 1982 Italy, 1986 Argentina, 1990 West Germany, 1994 Brazil, 1998 France, 2002 Brazil.

Does the World Cup have an issue if only European teams compete in the semi-finals onwards? We already have a European only football competition…

Looking forward

The last four competitions have only seen one appearance in the finals by a non-European team; this clearly doesn’t reflect the international talent on show and yet Europe dominates.

What is going wrong? Is it national funding of teams, in-country talent development at early stages (for example, in England, the Football Associations investment in the St Georges Park set up), the dominance of the European domestic leagues, or better coaching and tactical developments not being shared? It is hard to isolate the reasons behind this continental capture of the world’s greatest football competition but it has happened and it is a shame.

Don’t let this spoil your enjoyment of England’s run though, if you are under 28 years old then this is truly a unique moment in time; it is just an aspect that needs to be addressed to build a truly competitive future for international football.

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