Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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A very exclusive club

    It's becoming increasingly likely that the 2002 Final will include at least one team that's never been to the Final before. Big deal, you say? You bet it's a big deal. World Cup finalists are a very exclusive club, which accepts new members about as often as Pierluigi Collina gets a haircut. You may already have known this in some subliminal way, but a close look at the stats will show how amazingly hard it is to break into the ranks of the elite.

    Here's the list of finalists, and the number of times they've made the Final. West Germany/Germany are considered to be the same team, and as is customary, Uruguay-Brazil 1950 is counted as a Final, although strictly speaking it was just another group stage game.

Brazil          6
Germany         6
Italy           5
Argentina       4
Uruguay         2
Hungary         2
Holland         2
Czechoslovakia  2
England         1
France          1
Sweden          1
    The 32 Final places have been filled by only 11 teams, an average of nearly 3 appearances per team. Notice also that the three teams that have made it only once -- England, France, Sweden -- without exception made it to the Final the year they hosted the tournament. If we leave out the years teams made it to the Final with home advantage, the table looks like this:

Brazil          5
Germany         5
Italy           4
Argentina       3
Hungary         2
Czechoslovakia  2
Holland         2
Uruguay         1
    Now the list has only 8 teams, and 7 of them made it more than once. These statistics are remarkable in themselves, but even more so when you consider the notorious flukiness of soccer. It's such a low-scoring game, and so many weird things can happen to tip the balance one way or another, you'd figure that lots of teams would somehow find their way to the Final. But it isn't so.

    Why this should be is hard to pin down. Obviously, there's a set of first-class nations who most years are just better than the others, and so they're the natural contenders. But often such teams make it to the Final even when they're not at their best. Look at Germany 1986, Argentina 1990, Italy 1994, all top-drawer teams in mediocre years. And even though in recent years the gap between first-tier and second-tier nations has narrowed considerably, when France made it to the Final in 1998 (with the assistance of home advantage), it was, incredibly, the first debutante in 24 years.

    I suppose the reason is something we can call "pedigree." We see it all the time in sports, that intangible boost that comes from simply wearing the colors of a particular club or country. Whether it's Italy or Juventus, Germany or Bayern, Argentina or River Plate, something just happens when you put on the shirt. You become a part of a winning tradition, and somehow, decades removed from the source, the energy, or determination, or inspiration, or whatever it is, gets channeled directly into you. Once in a long while the power dies out (Hungary), once in a long while a new source reveals itself (Holland). Because the World Cup takes place only once every 4 years, it can take a very long time for the list of the elite to change.

    When you take an even closer look, the dimensions of this exclusiveness become downright startling. Here's a question: when was the last time both teams in the Final were making their first appearance there? Take your time on this one. OK, here's the answer: 1934. That's right, 1934. Don't believe it? See for yourself:

1930   Uruguay     Argentina     
1934   Italy       Czechoslovakia
1938   Italy       Hungary       
1950   Uruguay     Brazil        
1954   Germany     Hungary       
1958   Brazil      Sweden        
1962   Brazil      Czechoslovakia
1966   England     Germany       
1970   Brazil      Italy         
1974   Germany     Holland       
1978   Argentina   Holland       
1982   Italy       Germany       
1986   Argentina   Germany       
1990   Germany     Argentina     
1994   Brazil      Italy         
1998   France      Brazil        
    This table also allows us to see how rare it is for even one new team to make it to the Final. In the early years of the tournament, new finalists showed up pretty regularly. In fact, through 1958, there was at least one new finalist in every cup. But then the flow started to dry up. Next was England (host) in 1966, then Holland in 1974. And then? As noted, the World Cup went an amazing 24 years before admitting a new finalist -- France (host) in 1998. In fact, if you remember that Sweden was also a host team, you discover the mind-boggling statistic that only once in the last 11 World Cups has a team made it to the Final for the first time without also being the host. Thank you, Holland 1974.

    Holland's accomplishment is all the more remarkable because they got to the Final by beating Brazil. The game took place in the final round of the second group stage in 1974, and the standings made it in effect a semifinal. Holland won 2-0, won the group stage, and qualified for the Final. If for the same reason we also count West Germany-Poland 1974 as a semifinal, there have been 13 World Cup semifinals in which an experienced finalist has faced a newcomer. The experienced finalists have won a whopping 11 of 13. The two debutante winners were Holland over Brazil in 1974, and Sweden over West Germany in 1958 (and the Swedes were at home). Again, if you throw out host teams, only once in history has a debutante beat one of the elites to make it to the Final.

    So why should we expect a new finalist in 2002? After all, we had a new finalist only 4 years ago (albeit a home team), and the odds are certainly stacked against two in a row. On the other hand, it's been so long since a new non-host made the list that maybe it's due to happen. Or maybe the moon will be in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.

    But the real reason is the draw. Yes, the much-discussed, much-debated, cosmically annoying draw that has segregated the tournament field into two wholly separate halves. (See, for example, Paul Marcuccitti's "The World Cup's 'Super Bowl' Final" on this website.) There are 8 former World Cup finalists in the tournament: Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, Germany, England, Sweden, France. Of these 8, fully 6 are in one half of the draw. Only Italy and Germany are in the other half. And Germany has been devastated by injuries: Mehmet Scholl and Jens Nowotny are already out, and who knows if Sebastian Deisler will be match fit.

    So unless Germany comes up with one of their miraculous back-to-the-wall performances -- and certainly if anyone can do it, the Germans can -- that leaves only Italy. This site has predicted Italy to win the tournament (that was my prediction too), in part because they have such an easy draw. It's even easier now, with Germany in trouble.

    But with only one serious contender in that half of the draw, the old-line finalists are on the edge. Portugal is a legitimate possibility; so is Spain, and maybe Cameroon. One fluke goal, one missed penalty kick -- the Italians know all about that -- and we've got a new member of the club, the first time since 1974 that a non-host will crash the party. (I say a non-host because South Korea, the host in that half of the draw, will make the Final at approximately the same time Sepp Blatter and Michel Zen-Ruffinen go out on a double date.)

    On the other hand, if Italy, or a crippled Germany, make it to the Final yet again, that'll be even stronger testimony to the weight of pedigree. And it's not too soon to look ahead. In 2006, Germany at home is a good bet to fill one of the slots, and a more sensibly structured tournament will leave the traditional powers with their natural advantage. Maybe someone will come out of nowhere, like Holland in 1974. But probably not.

    So this is a window of opportunity for the newbies. Figo, Mboma, Raul, bookmark this site!



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