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
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Europe's record at the World Cup
Having read Matthew Monk's recent article on Europe at the World Cup ("The
Legend of Europa"), I decided to look at the statistics to see exactly what
the extent of Europe's World Cup achievement has been. I've started at
Sweden 1958, where the modern group stage was introduced. Here is a table
showing Europe's record at the World Cup from 1958-1978 (the years of the
16-team cup) plus 1982 (the year it was expanded to 24).
T = number of teams in the tournament
G = record in group stage games (expressed as +, -, or 0)
PG = record in post-group-stage games (includes 2d group stage in 1974-1982,
expressed as +, -, or 0)
2 = number of teams in the second round (1982 only)
Q = number of teams in the final eight or quarterfinals (all except 1982)
S = number of teams in the final four or semifinals
F = number of teams in the Final
T G PG 2 Q S F
1958 12 +1 -3 - 7 3 1
1962 10 +1 -4 - 6 2 1
1966 10 +1 +3 - 5 4 2
1970 9 0 0 - 4 2 1
1974 9 +10 +2 - 6 3 2
1978 10 +1 -3 - 5 2 1
1982 14 +8 +2 10 - 4 2
This table shows that through 1978, Europe's achievement at the World Cup
was not particularly outstanding. With the exception of 1974, Europe as a
confederation never had more than a plus 1 record in the group stage.
Moreover, in post-group-stage games, where the better teams played, they had
an overall record from 1958-1978 of minus 5. This is of course the result of
one Argentine and three Brazilian championship teams.
The 1974 group-stage anomaly is an interesting one. It was clearly Europe's
best performance to date, helped by the worst Brazil and Uruguay teams to
participate to that point. But the reason the number is so very high is
because there were three minnows in the field: Australia, Haiti, and Zaire.
In 1970, by contrast, there was only one minnow, El Salvador. In 1978, the
only minnow was Mexico. (In a later table we'll break down Europe's record
confederation by confederation, and you'll get a clearer view of the
Europe did have the lion's share of the quarterfinalists, but it was not
disproportionate to their representation vis-à-vis South America. From
1958-1978, before expansion, Europe had 33 quarterfinalists out of 60
representatives, a total of 55%. South America had 13 out of 22, a total of
59.1%. South America also had a proportional advantage in the semifinals,
36.4% to 26.7%, and in the Final, 18.2% to 13.3%.
On the whole, then, from 1958-1978, Europe's performance was not
exceptional. But something important happened in 1982. Fully 10 of 14
European teams advanced from the group stage. That's was Europe's highest
percentage ever, better even than 1974. Moreover, the group stage record
jumped back up to +8, almost at 1974 levels.
The reason for these numbers is clear: in 1982, the tournament expanded from
16 to 24 teams. Structurally, it meant a second round with 12 teams and no
true quarterfinals or final 8. But substantively, it meant that there were
more teams from the lesser confederations: Africa, Asia, and CONCACAF. At
the same time, there were also more teams from Europe, and because Europe
had much more strength in depth than those other confederations, Europe's
advantage jumped proportionately. In other words, the lesser confederations
weren't strong enough to justify their new places. (Again, you'll see this
Now let's look at the same set of numbers from 1982 (the first year of
expansion) through 2002.
T G PG 2 Q S F
1982 14 +8 +2 10 - 4 2
1986 14 +2 -1 10 5 3 1
1990 14 +5 +2 10 6 3 1
1994 13 +4 0 10 7 3 1
1998 15 +10 +2 10 6 3 1
2002 15 +2 -1* 9 4 2 *
*the 2002 record in post-group-stage games does not yet include semifinals,
3d place game, or Final.
Note first that from 1982 to 1986, the number of teams in the second round
stayed the same, but that's effectively a decline, since there were only 12
teams in the second round in 1982 and 16 teams afterwards. Note also that
after 1982, Europe's group stage plus score dropped to lower levels for a
while. As we will see, this is because the lesser confederations, wildly
overrepresented in 1982, started to catch up a bit. Still, the presence of
the lesser confederations meant that Europe's group stage record remained
consistently higher than it was in the pre-expansion period, when, with the
exception of 1974, it was never higher than +1.
So, as noted, Europe dropped for a bit after 1982. But when the tournament
was expanded for the second time, in 1998, Europe's group stage record
jumped way up again. Once more this is a result of their greater strength in
depth; as in 1982, the lesser confederations weren't yet strong enough to
justify their additional places. (Interestingly, the number of teams in the
second round stayed the same even after the 1998 expansion.)
Still, if you do the math, once again you'll find that in this period
Europe's success isn't significantly greater than South America's. From
1982-2002, Europe had 69.4% of their representatives make the second round,
almost exactly the same as South America's 69.2%. Europe had a small but
definite advantage in quarterfinal berths, 39.4% to 31.8%, and a very small
advantage in semifinal berths, 21.2% to 19.2%. With 2002 still to come,
South America has a clear advantage in Final berths, 19.0% vs. 8.6%. On the
other hand, Europe's total post-group-stage numbers are on the plus side in
this period, whereas from 1958-78 they were on the minus side.
So what about 2002? Looking at the table, we see first that Europe has
experienced a drop from 1998 to 2002 much like the one from 1982 to 1986.
This suggests that the lesser confederations are once again starting to
catch up and justify their places. But remember also that 2002 is an
anomaly: it has not one but two host teams from a lesser confederation. It
appears that 2002 is Europe's worst year since 1982 -- but it's not that
much worse than 1986: same group stage record, one fewer team in the second
round, one fewer quarterfinalist, one fewer semifinalist. Moreover, the drop
in semifinalists from 3 to 2 is the result of an Asian host team, South
Korea, defeating a European team in the quarterfinals (with some refereeing
help to boot).
Now it's time for the table of Europe's group stage records vs. the other
S = record vs. South America
C = record vs. CONCACAF
AF = record vs. Africa
AS = record vs. Asia
L = combined record against the three lesser confederations
S C AF AS L
1958 -1 +2 - - +2
1962 +1 0 - - 0
1966 0 +1 - 0 +1
1970 -2 +1 +1 0 +2
1974 +4 +2 +2 +2 +6
1978 -3 +2 +1 +1 +4
1982 0 +3 0 +5 +8
1986 -2 +1 +1 +2 +4
1990 -1 +1 +1 +4 +6
1994 +1 +1 +1 +1 +3
1998 +1 +3 0 +6 +9
2002 +1 -1 +2 0 +1
Note first that Europe's all-time record vs. South America in the group
stage is minus 1. In fact, with the exception of that standout year 1974, it
has never been more than +1 in a single tournament. So, as the previous
tables suggested, Europe has essentially been neck-and-neck with South
America, perhaps at this exact moment very slightly ahead (those three
straight tournaments at +1).
Let's now focus in on the two expansion years, 1982 and 1998. We see that in
those years, Europe gained slightly against CONCACAF, and hugely against
Asia. (The 1982 gain against South America is probably the result of the
host change from Argentina to Spain.) Notice also that after 1982, the plus
record against CONCACAF and Asia never reached 1982 levels again until the
tournament was expanded for the second time in 1998. Again, the inference is
that the lesser confederations at first got way too many spots, then
gradually worked their way toward justifying their proportional
I don't really know what to make of the Africa numbers: in both expansion
years Europe actually went down against Africa, and in the following
retrenchment years they actually went up. Still, the last column shows that
the basic effect -- great improvement in the expansion years, drop in the
immediately following years -- holds against the lesser confederations
What makes 2002 special is the great improvement of CONCACAF and Asia. But
the Asian improvement can be fully accounted for by the presence of two home
Asian teams. Saudi Arabia and China were disasters, and Europe had a +3
record against them. Had South Korea and Japan not played at home, it is
very unlikely Europe would have scored -3 against them. If we give the two
teams credit for reasonable improvement, and guess that Europe would have
scored 0 against a combined non-host South Korea and Japan, then the total
against Asia would be +3, a reasonable drop from the +6 of the expansion
The real story is CONCACAF. It's the very first time in the history of the
group stage that Europe has had a minus score against one of the lesser
confederations. But it's only one tournament, so we won't know for a while
whether it's a fluke result.
My overall conclusion is that although this is not by any means a good year
for Europe, it's not quite as bad as it has seemed. It's not that much worse
than 1986, and without the dual Asian host anomaly, it might very well have
been better than 1986.
But the danger signs are there. First, there's the group stage record
against CONCACAF. The record in post-group-stage games isn't that good
either, and it was the first time since the round of 16 was established that
Europe had a negative record there (2 wins, 3 losses). Plus, there are the
things that statistics can't show: for example, in the post-group-stage
games, there was no dominant performance by a European team against a
non-European team (vs., for example, England-Paraguay 1986,
Czechoslovakia-Costa Rica 1990, Sweden-Saudi Arabia 1994, Denmark-Nigeria
My own gut feeling is that the gap between Europe and the lesser
confederations is narrowing (there is little or no gap between Europe and
South America), but that Europe will retain its ascendancy for some time to
come. This has been a pretty crazy World Cup, but I think two factors are
responsible: 1) the host region is equally unfamiliar to almost everybody;
2) the tournament started a little earlier than usual, making it harder for
the established nations to put together a functioning, healthy team. At
Germany 2006, where the organizers have already announced that the
tournament will begin 9 days later than this year, I expect Europe to bounce
back. And if I'm wrong, you'll probably have forgotten about this prediction
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